Jews may have already existed in Roman times on the Rhine and Neckar around Ladenburg, founded in 98 AD, as soldiers or officials of the provincial administration. There is hardly any evidence of this, but at that time a “Völkermühle” (mill of nations) as the “winepress of Europe” probably brought together people from all directions (according to Carl Zuckmayer, “Des Teufels General”).
Around 321 Jews can be proven as inhabitants of Cologne. Emperor Constantine the Great allowed them to join the city council. An oil lamp decorated with a menorah (ca. 5th century) was excavated in Augsburg.
Jewish communities are attested in the Middle Ages at the latest in Worms (c. 960, synagogue c. 1034) and an Iudaeus for 1065 in the Lorsch Codex. Soon, however, Jews were depicted in illuminated manuscripts with the exclusionary sign of the so-called Jewish hat. In the late Middle Ages, they were even reviled with disgusting sculptures on churches, such as the so-called “Jewish sow” in Wittenberg.
There is also evidence of pogroms against Jews after the proclamation of the First Crusade: Fueled by the crusade propaganda, namely, on May 18, 1096, more than 800 Jews were murdered in Worms, according to the report of the Jewish chronicler Salomo bar Simson of Mainz. At The infamous Count Emicho of Leiningen played a major role in this, because he participated so actively in the pogroms in Mainz, Worms and Speyer out of religious delusions and hatred of Jews that he is called the greatest enemy of the Jews in the chronicles.
Chronicles he was called the greatest enemy of the Jews. On the occasion of the Crusades in 1146, 1188 and 1196 there were again pogroms and expulsions against the Jewish community in Worms. Social crises as well as the plague raging around 1348/49 caused the coexistence of life, living and working in medieval cities to fall apart. Jewish families and communities were quickly persecuted as the alleged perpetrators of the plague or forced to live in ghettos from then on: a social exclusion that began in the 14th century and was to lead to systematic destruction by Nazi terror in the 20th century. Jewish life in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation experienced prolonged periods of coexistence with Christians, but also repeated tensions. For example, Martin Luther in his writing “Von den Jüden und jren Lügen” (1543) called for the destruction of synagogues and houses of Jews and the expulsion of Jews. Despite recurring anti-Jewish attitudes, quite a few Jewish communities grew up after the Thirty Years’ War, both in the expanding cities and in the countryside.
Fig. 1: Fragment of a late Roman oil lamp with depiction of the menorah, around 400 A.D., in the background a completed replica (Source: Augsburg Art Collection and Museums, Central Archaeological Depository, photographer Karin Baumann)
Fig. 2: Codex Manesse, fol. 355r, Süsskind, the Jew of Trimberg (Source: Master of the Codex Manesse (Nachtragsmaler I), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Fig. 3: Martin Luther, About Jews and their lies, Wittenberg 1543, via Wikimedia Commons
Fig. 4: Moses Mendelssohn, (1729–1786)
Fig. 5: Baruch de Spinoza, Philosopher (1632–1677)
Fig. 6: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Composer (1809–1847)
Fig. 7: Ludwig Börne, Publisher (1786–1837); Fig. 4 – 7: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons