Towards the Ghetto
The beginnings of Jewish life in Germany can be traced back to the fourth century of the Christian era. In the course of the Middle Ages and the early modern period, there was a marked deterioration in the legal and social situation of the Jews. Their expulsion from most of the imperial cities in southern Germany in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and the establishment of the Judengasse in Frankfurt as a closed area mark an important turn of events, illustrated by the architecture of the exhibition: from the late Middle Ages until their emancipation in the nineteenth century, Jews in Germany had to live behind barriers, both judicially and physically.
First documentation of Jews in Frankfurt. From Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan of Mainz' “Even ha Ezer” (Stone of Help), c. 1150. 12th-century manuscript. In his work, Rabbi Eliezer reports a dispute between Jews about the religious obligation to give charity.
This ruling shows that although Jews were in permanent residence in Frankfurt around 1150, there were so few of them that the community had no need of an administrative structure.
In comparison with Eliezer's home town of Mainz and other towns on the Rhine, such as Cologne, Worms and Speyer, where Jews are documented in the early Middle Ages, the Frankfurt community would appear to have been relatively recent. In fact, it is likely that the establishment of a Jewish community in Frankfurt was closely linked to the beginnings of the Frankfurt trade fair, which is first mentioned in Rabbi Eliezer's work.
In the first three centuries of their residence in Frankfurt, the Jews lived in the important area between the main church of St Bartholomew, the River Main and the lane called Fahrgasse leading down to the Alte Brücke which bridges the river. Far from being a closed Ghetto, this was a district where Christian and Jewish citizens lived side by side.The focus of Jewish life was the synagogue, part of which can still be seen – recognizable by the coat of arms with the Frankfurt eagle – behind the tower known as the Metzgerturm (in the middle foreground).
The oldest Jewish quarter in Frankfurt. From the city plan by Matthäus Merian, 1628
Jews under the protection of the king. From the Heidelberg illuminated manuscript of the Sachsenspiegel, c. 1330
Since the massacres of the Rhenish Jews during the crusades, Jews had been accorded the special protection of the king, as had clerics and women. A Christian who killed a Jew faced execution on the grounds of breach of the royal peace.
The distance between the Jew – recognizable here by the pointed hat – and the group of Christians in the upper picture indicates that Jews already occupied a separate position on the margins of Christian society, a situation that was to be further exacerbated in the course of the Middle Ages.
The Jews were heavily taxed in exchange for the king's protection. In reality, however, they could expect protection only when royal rule was strong.
This is evident in the case of Frankfurt, where almost the entire Jewish community was killed in a pogrom in 1241. Although the citizens of Frankfurt were under his direct rule, Emperor Frederick II already at loggerheads with the Pope did not dare to call them to account for their crimes.
Killing of a Jew and decapitation of the murderer. From the Heidelberg illuminated manuscript of the Sachsenspiegel, c. 1330
Jews burned alive during the southern German pogroms of 1298. Woodcut in Hartmann Schedel's “Chronicle of the World” of 1493
The crusades fuelled the persecution of Jews in Germany with attacks becoming more frequent and more violent. At the end of the thirteenth century, a wave of persecution swept through Southern Germany and Austria.
Yet the Jews who had resettled in Frankfurt after the massacre of 1241 were not affected, nor were they victims of the second wave of pogroms that was unleashed thirty years later. In the plague year of 1349, however, when Jews were persecuted throughout Europe the Jews of Frankfurt were killed or burned alive in their homes.
Before 1349 the members of the Jewish community had lived under the direct rule of the king, just like their Christian neighbours, and had been almost their equals.
When in 1360 a new Jewish community was established, the city became more or less independent of royal rule and was governed by a council of the leading families. Their legislation and the pressure of an increasingly anti Jewish populace pushed the Jews increasingly towards the margins of urban society.
The Judengasse Ghetto in Frankfurt. From the city plan by Conrad Faber von Kreuznach, 1552
This development culminated in the Jews having to leave their traditional district. They were resettled in a newly built, closed lane in the eastern part of town that had developed with the expansion of the city in 1333.
The city plan shows the old city walls of the late twelfth century, beside which the Judengasse was built, the tree-lined former city moat, the palisades on the ramparts and the two rows of houses that form the Judengasse. The Judengasse had three gates – north, west and south.
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Frankfurt am Main
Last change: 2013, April 02