Posts Tagged ‘Jewish history’

Eyewitness to the Chmielnicki Pogroms

January 17, 2022

On Saturday, while an assailant was holding Jews hostage inside a Texas synagogue, I was reading about the Chmielnicki pogroms.

Thankfully, the Texas synagogue assault ended with the safe release of the victims. And based on the limited information that’s been released so far, it seems to have been the work of a lone attacker. So I’m not comparing its details with the Chmielnicki pogroms, a 1648 uprising by decommissioned Cossack soldiers and Ukrainian peasants that killed tens of thousands of Jews.

It was just… unsettling to be reading about pogroms while Jews were being threatened with death RIGHT NOW inside a U.S. synagogue.

I’d heard mention of the Chmielnicki pogroms, the worst disaster in Jewish history between the Iberian expulsions and the Holocaust. But—like many American Jews, I suspect—I knew almost nothing about them. I was researching the pogroms as background for a potential novel set in the 1600s. But the book I was reading wasn’t a secondary source or historical work: It was a contemporary account by a rabbi who survived the pogroms, originally published in Hebrew in 1652.

It is stunning.

Abyss of Despair, by Nathan Hanover, is astonishingly readable for a work that is 370 years old. It’s only about 120 pages and straightforward in its style, almost conversational. In his summary of the history leading up to the pogroms, Hanover is surprisingly honest about the social position that Jews held in Polish-run Ukraine, and how that fed into the pogroms.

Excerpt from original manuscript of Abyss of Despair, or Yeven Metzulah / Courtesy of Wikipedia

Here’s my still-evolving understanding, based on Hanover’s book and some secondary histories:

At the time—early and mid-1600s—the kingdom of Poland extended far beyond today’s Polish borders to include much of Lithuania and the Ukraine. While there was a king, there were also many dukes and nobles who ruled chunks of territory and lived off of the labor and taxes of peasants there.

Jews were relative newcomers to Eastern Europe. Following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, many moved to Holland and what today is Germany. But the decentralized states of Germany had their own waves of expulsions, and by 1570 Jews had been expelled from nearly every German city. Many of these exiled Jews moved east: The Jewish population of Poland/Lithuania rose from about 30,000 in 1500 to between 100,000 and 150,000 in 1575, according to European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism by Jonathan I. Israel.

Map of Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and surrounding states in 1648 / Creative Commons by Mathiasrex
Map of pogrom sites during the Chmielnicki upraising, from the Jewish Encyclopedia

The Polish kings and nobles welcomed the Jews, who filled a role of intermediaries between the nobility and the peasantry. Jews served as tax collectors for Polish noblemen and also ran estates, mills, and distilleries for them. (They also were innkeepers and engaged in crafts such as soapmaking and tanning.)

The Polish nobility tended to be Roman Catholic while the Ukraine peasantry tended to be Greek Orthodox. Hanover writes:

“King Sigismund [ruler of Poland from 1596 to 1632] raised the status of the Catholic dukes and princes above those of the Ukrainians…. and the masses that followed the Greek Orthodox Church became gradually impoverished. They were looked upon as lowly and inferior beings and became the slaves and handmaids of the Polish people and of the Jews….”

Meanwhile, the Polish king had recruited Ukrainian fighting men into a military force—called Cossacks—to guard the frontier with the Tatars, a Muslim people occupying the region of Crimea, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Cossacks held privileges such as being exempt from taxes. But after several unsuccessful Cossack-led Ukrainian revolts, the king decommissioned tens of thousands of them—creating a powder keg of downwardly-mobile and unemployed armed men. 

A wealthy and charismatic Cossack named Chmielnicki launched another revolt against the Polish overlords in 1648. But this time there was a crucial shift in the power balance: Chmielnicki formed an alliance with Ukraine’s neighbor and traditional enemy, the Tatars. 

The rebel forces targeted Jews as well as Polish nobles and Roman Catholic priests. Hanover explains the dynamic when describing a particular Jewish man who “was the nobleman’s tax farmer, as was the customary occupation of most Jews in the kingdom of [Little] Russia. For they ruled in every part of [Little] Russia, a condition which aroused the jealousy of the peasants, and which was the cause for the massacres.”

The title of Hanover’s book in its original Hebrew was “Yeven Metzulah,” which literally translated means “Deep Mire,” a reference to Psalm 69, which says, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the deep mire and find no foothold.”

Most of the book is a description of one massacre after another. 

As Chmielnicki’s army advanced, Jews fled from small towns and the countryside to the fortified cities held by Polish nobles. But in one city after another, they were slaughtered. In one case, the Polish defenders of the city struck a deal to hand over the Jews to the rebels. In another, the Ukrainian rebels gained entrance by waving Polish flags and pretending to be Polish reinforcements. In yet another, Ukrainian peasants working as guards along the city walls let their countrymen ford the walls with ladders. In other cases, cities were stormed and burned. 

Hanover’s descriptions of what happened in captured towns are stark and appalling. Even if we allow that some of the atrocities were exaggerated, as often happens in war, there is still enough to horrify:

“These persons died cruel and bitter deaths. Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their hands and limbs chopped off, and their bodies thrown on the highway only to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted upon them, and thrown on the street to die a slow death; they writhed in their blood until their breathed their last; others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants in the laps of their mothers. They were sliced into pieces like fish They slashed the bellies of pregnant women, removed their infants, and tossed them in their faces. Some women had their bellies torn open and live cats placed in them. The bellies were then sew up with the live cats remaining within. They chopped off the hands of the victims so they would not be able to remove the cats from their bellies…

“Women and young girls were ravished but some of the women and maidens jumped into the moat surrounding the fortress in order that the uncircumcised should not defile them. They drowned in the waters. Many of them who were able to swim jumped into water, believing they would escape the slaughter, but the Ukrainians swam after them with their swords and their scythes, and killed them in the water… till the water became red with the blood of the slain.”

Print of massacre of Poles by Ukrainian rebels after a 1652 battle / Wikipedia

These descriptions sound histrionic, but Hanover’s narrative is more nuanced than that. He describes rivalries among the Polish nobility that hampered them from putting down the rebellion. He notes a successful survival strategy of some Jewish communities: Letting themselves be captured by the Tatar troops, who would enslave rather than kill them. (The enslaved Jews were sold south to the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish communities in Constantinople and Venice ransomed at least some of them.) Hanover pens a dramatic narrative of the rebels’ advance over time—one city falling, news arriving at the next town, those inhabitants fleeing to the next fortified city, which in turn falls, and so on.

Really, it is worth reading. 

But what are we to make of these horrific events today, over three centuries later?

Some initial thoughts, still evolving:

The Chmielnicki pogroms are a reminder that anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the Nazis. The Holocaust was unique in its vast scale, its technology of death, and its systematic approach to wiping out Jewry, but it was one of many, many expulsions and massacres that Jews faced in Europe over the past millennium. There were multiple centuries when Jews were not allowed to live in countries like England that today we view as icons of liberal tolerance. The saga of one forced exodus after another—from Spain to Germany, from Germany to Poland, from Poland back to Germany— is sobering.

Yet the fatalistic conclusion that “everyone will always hate us, no matter what we do” is not necessarily warranted. Granted, Christian theologians and clerics vilified Jews as despicable Christ-killers for much of European history. But Hanover’s account spotlights the vulnerability of Jews’ position in the Ukraine—as the most close-at-hand and thus most easily hated representative of an oppressive, foreign overclass. The pogroms grew out of specific economic and social circumstances, not pure religious dogma.

Those 16th century Jews threw their lot in with the Polish nobles and counted on the nobles’ protection. That protection turned out to be absent or inadequate once faced with a massive peasant revolt. Jews living in the Diaspora will always be a minority, and faced with a similar choice of where to place their allegiance—the current regime? the regime’s challengers? the suffering masses? 

Would it have been wiser to ally with the masses of impoverished Ukrainians? Would it have even been possible? 

One of the founding visions of Zionism was a society where Jews would not be at the mercy of a host regime—would not be at risk of expulsion, would not be limited in their professions, would not have to be landless, powerless “middlemen” trapped between powerful nobles and angry masses. How has that worked out? That’s a complicated discussion for another day.

No answers here, just questions. I’m a novice when it comes to pre-modern Jewish history. If you’re someone with more expertise, feel free to weigh in via the comments! I welcome corrections, additions, or simply more questions. 

And in the meantime: read Abyss of Despair. (I was lucky enough to find an inexpensive used copy online.) It’s gripping, sobering, and documents a piece of history that deserves to be known and discussed.

Visiting Jebenhausen and its Jewish Museum

May 13, 2019

My mother’s family came from Germany in the mid-1800s.  In the course of pursuing my genealogy addiction – oops, I mean research — I’ve identified three of their villages of origin. 

For two of those villages, Markt Erlbach and Mitwitz, I’ve found little or no information about the historic Jewish community. 

The third village – Jebenhausen, about 27 miles east of Stuttgart – is a jackpot.

Scholars have written articles and books on the Jews of Jebenhausen. The Jewish cemetery there is well preserved and documented. There is even a museum devoted to the Jews of Jebenhausen!

These resources were all easily accessible to me. I didn’t have to learn German or spend weeks sifting through dusty, hard-to-decipher handwritten archives. There are many people to thank for this, including other Jewish descendants who’ve shared their knowledge, Christian residents who restored the town’s Jewish cemetery after the Holocaust, and more. 

But the wealth of information is mostly due to the work of two men – Rabbi Aron Tänzer and Dr. Karl-Heinz Ruess.

Tänzer (1871-1937) was the last rabbi in Göppingen, a larger neighboring town that eventually subsumed the village of Jebenhausen.  Among his  many accomplishments was a 662-page history of the Jews of Jebenhausen and Göppingen, which included family trees. It’s because of Rabbi Tänzer’s charts that I’m able to trace my Jebenhausen family line back to the 1700s.

Portrait of Rabbi Aron Tänzer in the Jewish Museum

Dr. Ruess is the museum director for Göppingen, who decided to create a Jewish museum there in 1985 – a time when even big cities like Berlin and Munich didn’t yet have a Jewish museum. 

Because of Dr. Ruess’s efforts, the life and eventual destruction of Jebenhausen’s Jewish community is documented far beyond what one might expect for a town whose Jewish population never passed 600. 

Last month, my husband Sam and I traveled to Germany to visit our daughter, who was doing an artist’s residency in Berlin. It was our first time in Germany. Ten years ago, before I started doing genealogy, I’d never even heard of Jebenhausen. Now, I eagerly arranged a rental car for the day-long drive south to visit it.

Our first stop was the museum, located in a decommissioned one-room Protestant church.

The museum’s location in the church is part of its story. 

In 1777, the barons who controlled the village of Jebenhausen agreed in writing to allow a small number of Jews – initially just 20 families – to move there. In return, the Jews paid them annual “protection fees.” Over the next fifty years, the Jewish community grew to a peak of 550 people, about equal to the Christian population of 600. 

Exhibit in the Göppingen Jewish Museum showing the 1777 document that allowed Jews to settle in Jebenhausen. Note the Hebrew signatures on the right.

Then in the mid-1800s, Jews started moving out of Jebenhausen – many to America, like my ancestors, and others to larger German towns that offered more industrial infrastructure and economic opportunity. By 1900, there were so few Jews left that the synagogue was closed and the chandeliers and pews were donated to the local church.

By the 1980s, that church had also been closed and turned over to the city of Göppingen. Dr. Ruess realized that the state of Baden-Württemburg had over 1,000 museums but not a single one focused on Judaism. With the synagogue’s furnishings already in the church, he convinced city officials to turn it into the Gföppingen Jewish Museum, which opened in 1992.

Dr. Ruess met us at the museum and guided us through, which was helpful since the labels for the exhibits don’t – yet – have English translations. It includes sections on Jewish holidays and rituals, the growth of the Jebenhausen and Göppingen Jewish communities, and their destruction under Nazism, told movingly through stories and photos of some of the individuals who were killed or displaced. 

The synagogue chandeliers and pews are still there, along with portraits of the barons who first opened Jebenhausen to Jews. Among the artifacts is a colorful hanging sign of King David with a lyre that marked the King David Inn, the first of several Jebenhausen inns serving Jewish travelers in the 1800s.

Me with the King David Inn sign in the Göppingen Jewish Museum

After touring the museum, Dr. Ruess led us on a walk through what used to be the Jewish section of the village. The main street still exists – now paved and busy with automobiles, while back then it would have been dirt and horse carts. Many of the original houses still line it, although most have been updated with third floors, modern windows, new siding, etc. 

The main street of the onetime Jewish section of Jebenhausen / Photo by Ilana DeBare

To be honest, it felt less like a historic street than a modest, nondescript European suburb. It would be easy to drive down the street and not be aware of its past. But Dr. Ruess pointed out where the Jewish communal institutions used to stand – the synagogue, the school, the large house built by the Jewish community to accommodate families who were too poor to build their own houses.

The rabbi’s residence was still standing. And next door to it – also still standing, although a victim of some unfortunate remodel decisions – was the house that belonged to my ancestors.

The rabbi’s house (yellow) and the house that belonged to my Einstein ancestors (brown/grey) / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Community housing for poor families, around 1870-80
Jebenhausen synagogue, around 1890

My great-great grandparents Rosa Einstein and Salomon Wormser – the ones who brought those two silver kiddush cups with them to the U.S. – met and married in Jebenhausen in 1866. According to Tänzer’s book, the house at Poststrasse 103 was occupied by Rosa’s family members from 1842 through 1865. Rosa would probably have grown up there. 

Some of Jebenhausen’s Jewish residents took advantage of opportunities created by the start of industrial development in the early 1800s. Rosa’s family, like many others, became involved in the new, growing textile industry. Her father, Salomon Einstein, started a weaving mill together with his brother Joseph Leopold Einstein in 1842, and in 1852 the brothers opened another factory that manufactured corsets.  

Salomon Wormser wasn’t from Jebenhausen, but Tänzer says he was a partner in the corset factory. He was much younger than the Einstein brothers: In 1860, he would have been 23, while the brothers were around 60. Perhaps he boarded with the Einsteins. 

Did Salomon and Rosa fall in love in the Einstein home while he learned the corset business from her father and uncle? Or was their marriage a calculated economic move – partners cementing a business relationship, or an ambitious young man angling to marry the boss’s daughter? 

We’ll never know. But an unpublished memoir by my uncle Ira Skutch offers a glimpse of Rosa and Salomon’s relationship decades later in New York, where he became a corset importer. (Presumably developing a new market for the family business.)

As my grandmother told Ira:

“Grandma and Grandpa used to fight and bicker all the time. She didn’t use his first name or ‘Mister’ – she never called him anything but ‘Wormser.’ He had a pair of old brown shoes that he wore all the time because they were comfortable. Grandma kept at him constantly to get a new pair, until he finally couldn’t stand the nagging any more. When he returned from the store he said to Grandma, ‘All right. I have new shoes. But I’m going to keep these old ones, and I’m going to wear them to your funeral.’ And he did.”

Rosa and Salomon were hardly the only young Jews to leave Jebenhausen. Neighboring Göppingen had a river, which made it a better site for manufacturing. And America offered an escape from the anti-Semitism that was deeply ingrained in German society. 

Between 1830 and 1870, 300 Jews from Jebenhausen emigrated to the U.S. – such a dramatic exodus that one scholar wrote an article titled “From Württemburg to America: A Nineteenth Century German-Jewish Village on its Way to the New World.”

Dr. Ruess shows a chart tracking the rise and decline of the Jewish populations of Jebenhausen (left) and Goppingen / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Today the only Jewish denizens of Jebenhausen are the ones resting underground. We followed Dr. Ruess up the street, about ten minutes past the Einstein home, to the Jewish cemetery. There he directed us to the graves of Salomon and Babette Gutmann Einstein, Rosa’s parents. We also found the grave of my oldest known Jebenhausen foremother – Rifke Einstein, who was Rosa’s great-grandmother and thus my 5th great-grandmother (my great-great-great-great-great grandmother). 

Rifke was born in 1733 and died in 1817, part of the first generation of Jews to move to Jebenhausen. We don’t know her maiden name or anything else about her. She may mark the outer limits of how far I can trace my family, at least with the currently available digital resources.

One of the striking things about my Jebenhausen family history is how it mirrors the broader trends in German Jewish history, as described in Amos Elon’s excellent book, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.

Placing my family’s story within these broad brush strokes:

Before Napoleon’s conquest of Germany in the early 1800s, Jews were completely excluded from German society. They were barred from owning land and from entering skilled trades and professions. They were prohibited from living in many cities.

The first Jewish families who settled in Jebenhausen were cattle traders and peddlers, two of the few occupations open to Jews. Their houses were built by local Christian craftsmen, since Jews were not allowed to practice trades such as carpentry.

Until the 19thcentury, German Jews often did not have surnames and were known simply as “Isaac son of David” or “David son of Salomon.” (This poses obvious challenges for tracing family history.)

In Jebenhausen, Jews made an active decision to adopt surnames around 1818-20, earlier than in some other parts of Germany. Tänzer quotes an 1818 letter from two Jewish leaders to local officials: 

“Royal esteemed district office: There are several family fathers (heads of household) without a family surname and that has caused many disputes, and also created difficulties in recording the Jewish families in the noble books. We therefore have initiated that every Jewish Family should establish a permanent family surname. We therefore request to publicly distribute the following list of newly adopted surnames, so the nuisance of having two or three of the same name will finally stop.” 

As German Jews won more economic and social freedom through the 1800s, they increasingly identified with and assimilated into German culture. 

The gravestones of the Jebenhausen cemetery reflect this gradual assimilation of Jews into German society. The oldest stones like Rifke’s are entirely in Hebrew. Salomon Einstein’s mid-century stone is mostly Hebrew, but his name is also written in German letters. Then there are stones from the early 1900s that are entirely in German, like Christian gravestones of that time. 

The exodus of Jews from Jebenhausen to Göppingen and Stuttgart reflected the larger movement of Jews to urban areas through the 19th century, as Germany industrialized and cities dropped their restrictions on Jewish residency.

And of course the decimation of the Göppingen Jewish community during the Holocaust mirrored the fate of German Jewry overall.  Although Rosa Einstein moved to America, several of her siblings stayed behind. Some of their descendants – my distant cousins – died in concentration camps. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, one of them was Fritz Elsas, a former mayor of Berlin and part of the liberal opposition to Hitler. 

No one in my family was aware of these distant relations. I never knew until exploring my Jebenhausen roots that we had relatives who died in the Holocaust. 

There are so many factors that shape our lives – our parents’ economic class and social milieu, the values with which they raise us, the schools we attend and the friends we make. If any of those were different, I would be a different person.

But sometimes I feel that all those factors are dwarfed by a single decision made 150 years ago by people I never knew – the decision by Salomon Wormser and Rosa Einstein to move from Jebenhausen to America.

Postscript: In my last blog post, I promised to disclose my connection to that other Einstein — the one who didn’t sell corsets. Albert, who was born 38 miles away from Jebenhausen in Ulm, is apparently my fifth cousin, three times removed. Don’t ask me to detail the path. My head will explode.


IMG_3139

My daughter, me, and Dr. Ruess in front of the Göppingen Jewish Museum

I’d like to express my deep thanks to Dr. Ruess for his work on the museum and on the history of Jebenhausen’s Jews, and to other Jebenhausen descendants who have helped piece together the community’s story. 

In particular, thank you to Stephen Weil of Chicago – a descendant of Rosa Einstein’s sister Ricke and thus my fourth cousin – who recently commissioned an English translation of Rabbi Tanzer’s book that is available for free online through the Leo Baeck Institute.

Resources on the Jews of Jebenhausen

Jews in Jebenhausen and Göppingen– short online article with pictures on Edjewnet.com

History of the Jews Residing in Jebenhausen and Goppingen– English translation of the 1927 book by Rabbi Aaron Tanzer, in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute.

From Württemburg to America: A German-Jewish Village on its Way to the New World– 1989 article by Stefan Rohrbacher in American Jewish Archives.

Göppingen Jewish Museum – hours of operation and contact information (in German)

Next blog post: The stories of some of my other recently-discovered German ancestors. They include two New World tragedies.

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