Jewish Life in Gunzenhausen

Written by the Municipal Archivist Werner Mühlhaüßer

Jewish men and women helped shape and left their mark on the social, economic, political and cultural life of our town over a period of more than 600 years.

Until their expulsion by the National Socialists, there were Jewish communities in the former district of Gunzenhausen, in Heidenheim, in Markt Berolzheim and in Altenmuhr. The most significant community in the region, however, was to be found in Gunzenhausen.

The districts of Cronheim and Unterwurmbach, which both belonged to Gunzenhausen, used to have their own Jewish communities. Dating from the 10th century, a Jewish presence was recorded in the area which now corresponds to Bavaria. Originally in larger cities such as Regensburg or Würzburg and then, as of around 1200, small communities sprang up in many other areas. Despite their blossoming cultural and religious life, the Jews formed a suppressed minority in the Middle Ages. Particularly after the Lateran Council of 1215, Jews were increasingly forced to live in ghettos and to wear specific signs such as the Jewish hat or a yellow patch on their clothing. In the Middle Ages the colour yellow stood for corruption. This stigma automatically criminalized an entire people.

Expulsion and massacres frequently took place. Jews from Gunzenhausen were included in those murdered during the so-called “Beef Pogroms” of 1298, which erupted mainly in Southern Germany, primarily Franconia. The first written record of the existence of a Jewish settlement here in our town dates from this pogrom.

Jews of Gunzenhausen were also victims of the waves of persecution 1348/49 during the horrendous plague epidemic which raged across Central Europe. Jews were blamed as the cause of the epidemic and were killed in their thousands. Subsequently, particularly in the imperial cities, the Jewish populations were forced to leave and frequently found refuge in the country, in Franconia, in areas governed by local princes, however the price for the permission to settle was high taxes.

The margraves of Brandenburg-Ansbach were amongst the earliest to tolerate Jewish communities in their duchies, including in Gunzenhausen, which was part of the territory they ruled over. A document established in 1375 accorded the protection of the Hohenzollern to the Jew Heimann from Gunzenhausen, including “his married wife, all his children and all those who were dependent on him for their bread”.

The community here developed into one of the most important in the margravate. The convenient location of the town to important military and trade routes crossing the Altmühl surely played a not insubstantial role in this. The famous historian Magnus Weinberg actually described us as “one of the oldest existing Bavarian Jewish communities, exceeding Ansbach, and even Schwabach and Fürth in the early days, in its reputation and importance”.

In the 15th century, local rabbis, such as Eisik Stein, were counted amongst the most recognized Talmud scholars and the yeshiva, i.e. the Talmud school, in Gunzenhausen was highly considered.

Evidence of the special position of the Gunzenhausen community can be derived from the fact that in 1481, the five most well-known Rabbis of the German Empire met here in order to discuss the payment of ransom money for Regensburger Jews who had been taken into custody.

Scholars from Gunzenhausen left the town to go to places such as Nürnberg or Vienna. Joseph ben Jacob and his son Asriel, both from Gunzenhausen, founded a widely known printing house in Naples at the end of the 15th century, publishing a range of Hebrew incunabula.

The first Jewish cemetery in Gunzenhausen also had a certain relevance beyond the town’s borders, due to the fact that as of 1473, all deceased Jews from the duchy of Brandenburg-Ansbach were laid there to rest.

As far as a synagogue is concerned, we only have documented proof of one some hundred years later, however it can be assumed with some certainty that a synagogue existed much earlier than this. It was located between the present day town museum and the town hall. The historic Jewish quarter was to be found in this area, around Auergasse, Brunnenstraße, Waagstraße and Hafnermarkt, where the later synagogues were also built.

The place of birth of the famed theologian and reformer Andreas Osiander was located in the immediate neighbourhood of the Jewish quarter, which surely had a quite considerable influence on his later life.

Probably encouraged by his liberal, tolerant parents, he presumably had a quite intensive contact to the Jewish scholars here, even keeping up a lively exchange of ideas and thoughts with the rabbis and Talmud pupils, who recognized a great intellectual potential in the lively, questioning mind of the young Osiander. The seed was undoubtedly sown here in Gunzenhausen for the development of Andreas Osiander in his later years as a recognized authority of the Hebrew language and Jewish mysticism. Contrary to Martin Luther, he searched for a real dialogue with the Jews, working energetically to uphold their rights and rejected any form of anti-Judaism.

The Thirty Years War proved a turning point. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1618, an estimated twelve Jewish families lived here, in a total town population of around 2.000. Gunzenhausen suffered tremendously during this long war. Occupation, looting, hunger and disease decimated the population. Little is known about the Jewish community in this time, due to the scarcity of archive material. It is however certain that Jewish families found refuge here during the war years.

Our town recovered relatively quickly following the end of this pitiless war, and the prominent position of Gunzenhausen as one of the four main towns in the duchy of Brandenburg-Ansbach grew in importance owing to the fact that for several decades it was the seat of a Chief Rabbinate.

No particular difficulties seem to have arisen from the coexistence of Christians and Jews in our town, or at least nothing is recorded in our archives. The following examples illustrate how normal life went on, the daily routines proceeding naturally between Christians and Jews in Gunzenhausen :

In 1660 the town council purchased a silver cup from the merchant Marx of Gunzenhausen, to be presented to the margrave’s new Bailiff during his ceremonial appointment to the position.

In 1692 the Jewish residents contributed to the repair of the town’s three birthing stools and in the burial entry on the death of a midwife, mention was made that during her twenty years of activity, she had helped bring “1178 Christian children and 206 Jewish children” into the world.

In 1712 Gunzenhausen was one of the eight wealthiest places in the margravate. A few tradesmen even attained wide reaching economic importance as court factors, merchants and army suppliers. Some merchants even attended the Leipzig commercial fair and were involved in foreign trade. This prosperity and the constant growth of the Jewish population necessitated the building of a new synagogue in 1718. The prayer hall, about 80 m2 large and built with a simple saddle roof, provided space for 40 men’s stalls, and a separate area for the women.

As is well known, Margrave Carl Wilhelm Friedrich of Brandenburg-Ansbach frequently stayed in Gunzenhausen and, through his residence, lent the town a certain glamour. An official protocol records how in 1748 the Margrave took Barnoss Samson Salomon of Gunzenhausen under his direct protection, due to “the grace of his knowledge and excellence in judging equine qualities”. He could no longer be prosecuted by the office of the town’s stewards or even sentenced to imprisonment. At the same time the Margrave afforded him the title of “Court Rabbi”. Samson Salomon received this honour in person in the Margrave’s court garden in Gunzenhausen. He graciously took his seat at the ruler’s luncheon table, where both the town’s steward and town clerk, who had been summoned to the event, had to offer him their congratulations

Around the end of the 18th century, the Rabbi of Gunzenhausen was responsible for one of the six rabbinates into which the duchy had been newly divided. Together with Gunzenhausen, Dittenheim, Heidenheim, Markt Berolzheim and Treuchtlingen all came under his authority. Altenmuhr, Weimersheim and Cronheim were later added. The last local and district Rabbi was Abraham Böheim, who also founded a Talmud-Tora school here.

The Jewish Edict of 1813 introduced a profoundly radical change in the Kingdom of Bavaria, even if it was restrictive in many areas. On the one hand, for example, the state intervened massively in their religious self-government, while on the other hand, the edict showed itself to be markedly liberal within economic areas. In addition, it opened entrance to higher educational establishments and thus to a range of professions that had previously been denied to Jews. Important components of the edict also included the obligation to adopt a civic family name as well as the introduction of a Jewish Index, a kind of residents’ directory. The Gunzenhausen Index provides extensive details of the residents’ professions and a lot of genealogical information.

Of the 53 householders noted in the Index, some 10% were wealthy merchants who, in addition to their traditional activities, also traded in gold, bonds and other securities. 60-70% earned their living through the buying and selling of all kinds of goods – livestock, horses, feather-down, tobacco, fabrics etc and around 20% were low income sub-dealers. The last restrictive barrier for Bavaria’s Jews fell with the Emancipation Edict of 1861, which at long last granted freedom of profession and residence.

Gunzenhausen’s early connection to the Bavarian railway network contributed to its economic boom. At this time there were numerous flourishing Jewish businesses, for instance the bankers Gerst, Rosenfelder and Frank, the Bing engineering works, the Seeberger pottery or the Wertheimer craft mill. Neumann’s wholesale cheese business sold all over Germany, while the Dottenheimers, wine wholesalers, advertised with the byeline “Gunzenhausen near Würzburg”, in order to indicate their proximity to the lower Franconian wine area.

The above mentioned Bing family, citizens of Gunzenhausen since the 1850’s, also ran a wholesale business dealing in haberdashery and factory-made goods. Ignaz Bing and his brother Adolf eventually moved to Nürnberg, where they founded their factory manufacturing metal and lacquered products. They employed more than a thousand workers there and exported across Europe and even to America. Incidentally, Ignaz Bing discovered the cave which is still named after him, the “Bing cave”, in the region of the Fränkischen Schweiz. During his time in Gunzenhausen, he was also known for his literary talents, for instance he wrote a prizewinning singers’ greeting for the Liederkranz Association.

But his extensive engagement within and on behalf of the town was of no assistance when he was rejected for admission to the town’s elite Casino Society. This might be an additional reason for his departure to Nürnberg. All the other Gunzenhausen societies had no objection to admitting Jews or electing them to their committees. As of the second half of the 19th century, it became normal for Jewish citizens to sit on committees such as the Poor Relief Council, the District Authorization College or the main municipal magistrature, active in shaping the town’s communal politics. They also founded their own associations such as the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, the local group of the Association of Orthodox Jews or the local group of the Friends of the Sabbath.

Christian butchers and bakers advertised their kosher meat, sausage and bakery products in the local newspaper, the “Gunzenhäuser Anzeigeblatt”. In one advertisement, a butcher dealing in game emphasised that his “freshly arrived geese with proof of origin and Hebrew certificate” definitely complied with Jewish dietary regulations. Articles on the most important events in Jewish community life regularly appeared in the local press.

One example of a charitable action that crossed religious barriers occurred in 1865. A pastor’s widow, Mrs. Bub, included a legacy of 200 guilders in her testament, and specified that its distribution should take place without regard to the religious confession of the recipients. This generous gesture earned a newspaper insertion from the local Jewish charity for poor relief: “such an action inherently testifies to the charitable character and magnanimous sentiments of the noble donor, while also reflecting the mood of the time, and on this occasion showed the most tolerant and worthy side of humanity”. The insertion ends with the plea to God : “ Father of Mercy, hear our prayers for the salvation of our deceased sister. Give her the divine reward that you promise to the righteous, that she may live eternally in the contemplation of your glory.”

By all appearances, in daily life the Christians and Jews got on together in a normal manner. Although the 19th century was definitely a time when the local community blossomed, with a continuing increase in the number of members, the wave of Jewish emigration to America from Gunzenhausen, as from many other Franconian districts, was noticeable. Around 40 Gunzenhausen Jews emigrated after the 1850’s. For some of them, their dream of establishing a secure existence, in foreign lands, was fulfilled, as for instance the Rosenbach brothers, who successfully ran an antique business in Philadelphia. The well-known “Rosenbach Museum and Library” originates from them. Despite the emigration to America or moving to other larger Bavarian cities, the Jewish population of Gunzenhausen reached its heights at the end of the 19th century with 300 people.

This, together with the recognition of full equal rights and integration into society, inspired the Jewish community to undertake two large construction projects. In 1875 they began to build their own cemetery. Since the disbandment of the first, medieval cemetery in the Nürnbergerstraße, for over 300 years the deceased had to be buried in Bechhofen. With the new burial grounds at Burgstallwald, the mourners no longer had to undertake the arduous route to Bechhofen. And the construction of the imposing synagogue at the Hafnermarkt, designed to become an important feature of the town, was definitely a high point in the life of the congregation. The building, with its vestibule, staircase, prayer hall, women’s gallery and two towers, could accommodate several hundred worshipers.

Over one hundred gas lamps lit up the interior of one of the most beautiful and modern synagogues of Franconia of the time. This place of worship was inaugurated on 19th October 1983 by the Ansbach district rabbi Aron Grünbaum, in the presence of all the notables of Gunzenhausen, school children, the town band and the fire service. In his sermon the rabbi uttered good and pious wishes for Gunzenhausen, its Christian and Jewish residents as well as for the new synagogue. These, unfortunately, were not to prove long-lived.

The patriotism which prevailed in the entire German empire at the outbreak of the first world war did not bypass the Gunzenhausen Jews. Already in August 1914 a prayer service was held in the synagogue, beseeching God to ensure the German victory. And the congregation paid a price with its own blood: Viktor Bermann, David Rück and the brothers Oskar, Ludwig and Max Seller all lost their lives on the European battlefields.

At the end of the war, the congregation grew smaller, following the general trend in Southern Germany, as many young, well educated Jews from the Franconian province saw no possibility to progress further in their professions . Open Jew-baiting and the distribution of leaflets with anti-Semitic content were already commonplace in Gunzenhausen as early as 1919. Slanderous stories were circulated, the so-called “Stab-in-the-Back” accusation, blaming the social democrats and the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the war.

In 1920 a citizen was indicted for painting swastikas. In 1922 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery were damaged. In 1923 synagogue windows were broken. The early existence of a local group of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) led to latent tension in the town. Nazis in the town council and the fact that the independent 1st Mayor Münch joined Hitler’s party in summer 1932 all led to the situation becoming aggravated.

At the time when the National Socialists seized power, 181 Jewish residents were living in Gunzenhausen. National and municipal restrictions on them increased noticeably. The last commercial advertisement for a Jewish business appeared in the Altmühlbote in autumn 1933.

Obituaries were seldom published, for instance that of Heinrich Hellmann, a butcher and trader, who came from a long-established family and died on 22nd June 1933. In this connection one notice is quite noteworthy, namely from the board of the Veterans Association of Gunzenhausen, which said “ it is our sad duty to advise our comrades of the death of the former veteran Mr Heinrich Hellmann. Burial Friday 23rd June. Numerous attendance is required”. In view of the fact that at this time the Nazis had already been in power for half a year, this announcement shows quite some considerable courage.

The Hellmanns were one of the families who were particularly affected by the Holocaust, Heinrich Hellmann’s widow and seven of their twelve children were murdered.

One of the first pogroms in the German Reich took place in Gunzenhausen, the so-called “Bloody Palm Sunday”. It was reported that in March 1934, up to 1.500 fanatics went through the streets, howling, hauling the Jewish residents out of their houses, sometimes still in their nightclothes, abused them and threw them into prison. Two residents were killed in this violence.

By this time it was clear for many Jewish residents that it was no longer feasible for them to stay in the familiar surroundings, in the town of their birth. Almost 50 of them quickly left the town, primarily in the hope to survive the Nazi insanity through supposed anonymity in the larger cities. But outspoken threats, such as those in a speech by the “Kreisleiter” and later 1st Mayor Johann Appler, “without a solution to the Jewish question, there will be no salvation for the German people”, left no one in any doubt. By autumn 1938 only 55 Jews were still living in Gunzenhausen.

As if they had already foreseen that their Jewish community would soon be eliminated, the managing committee decided to sell the synagogue and school house to the town on the day before the pogrom “The Night of Broken Glass”. The legitimate question, in how far direct pressure was brought to bear, remains unanswered.

The Germany-wide anti-Semitic attacks, organised and directed by the National Socialist regime in the night of the 9th to the 10th November, also hit the Jewish residents of Gunzenhausen with full force. Various workmen’s invoices, to be found in the town’s archives, partially indicate how great the damage was. Meticulous entries in the prison register show that on this night 42 people, including two children, were taken into custody and held in the cells of the District Court. A week after this pogrom, the town celebrated the end of the Jewish community in a very conspicuous manner by tearing down the synagogue’s two towers, watched by tightly packed crowd of people. On the next day the newspaper hailed “the End of the Jewish dominance”.

The Jewish exodus took off immediately after the pogrom night, Josef Seeberger as well as Martha and Albert Klein, the last Jewish residents, left the town on 25th January 1939, so that the it could now be called, in Nazi jargon, “Jew-free”. According to our present research, there were 107 Gunzenhausen Jews whose lives were extinguished in concentration camps such as Dachau or Theresienstadt, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Sobibor, in deportation areas such as Kaunas in Lithuania. If one also includes the Jewish residents of Cronheim, the number of victims would come to 147. There was no re-establishment of a Jewish community here after 1945. There had been a short-term official plan to accommodate a large number of Jewish refugees, so called Displaced Persons, in the town, but this project was abandoned due to vehement opposition from the mayor, the town council and administration. Among their arguments was that they would only accept Jews “ who had actually lived here, and who were familiar with Franconian customs and habits since their youth”.

Their letter culminated in the statement that the settling of non-local Jews would be a very dangerous operation, in as far as the population should not be irritated by their presence. Such a rationale seems inconceivable nowadays, yet is a painful reminder of the characteristic style of the NS times.