The second most important urban centre of Brandenburg after Berlin, Frankfurt am Oder, was founded in 1253. First historical sources confirming Jewish presence in the town were produced merely 40 years later. A document dating back to 1294 suggests that a Jewish community had already been established by then; it was subordinate to the town authorities, not to the margrave. The early arrival of Jews to Frankfurt is hardly surprising as its location and role were quite unique. For centuries, the town had been the main commercial gate to the east. It boasted a bridge on the Oder and held great fairs attracting merchants from Poland and Eastern Europe. Jews often worked as intermediaries in the trade between the East and the West and as such were naturally present in Frankfurt.
The medieval Jewish district was located in the north-western part of the town, near Lebuser Gate (German: Lebuser Stadttor). The first synagogue was erected in this very area. After Jews were expelled from the town in the 16th century, new buildings of the local university, founded in 1506, were constructed in the district. The synagogue was probably pulled down and replaced with the seat of “Collegium philosophicum et Artistorum.” The changes of fate befalling Frankfurt Jews always resulted from the friction between two elements: the elector’s financial needs and the anti-Jewish fears finding their outlet in accusations of profanation of the Host, poisoning wells, usury, or treason in the war against Sweden in 1675. Depending on the circumstances, Jews would be allowed to reside in the town and pay taxes, or they would be banished.
Jews were expelled from Frankfurt at least three times, in 1510, 1543, and 1571, and probably also in 1446 and 1490. They would never stray too far from the town, settling right across the border and boosting the development of Polish towns, such as Miedzyrzecz, Skwierzyna or Poznań. Whenever Jewish money would cease to line the elector’s pockets, various measures were taken to remedy the losses, and Jews would eventually be allowed to return to the town or the authorities would issue permits for Jewish merchants from Poland to attend the local fairs. In 1532 and 1573, “Elector Joachim hereby allows Jews from Międzyrzecz and Skwierzyna to visit fairs in New March, as well as in Frankfurt am Oder, Krosno, Sulechów, Lubsko, and Torzym Land.”[1.1] The so-called “Jews from Poland” were usually serfs of the lords of Brandenburg, seeking to tend to their businesses from the safety of the Polish territory.
The banishment of Jews in 1571 was more long-lasting and remained in force for precisely 100 years, until 1671. Despite the official ban, some Jewish people temporarily resided in Frankfurt within this period. Exceptions were made mostly for Jews from Poland, a small group of whom was granted a permission to settle in the town in 1635. This most likely resulted from the elector’s significant financial needs and deficits incurred in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War. It was probably this group of Jews which was mentioned in a manuscript drawn up by the Frankfurt Municipal Council on 12 August 1668. The document emphasised the need to protect Polish Jews arriving to the town for fairs and those who had previously been offered protection.
On 21 May 1671, Elector Frederick William, dubbed “the Great” by modern historians, issued a permit for the settlement of 50 Jewish families from Vienna and Lower Austria in Brandenburg. Ca. 10–12 Austrian families settled in Frankfurt. They were not allowed to erect a synagogue but they were able to hold services on the premises of the university. Berlin also ordered for Austrian Jews to be allowed to freely attend fairs and not be stopped at municipal gates. Initially, the residents of Frankfurt and other towns of Brandenburg strongly opposed the changes, but the elector’s firm stance on the “Jewish issue” forced the municipal authorities and the Christian population of Frankfurt to come to terms with the new reality, which they first reluctantly tolerated and later fully accepted. One of the local supporters of amicable coexistence with Jews was Johann Christoph Beckmann, professor at the university and owner of a printing house. In 1675, he filed a petition to the elector, asking for permission to employ two Jewish printers, as he was planning to publish the Hebrew Bible with Chaldean paraphrase and rabbinical commentary (Hebrew publications had been produced in Frankfurt since the turn of 1594/1595). On 1 May 1675, Beckmann received the appropriate privilege and was assured that the Jewish printers, just like the Christians working at the publishing house, would be granted protection of the university. In 1678, the enterprise published the first Babylonian Talmud ever printed in Germany. A full edition of the Talmud was printed in 1711, with the publication funded by Isachar Behrmann from Halberstadt. Its second edition was published in the years 1715–1724, and third – in 1735.
The university, too, soon opened its doors for Jews. Viadrina was the first college in Germany which they could attend. Among the students there were also Jews from Poland, and medicine was by far the most popular faculty. The first two Jewish students matriculated on 1 June 1678, while the first doctoral dissertation by a Jew – Moses Salomon Gümpert, son of a physician from Prague – was defended in 1721[1.2].
In 1700, Frankfurt was inhabited by 31 Jews with letters of safe conduct and 43 without such documents, together with their families and servants. The former group were the so-called protected Jews (German: Schutzjuden), enjoying all rights and privileges of town citizens. The appropriate document usually had to be bought, hardly anyone received it for free. Non-protected Jews did not have any rights and could be expelled from the town at any moment. For example, all Jews without the letters of safe conduct were banished from Frankfurt on 5 April 1682.
In 1786, there were 22 Jewish homesteads in Frankfurt, inhabited by a total of 623 people. Jews constituted 6% of the town’s population. In comparison to other towns of Brandenburg, it was quite a high percentage, especially since apart from the registered individuals, the Jewish population also comprised many petty tradesmen and destitute people illegally residing in the town.
In the early 19th century, the Prussian state introduced changes to the laws concerning Jews. The year 1801 saw the abolishment of the provision on collective responsibility of Jewish communities, introduced in the decree of 6 June 1674. From that moment on, the entire community was not accountable for the transgressions of individual Jews. In 1802, the medieval De non tolerandis Judaeis privileges lost their binding character. Guild privileges, very disadvantageous to Jewish craftsmen, were also abolished. Jews were no longer obliged to settle in separate districts. The legal changes saw their culmination in the Emancipation Act of 11 March 1812 – the “Edict on Citizen Rights for Jews.”
As of 1810, a total of 234 Jewish men held citizen rights in Frankfurt and were actively engaged in the life of the town. The new world of opportunities became so attractive to local Jews that they soon started to neglect communal obligations, e.g. many people ceased to pay the community tax. This was a serious issue as growing numbers of poor Jews from the Grand Duchy of Posen were migrating to the town, and more and more funds needed to be allocated to social institutions. In order to deal with the influx of “poor cousins from the East,” the community elders proposed to have every immigrant wishing to become a citizen buy a burial plot at the local cemetery. The newcomers were also required to declare that they would pay taxes to the community in the future[1.3].
The liberal Prussian state made it possible for Jews to enter its ranks and make careers in administration, which was unthinkable anywhere else. For example, the authorities of Hamburg openly barred Jews from participating in the life of the town, and the pogroms of 1819, 1830, 1835 spoke volumes of the attitude of its Christian population. This was also the case in other parts of the Reich. In Frankfurt, meanwhile, Jews were not only able to freely work in their professions, but were also rewarded for their diligence with honorary positions and formed part of the municipal administrative bodies. The newly founded Chamber of Commerce in Frankfurt, for example, had Jewish banker Moritz Mendel as its vice-president, while Jewish teacher Woyl established a vocational training association widely popular among the town’s population. The liberal stance towards Jews was promoted by the Frankfurt Patriotic Weekly, which devoted much space to the Frankfurt community. Its editor-in-chief was the local Lutheran parish priest, Christian Wilhelm Spieker (1780–1858).
The Jewish school was consecrated in 1819, and the new synagogue – in 1823. Another official consecration ceremony was held for a new hospital, officially opened in 1839. The politics of most Frankfurt Jews leaned towards liberalism, as it offered them the widest potential range of political concessions. In terms of religion, the Progressive movement enjoyed the greatest following, even though it did have some opponents in the town. When Samuel Holdenheim (1836–1840), later the founder of the Progressive community in Berlin, was appointed rabbi in Frankfurt, a conflict broke out among the Jewish population and eventually resulted in the formation of two separate communities – one Reformed, one Orthodox. The Progressive majority retained control over the synagogue at Wollenweberstraße. The prayer hall of the Orthodox Jews was located at Spormachergasse (after 1840).
Anti-Semitic sentiments started to gain ground even before World War I, but they only started to take on violent forms after 1918.
In 1932, the synagogue community of Frankfurt comprised ca. 800 Jews (1% of the town’s population); 195 people paid the community contribution. The seat of the community was located at 60 Wollenweberstraße. The members of the board were: Jacobi (lived at 1 Fürstenwalder Straße), Moritz Lotzhein (26/27 Helkestraße), Stern (7 Hohenzollernstraße). In the years 1928–1936, the rabbi was Dr. Ignatz Maybaum (1 Gnesener Straße), leader of German liberal Judaism. The community also employed a cantor by the name of Rosenbaum (57 Richtstraße). In 1931, the community budget amounted to 45,080 RM. Its properties included: the synagogue at 60 Wollenweberstraße, a prayer hall, cemetery, mikveh, and Jewish hospital with seven beds at 36 Rosenstraße. Among the Jews of Frankfurt there were seven physicians, two dentists, five pharmacists, eight lawyers, four factory owners, nine craftsmen, 77 merchants, eight clerks, and four bankers (these numbers also include converted Jews or Jews married to Christians). Since the 19th century, the Jewish population of the town comprised mostly affluent burgher families.
Just as in other towns in Germany, the first boycott of Jewish businesses was organised in Frankfurt on 1 April 1933. Units of the SA were placed in front of Jewish-owned stores, deterring “Aryans” from shopping there. If anyone decided to enter the store despite the boycott, they were photographed and had their photo published in Der Stürmer, accompanied by a snide caption. Soon, anti-Semitic posters were plastered all around the town and the local Jews began to experience more severe repressions. The first reaction of the Jewish community was to reunite the liberal and Orthodox factions. In 1934, the Orthodox prayer hall was closed down. Many Jews would dissolve their businesses and migrate. Most of those who remained in the town were poor people and residents of the Jewish old age home.
The situation of the Jewish population temporarily improved during the 1936 Olympics. One of the Olympic stadiums was erected in Frankfurt (in the area of today’s Słubice, on the Polish side of the Oder). In the presence of athletes and foreign guests, anti-Semitic propaganda was dialled down. It picked up with full force after the Olympics and eventually culminated in the Kristallnacht. Curtis Cassel, the last rabbi of Frankfurt, thus recalled that night: “The events of 9 November are strongly imprinted in my memory. Besides, it is my birthday. My in-laws from Berlin were visiting. I accompanied them to the train station in the evening. I came back home and we went to sleep, but we were soon awakened by a burning smell and the sound of shattering glass. The synagogue was on fire, and people were breaking windows and glass displays around the town. We got up and called lawyer Nehab, a friend of the family who also lived at Wollenweberstraße. We feared that our house, directly adjacent to the synagogue, would too become a target. The synagogue had two entrances. The rear one was located at Wollenweberstraße, and the main one – at the parallel street, Richtstraße. We did not know it, but the Gestapo was guarding the main entrance. Fortunately, we left through the rear and thus avoided arrest. It was around 11 PM. At two o’clock, somebody knocked on our friend’s door. The Gestapo came in and arrested him. My wife and I hid under the desk. We had to leave Frankfurt as soon as possible.
The synagogue did not suffer any major damages in the fire. The blaze partially destroyed the interior, but no movable equipment was lost. The Torah scrolls, prayer books, standards, and other ritual objects had been earlier carried out and hidden at the cemetery.
In May 1939, there were still 184 Jews and 122 people of partially Jewish descent in Frankfurt. In November 1941, Jewish people were banned from leaving the town. Mass deportations soon followed. In August 1942, for example, 42 Jews were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. In October 1942, only 25 Jews remained in Frankfurt, all probably married to “Aryans.” It is believed that six Jews survived in the town until 1945.
According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust, a new Jewish community was formed in Frankfurt after the war; it had ca. 200 members in 1958. However, no equivalent information can be found in other sources, nor has this been confirmed in the author’s conversations with residents of Frankfurt dealing with the Jewish history of the town.
In the 1990s, only one or two Jewish people lived in Frankfurt. The community was only reborn after the arrival of Jews from the territory of the former Soviet Union, who established official community structures in 1998. Today, the community is ca. 250 people strong; it celebrated the tenth anniversary of its foundation in 2008. However, no German (Frankfurt) Jews can be found among its members.
- Brilling B., Gründung und Privilegien der hebräischen Buchdruckerei in Frankfurt an der Oder, Breslau 1936.
- Diekmann I., Jüdisches Brandenburg. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Berlin 2008.
- “Frankfurt an der Oder,” [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust, eds. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, vol. I, p. 400.
- Führer durch die jüdische Gemeindeverwaltung und Wohlfahrtspflege in Deutschland: 1932–1933, Berlin 1933, p. 64.
- Heilborn H., “Erlebnisse aus der NS-Zeit in Frankfurt/Oder,” Frankfurter Jahrbuch 1999.
- Heise W., “Die Juden in der Mark Brandenburg bis zum Jahre 1571,” Historische Studien 1932, fasc. 220.
- Herzig A., “Die Emanzipationspolitik Hamburgs und Preußens im Vergleich,” [in] Die Hamburger Juden in der Emanzipationsphase (1780–1870), Hamburg 1989, pp. 261–278.
- Meier B., “Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Gemeinde in Frankfurt (Oder),” Frankfurter Jahrbuch 1999.