History of the Jewish community
in Alsace and Lorraine
Pascal CURIN


Nowadays the most rural communities are extinct because either their members moved to the closest cities or the old generation couldn't be replaced. Cemeteries sank into oblivion, places of worship were abandoned or desecrated despite the recent past of World War II, and synagogues became storehouses or declined rapidly amidst more or less total indifference.

The familial and cultural heritage irrevocably disappeared in the provinces. Fortunately since 10-20 years non-profit organizations and regional cultural plans have been saving what still could be saved. In the last years politicians and culturally committed people became more and more aware that the Jewish heritage is undoubtedly an integral part of the general Alsatian history and partly of Lorraine. It is well known that the Alsatian Jewish community, mostly rural, was the biggest of whole France at the Revolution in 1789 and already differed from the Sephardim living in cities of southern France.

The Region of Alsace began for few years ago an annual project in order to rediscover the Jewish presence in this region thanks to a big cultural plan including guided visits, concerts, exhibitions, one-day bus tours of Jewish sites, Jewish meals in restaurants etc… The first aim of this project based on consensus is to create renewed interest in the Jewish specificity of Alsace, in fact to clear up misunderstandings and to dispel entrenched irrational fears.

All in all we get now more possibilities to get to know something about the Alsatian Jewish history and we will try to trace it now by relying on works and known authors in this field whom we will refer to in the bibliography below.

In a first place we will rapidly trace the history of the Jews of Alsace and Lorraine, which is often common to all Ashkenazim from Eastern France, Southern and Western Germany. In a second place we will look into specific aspects of the Alsatian and Lorraine Jewry. In a third place we will describe the Alsatian Yiddish.

Reference points for Jewish history in Alsace and Lorraine in a telegraphic style

Century 5th
First Jewish communities in the Gallo-Roman cities of the extended Rhineland such as Cologne, Trier, Spire, Worms, Mainz and Metz, last one in the future Lorraine. There wasn't any particular Jewish community in Alsace yet.
Common history with all Jewish communities inside of the Roman Empire: Jewish laws from 417 under Christian emperors, continued by councils of the State Church.
Although formation of a specific, rather urban Jewish community of the Rhineland and intensive exchanges between the main centers.

Century 9th
The Jewish settlements of the Rhineland increased and became stable. Some cities became famous for their yeshivas and the whole area developed to the Minhag Rheinouss. One of the oldest French synagogues is in Metz, Lorraine, a town that also regularly exchanged rabbis and students with Frankfurt and Worms.
No specific Jewish history in Alsace for this period. All Jews of the Frank Kingdom are foreigners under royal protection (Königsmunt). At that time Jews got their persistent image as usurers when the Church forbade loans with interests or pawn broking.

Century 11th
First stable communities in Alsace (apart from travelers and hawkers who already passed through the region in the last centuries). These communities remained spared by the massacres in 1096 (1st crusade) in the Rhineland and were under special protection of local lords such as bishops, abbots, city magistrates or the emperor himself.

In a way there is here nothing specific for the history of the Alsatian Jews; they experienced the same advantages and especially the same inconveniences of a life in the Holy Roman Empire as all Jews scattered all over the territory. Thus the increase in the number of the seigneuries caused a big inequality between Jewries depending on whether the local lord was more or less benevolent to them or not! It must be admitted that the presence of Jews depended on the financial situation of the seigneurie; Jews were often there where they were needed.

It's the beginning of a period where the Jews came and went, were driven out and called back again. Nevertheless some Alsatian seigneuries differed from the majority because they protected "their" Jews over a longer period than it used to be at that time.
Votive stone evoking a donation to the synagogue - Strasbourg 12th c.

Centuries 12th – Century 13th
Period of persecution and emigration.
In 1215 the 4th Lateran council decreed that Jews weren't allowed to work in official social and occupational groups such as guilds and had to wear specific recognizable clothes. This is common to the whole Jewish people in old Europe.
In Alsace like in the whole Holy Roman Empire Jews belonged to the "befriedete" among clerics, women and storekeepers because they weren't allowed to carry a weapon; they weren't free and had to be protected. In 1236 under Friedrich II the Jews got the status of "chamber servants" (servi camerae nostrae) which was developed and codified by the Roman law as the servitude of the Jews : "servitus camerae" meant a personal and economical dependence on the emperor or his representatives. The Jewish community of Metz probably disappeared entirely in the 13th century.

Centuries 14th – 15th
In 1306 and 1394 Official expulsion of the Jews from France.
They first emigrated to the neighbor countries that are now French, but at that time still belonged to the Holy Roman Empire: Lorraine, Alsace, Provence, Dauphine, Avignon. The difference became clear between the so-called "Portuguese Jews" in the South and the "German Jews" in the North (not only Alsace and Lorraine) though numerous German Jews didn't speak any German dialect. The geographical location was relevant.

"Jews poisining a well"
There has never been a general expulsion order in the Holy Roman Empire as in England, France, Spain and Portugal. But it doesn't mean that the Jews have never had to leave their country. Destitution, cyclic oppression and despair drove them to migrate, generally to Eastern Europe. It began with crusades and continued during the next centuries. Every seigneurie or city could decide to expel the new families without any opposition. The local lord who was supposed to protect them didn't prevent the people that were rising up against them from slaughtering or burning alive whole communities in one day. The year 1349 has probably claimed the most casualties and the consequence was the disappearance of the Jews in almost the whole Alsace, particularly in the cities such as Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Selestat. A few Jews came back and tried to settle down despite a climate of violence or insecurity; there were expelled, robbed or pillaged for fallacious reasons when misfortune concerned the Christian people in the majority. The surviving families left Alsace.

In Metz the main urban Jewry disappeared already in the 13th century, a few households could be noticed but those who came back or settled down weren't assured that they could definitively stay. Though there was any official permission from the city authority, some Jews were tolerated. In the 14th century numerous Jews came from Eastern Europe to Metz and created there a ghetto near the port. The cohabitation between local Jews and East-European Jews was a little difficult because of different way of life and way of thinking.

In the dukedom Lorraine Jews experienced the same arbitrariness of the politics and their fate obviously depended on whether they were useful or not. They were alternatively driven out and called back, definitively expelled by duke René II in 1477 because they were accused to support the enemy (Burgundy). The next official permission for Jews to settle down in Lorraine happened only at the beginning of the 18th century.

So wherever we are looking, there was always a gap in the Jewish presence:

  • In Metz from the 13th to the 16th
  • In Lorraine from the 15th to the 18th
  • In Alsace from the 14th to the 16th.
    That doesn't mean that there weren't any Jews in these regions at all. But the main Jewish communities lived at that time in cities. They were there more visible and in a way more vulnerable! Few isolated Jews were scattered all over the region in the provinces, but it is obvious that there were numerically very few of the whole Jewish population in Alsace.

    Century 16th
    In Alsace the urban communities of the big cities, we already mentioned, disappeared without a trace and the architectural heritage as well. Only a part of the synagogue of Bergheim, former center of the Alsatian rabbinate, still remains today to recall the Jewish past before the 17th century in this region.

    In Metz however the situation changed abruptly when the city became French or under French protectorate in 1552. Ten years later the Jews were officially allowed to settle down in Metz again. It might be for many people very contradictory regarding to the French attitude towards Jews in the main kingdom. But in fact France needed Jews to finance the numerous regiments that were garrisoned at Metz, known as the most fortified garrison town of France on foreign soil and close to the Holy Roman Empire as its main enemy. The end justified the means!
    Moreover it was in the 16th century that the word "ghetto" for Venetian "foundry" gave its name to all urban Jewish neighborhoods in Europe, which were bordered and sealed off from the Christian parts. Metz and Strasbourg adopted this ghetto system and referred to pope Paul IV's ruling in 1555 ordering many discriminatory rules against Jews. Only 24 Jewish households were allowed to live in Metz at that time.

    About 160 families lived in villages in the 16th century in Alsace.
    In a way Jews in Lorraine and Alsace were always in transit or on the alert.
    It is important to stress the fact that the Alsatian Jewry progressively changed from an urban community to a rural one for a very long period, that means from the 14th to the 19th century. Those who were driven out from the cities or left them by themselves found refuge in the provinces where the local population took less notice of them than in the ghetto. There were 2-3 families in each village.
    On the contrary Metz has remained a center and a reference point for Jewish life in Northern Lorraine such as Nancy and Lunéville for southern Lorraine.

    However a lot of Alsatian Jews definitively migrated to Germany, then Middle and Eastern Europe. In a way it is here a typical aspect of the Jewish history in Alsace, probably because it was a border region. There was a continual coming and going between West and East, right side and left side of the Rhine; everybody seemed to try his luck there where other people experienced injustice or misfortune. Adversity might be relative! Eastern European Jews came to Alsace and Metz and Alsatian Jews tried their luck in Poland or Lithuania.

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