The earliest reference to a Jewish community in the Rhineland seems to originate in Cologne in the year 321 AD. Cologne was then the capital of the most northern Roman province and some say Jews had already come there with the Romans during the first century AD. Until around 321, the Jews had been excluded from public office but then the Roman administration went into a crisis. Appointment to a town office was an expensive “privilege” for the Roman upper class, and more and more people were unable to afford it. In order to acquire new members for the Curia Emperor Constantine enacted a decree allowing town councils to appoint Jewish citizens. To reduce this new burden for the Jews he let that always two or three men of the community were not to be taken to any office. Some scientists doubt that the decree of Constantine refers particularly to the city of Cologne. As it is the only source mentioning Jewish people before the eleventh century, this early Jewish settlement at Cologne is still not considered to be proven.
By the end of the fifth century, under the Franconian Emperor, the region converted to Christianity. The Rhine was an important north-south trade route. In Cologne the Rhine was crossed by another trade route, between eastern and western Europe. The settlement of Jewish merchant families from Italy and southern France can be tracked and proven along the Rhine during the Carolingian era. These Jews were in touch with Jewish communities in the Orient, and they became important traders of exotic goods, which is what brought some of them into contact with various potentates. Archbishops, kings and emperors granted them protection and profited from their booming businesses. The Jewish quarter of Cologne grew to more than 600 inhabitants during the eleventh century. Other important centers of Jewish culture were established in Mainz, Speyer and Worms.
The times of the crusades marked a severe turn in the prospering development of Jewish life in Europe. In 1096 pogroms started in Mainz and Cologne and spread all over the Holy Roman Empire. During the following centuries bishops and emperors tried to protect “their” Jews so as not to lose a profitable source of income, but the anti-semitic furor and envy amongst the citizens grew stronger. When the Black Death raged throughout Europe, Jews were accused of poisoning wells. Some authorities who were in debt to Jewish creditors saw a chance to exploit the riots and get rid of their debts. The worst pogrom in Cologne, as well as in other European cities, took place in 1349 during the Night of Bartholomew. The whole Jewish quarter was assaulted and ravaged, with only a few inhabtitants surviving. In 1424 the Cologne Council finally decided to ban Jews from settling there forever.
In several bigger cities Jews had been expelled from urban life. Some of them settled in the smaller villages of the rural surroundings then, some decided to emigrate to the East. Communities were torn apart and family ties were probably the most important force for maintaining cultural cohesion. The sixteenth century was an economic low point for the German Jews. Most of them had to apply for a writ of protection at their local rulers every few years and pay for it, even though their small peddling businesses were not very profitable. To get permission to marry they had to prove their ability to support a family. There were also quotas in almost every town, anxiously guarded by the established Jews to keep away unwanted competition. Some of the young men settled down illegally, always in fear of being chased away. Only in a few free cities like Neuwied were Jews for a period of time allowed to establish their trades without any special approval. The Count of Wied boosted the town’s economy through this liberal policy. But the majority of the Jews in the Rhineland were spread over the country in small communities, not even having enough members to run their own synagogues.
Jews were not admitted to many professions besides peddling. Those who were shochets (ritual slaughterers) usually worked as cattle dealers and butchers for their Christian neighbours, too. Craft guilds didn’t accept non-Christian members, and Jews were not allowed to attend universities, join the military or become civil servants. A few families were able to establish themselves as well-known and influential financiers, but not in the countryside where the so called “Landjuden“ lived their poor lives.
Things changed after Napoleon occupied large parts of Germany. He brought with him the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity and the concept of a civic nation. In fact it took again several decades to implement Jewish emancipation. But the Jews took advantage of their opportunities to learn, to move and to take part in building a new German nation. They left their small villages and went back to the prospering cities or even left their country, as did many rural Christians, to start a new life abroad.
The city of Cologne was only opened to Jews for settlement in 1798 under French occupation. A new community started growing immediately. The first leader of the Cologne congregation was Salomon Oppenheimer, a financier who moved from Bonn. In 1885 Cologne counted 5,300 Jewish inhabitants (3.3% of the population). While at the beginning of the century mostly poor families had flooded into the city, now the social mixture improved since Jews were able to rise into the bourgeoisie. By 1861 the new congregation had the means to build their first synagogue in a street called Glockengasse. In 1899 another large synagogue was dedicated by a liberal (reformed) congregation on Roonstreet; the orthodox congregation on St. Apern Street was very popular amongst Jewish emigrants from the East. As in Frankfurt, Jewish citizens were an important part of the economic and cultural boom at the turn of the twentieth century, not only as bankers and entrepreneurs, but also as owners of small shops, tradesmen, doctors, lawyers, scientists and artists.
This flourishing progress was accompanied by inner Jewish controversies about the development of a suitable, modern and emancipated Judaism; at the same time new anti-semitic theories began to spread in some circles. These were not taken seriously until Hitler and his fanatic followers managed to make anti-Semitism state policy in Germany and destroyed a future full of expectations and fruitful togetherness that was about to blossom after centuries of insecurity.
Country Jews from Puderbach, Westerwald
The State archive of Rhineland-Palatinate keeps some records about the Jewish population of Dierdorf, Puderbach and Niederwambach, where the Tobias family had lived since at least the end of the eighteenth century. Besides some tax-, birth-, death- and wedding-registries there are notes concerning the self-administration of the congregations and several court files. Dr. Albert Hardt analyzed these sources for his article about “Jews in the surroundings of Puderbach” published in 1992.
Since the fourteenth century, Jews have lived in the County of Wied, but mainly in the town of Runkel at the river Lahn. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, more and more quarrels amongst the Jews from Puderbach became apparent. Therefore Count Maximilian Heinrich decided to install a Jewish sheriff (Schultheiß) to solve these disputes. He appointed Mordechai of Runkel and provided him with the right to decide inner Jewish matters, to sanction and fine and to keep a third of the fines for himself. The rest had to be delivered to the treasury. Mordechai complained about his orders not to be obeyed. Nevertheless he held this office until his death in 1733. After that, Moses of Schupbach acceded the assignment. He was responsible for law and order amongst the Jews and had to take care of the poor relief by funds of the congregation.
In 1737, a second sheriff was installed, but the Jews complained about them not being able to reason out religious matters and asked for a Rabbi to take care of religious orders. The Count of Wied agreed and appointed Rabbi Lieffmann of Koblenz. The Jews of Runkel had to pay him 25 Reichsthaler, the Dierdorf congregation had to give five Reichsthaler. In 1742, two leaders of the congregation were appointed at Dierdorf: Hirsch Loeb and Ruben. Like the sheriffs before them they sought to take care of law and order, decide disputes, and were able to sanction and fine. One third of the imposed fines were kept for the poor box. Only criminal and civil cases had to be indicated to the sovereign officers.
Around 1764 there was a quarrel about a new Rabbi for the congregation of Dierdorf. Count Christian Ludwig appointed Süßkind Hirsch Gundersheim, but the people preferred Rabbi Israel Lazarus, who had been in charge of Runkel since 1750. Hardt doesn’t mention how this dispute ended up.
In 1811 a tax census was ascertained in the Jewish community of Dierdorf, which officially belonged to the synagogue congregation of Heddesdorf, Neuwied then. It was stated that the families of Puderbach, Niederwambach, Urbach and Oberdreis used to send their children to the schoolmaster Elias Israel of Dierdorf. He was the prayer leader as well and able to contract marriages. After the reorganization of the Prussian civil administration in 1847, the government tried to install new synagogue congregations to administrate districts of reasonable sizes, but the community of Puderbach neither wanted to belong to Dierdorf anymore nor did they accept any other constitution of communities. So actually the community of Puderbach and the surrounding villages had no elected board for several years. They maintained two prayer rooms in private dwellings and kept on sending their children to the Jewish school in Dierdorf. The Puderbach Jews however had more and more difficulties in paying the teacher.
During the nineteenth century, several cases of expulsion of foreign Jewish servants were dealt with before the court. Between 1847 and 1898, Puderbach was in conflict with Dierdorf about installing their own cemetery and stop paying charges to Dierdorf. In 1908, the Puderbach Jews finally issued their own statute and three years later a small synagogue was consecrated solemnly. In 1924, the religious community counted 45 persons, which was 4.5% of the population. During the Pogrom in November 1938, the synagogue was destroyed. The last Jews who didn’t find a way out of Germany were deported in 1942.