Thursday, December 11, 2014

Expose on Life For Ashkenazi Jews in Europe: Living in Ghettos, Surviving Holocaust of Middle Ages

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                      
German Jews of Middle Ages

Germany: 1348-1349.  The greatest disaster which occurred to German Jewry in the Middle Ages happened.  

The Black Death was an epidemic of massive proportions.  People were dropping dead from it like flies.  A great part of the population of Europe were already dead from it. Today we know it as  coming from the Yersinia pestis bacterium, probably causing several forms of plague  Anywhere from 75 million to 200 million people died from it between 1346 and 1353.  "The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of central Asia, where it then travelled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1343. From there, it was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe's total population."  However,  Jewish communities were far less affected.

 The reason for that was that they were living under enforced segregation.  They had dietary laws, the Laws of Kashrut (kosher).  Their hygienic practices kept them living a much cleaner life. For seasonal holidays, homes were scrubbed and in immaculate condition, as well as the every week before Shabbat cleaning.   This could have been the most important reason.  They wouldn't have allowed any rats in their homes.  They washed their hands before every meal, bathed before using the mikvah (pool of fresh running water) which for men could have been every week; for women at least once a month.  So inside and outside of their bodies, they were living cleaner, more sanitary lives.  Once cannot forget that they were isolated from the masses quite well, living apart, so were not in touch, literally, with the German people to be able to catch the Black Death.

Those German Christians that were survivors relied on superstition to get by in their day and age.  They listened to charges that started in Savoiy that Jews had caused the disease by poisoning the wells.
Black Death Patients and Doctor
Pope Clement VI got wind of it (another person living a more isolated life), and he issued a paper or bull condemning the libel and ordering the Jews to be protected.

The masses didn't listen, of course, and all the Jewish communities from Alsace eastward were attacked and Jews were killed. People came into their homes, slaughtered them and took all their possessions.  

Emperor Charles IV condoned the attacks and for this expected a share in the booty.  Politics also came into the picture.  The Jews were supporters of guilds for the lower nobility and the lower patrician classes.  The masses hated them, therefore hating the Jews for their support of those they hated.    Then there were those people who owed money to the Jews.  They welcomed the opportunity to kill their creditors.
In Germany alone, 350 Jewish places were attacked.  60 large and 150 small communities were totally exterminated.   Later, many towns banished Jews for all time, though some soon changed their minds.

Attacks happened in other parts of Europe as well.  Attacks happened on a smaller scale in Poland, Catalonia and northern Italy.  It was in Venice in 1517  that the first ghettos were created to hold in Jews.  However, before that in 1179 during the Lateran council and again in 1215, the laws forbade Jews and Christians to live together in close contact.   " In total, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century."

 From the 15th century, the friars in Italy began to press for the effective segregation of the Jews, and in 1555, Pope Paul IV ordered that Jews in the Papal States should be forced to live in separate quarters.  In Spain, the Jews lived at least from the 13th century in GHETTOS,  juderias,  provided with walls and gates for their protection.

Rome immediately put the ruling into effect and it was carried out all throughout Italy that Jews had to live in ghettos and lasted till the next generation.  In Germany and Prague and some Polish cities they called their  ghettos as Judengasse, etc.

A ghetto became a town within a town.  They had a certain amount of their own autonomy and kept up a vigorous spiritual and intellectual life.  The downside of living there was that it was insalubrious, overcrowded terribly since they weren't allowed to expand, and subject to frequent fires.  The worst part of it all was that they were subject to forced baptism, the wearing of the Jewish Badge, conversionist sermons, occupational restrictions, etc.

It wasn't until the French Revolutionary Period that ghettos were abolished in Italy, and then it was reintroduced locally in the 19th century and finally came to an end when Rome united with the kingdom of Italy in 1870.

In other countries, the record was similar.  From the 16th century onward, the ghetto system wasn't introduced in the new settlements in western Europe.

World War I happened in 1917.  In Poland, separate benches were instituted on the demand of extremist representatives  of student bodies in Polish universities called GHETTO BENCHES, where Jewish students were to sit.  This custom was enforced between  the 2 World Wars.    Jewish students refused to accept segregation and there were riots over it.  Similar demands happened in Romania and Hungary.

Then we see the Nazis setting up ghettos in eastern Europe between 1939 to 1942 but these were part of their plan to exterminate all Jews by isolating and breaking their spirit just before the extermination process.   Jews from Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere were transferred mainly to the WARSAW and LUBLIN areas.  Ghettos were created there and at other places such as Ludz, Minsk, Vilna, Cracow, Bialystok, Lvov, Riga and  Sosnowiec.

These ghettos were way overcrowded, enclosed and one could not leave without permission rarely given.  For those who tried to escape, they were punished by death.  The Gestapo and SS controlled them.  People were starved to death.  Despite all this, the Jews tried to maintain normal activity of their own culture, schooling and mutual aid for each other.   The Gestapo started removing groups of people for death in 1941.  They revolted in 1943 when most of the people were slaughtered, and any remaining alive were killed off in 1944.  It was a total holocaust.  

There were 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust of WWII.  They were the surviving descendants  of all the earlier pogroms and mini holocausts  against Jews.

Our experience of living in Europe, the Diaspora, may have been important in the fulfillment of our destiny, but it sure had its painful times.  People have not changed much in their attitude towards Jews.  The need to have their own country has been most real.  Israel was prophesied to be re-created and it has been. Now Israelis have to deal with the Moslems and their hatred of Jews being back home.  There are still Jews living in Europe and still are being attacked, giving them pause and reason to make aliyah to Israel.  Those suffering the most are in France.

The original Moslem law had no provision restricting non-Moslem areas of residence.  The break-down came in the 18th century when Jews were required to move from the area around mosques and were restricted in the size of their houses.  Then the neighborhoods or cities suffered from economic decline and these Jewish quarters became slums.

In Persia, shi'ite fanaticism from the outset enforced distinct Jewish quarters, closed at night and on Sabbaths.  These were extended also to Yemen and Morocco where the ghettos were called Qa'at al -Yahud (or Masbattah) and Mellah.   In Syria, Jews lived on Yehuda Street and were kept there. It was a ghetto.   They could not leave, could not have phones, and were restricted in every area.  It wasn't until just recently that the Jews of Syria were rescued and taken out by making a deal with Abbas that they were not to live in Israel.

Resource:  The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Book:  Messages From a Syrian Jew Trapped in Egypt by Nadene Goldfoot


  1. another good one nadene. some things i knew-some things i didn't. thanks.

  2. Thanks, Andre. I learn more myself everytime I sit down and write something. I always have to do some research myself first. Jews today can count 4 females they all come from say the geneticists. We don't know much more than that. Evidently we all trace back to 4 different ones. So we're actually all related to at least as 30th cousins. Amazing!