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Yad Vashem The Story of the Jewish Community in Würzburg

The Story of the Jewish Community in Würzburg

Würzburg, the Jewish Lane, (Judengasse). Prewar. Würzburg, the Jewish Lane, (Judengasse). Prewar.
Würzburg, interior of the Great Synagogue at Kettengasse 26, before its renovation. Prewar. Würzburg, interior of the Great Synagogue at Kettengasse 26, before its renovation. Prewar.
Baron Jakob HirschBaron Jakob Hirsch
Würzburg – drawing of the Mai family’s house, Prewar. Würzburg – drawing of the Mai family’s house, Prewar.
Würzburg, the building of the Jewish Teachers Seminary, Prewar. Würzburg, the building of the Jewish Teachers Seminary, Prewar.
Rosa Nussbaum and Nathan Fulder married in Wurzburg in August 1903. Rosa Nussbaum and Nathan Fulder married in Wurzburg in August 1903.
Adolf Sachs, Würzburg. Adolf was killed in action in 1916, while serving in the German Imperial Army on the Western Front. The location of his grave is unknown. Adolf Sachs, Würzburg.
Adolf was killed in action in 1916, while serving in the German Imperial Army on the Western Front. The location of his grave is unknown.

Many Jews took part in the Communist rebellion that brought about the short-lived establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April 1919. Many Jews took part in the Communist rebellion that brought about the short-lived establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April 1919.

The first Jews arrived in Würzburg at the end of the 11th century, apparently after having fled from the Rhine communities, which had been severely damaged by the persecutions of the Jews in the First Crusade in 1096. During the 12th century Würzburg housed an important and prosperous Jewish community, but it suffered the same fate as other South German Jewish communities during the persecutions of the Second Crusade: in 1147 crusaders murdered some 20 Jews, among them the community’s three rabbis. The bishop of Würzburg tried in vain to protect the Jews of the city, and following the events he laid aside a portion of his private land for the burial of the victims. One of the Jewish residents purchased the land, and this became the site of the Jewish graveyard in Würzburg, which was also used by other Jewish communities in the area. During the Third Crusade, at the end of the 12th century, the Jews of Würzburg escaped to the citadel of the city and were saved.

Jews purchased houses and land in Würzburg, as well as vineyard in the surrounding areas. Most of the Jews of the city made their living from finance; lending money with interest and currency exchange. The Jewish Quarter was located near the city market, and many Jews were involved in the financial life of the city, particularly in land purchase and wine production. The first mention of a synagogue in Würzburg is in 1170. Scholarly Ashkenazi Jews from across Europe flocked to the city’s Talmudic colleagues (Yeshivot) and Batei Midrash (singular, Beit Midrash, literally a "house of learning"; a place where religious Jews study the Talmud and rabbinical sources). Among the prominent religious authorities present in Würzburg at the time were Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan of Mainz (known as the Ra'aven), a liturgical poet and one of the earliest Ashkenazi Tosafists, and his grandson, Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Yoel HaLevi (the Ra'avyah), one of the greatest rabbinical authorities in Germany.

During the pogroms of 1298 some 900 Jews were murdered in Würzburg, after having been accused of desecrating the sacramental bread. Though the Jewish community survived the pogroms, even flourishing once more, it lost its status as a spiritual center. When the city was hit by the bubonic plague, known as the "Black Death", in the mid-14th century, the Jews were accused of poisoning the city’s wells. According to Michael de Leone's Annotata Historica, when the pogroms swept the streets, the Jews of Würzburg locked themselves in their houses and set them alight, committing suicide; this is the only known record of the event.

After a hiatus of some thirty years the community was reestablished. At the beginning of the 15th century the Jews of Würzburg were again allowed to work in trade and finance. This privilege drew Jews from across Germany, among them a Jewish woman doctor, referred to in the sources as a “Juden Ärztin”, by the name of Sara. But, when the local authorities wanted to do away with their monetary debts to the Jews of Würzburg, they ordered their incarceration, confiscated the loan records held by Jewish creditors, and published a proclamation calling for the total banishment of Jews from the city. In order to rescind the banishment proclamation, Jews who wanted to stay in Würzburg were forced to pay a heavy fine, and many of them left the city. In the mid-15th century a new charter was given to the community, guaranteeing its financial and legal rights, and Würzburg again became an important Jewish center. During this period the rabbinical leader of the city was Rabbi Moshe ben Yitzhak HaLevi of Mainz (The Maharam), one of the most important rabbis of his generation in Germany, and a renowned adjudicator of Jewish law.

Decrees targeting the Jewish community were again passed from the end of the 15th century. In the middle of the 16th century, Emperor Ferdinand I ordered the expulsion of the Jews. Members of the Jewish community in Würzburg dissolved their business, sold their houses, and left the city. They were forbidden to live in the Würzburg, which they were only allowed to enter during daylight hours, for commercial purposes. They were made to wear a circular yellow badge on their clothes and to pay a "body tax".

It was only at the beginning of the 19th century, after Würzburg had been annexed to Bavaria, that Jewish life in the city was renewed. Moshe Hirsch, a military supplier, was given a permit to take up residence inside the city. The Bavarian state rabbi, Avraham Bing, transferred his rabbinate from Heidingsfeld to Würzburg. Jacob Hirsch, a descendant of Baron Hirsch, was appointed court banker to Duke Ferdinand, and granted the title of baron. His son, Yoel Hirsch, established a bank in Würzburg, and was a driving force in the city’s commercial and industrial development. However at his time Bavarian policy towards Jews – as codified in the act of 1813 which remained in force until the early 1860s – was the worst of all the German states and forced many Jews to leave Bevaria. In 1819 non-Jewish students intiated antismitic disturbances characterized by the slogan "Hep! Hep! Jude verrecke!" (Hep, Hep, Jew drop dead!). The students were joined by many of the residents of Würzburg. They destroyed Jewish shops and commercial goods, murdered a number of the Jewish residents of the city, and exiled many others. It was only through military force that the municipal authorities managed to restrain the violence, yet despite this the pogroms spread from Würzburg to other places in Germany as well.

Würzburg became a center for Torah studies. Rabbi Bing’s Yeshiva drew students from across Germany and beyond. In 1836 the convention of rabbinical and Jewish leaders of Lower Franconia was held in the city, in order to discuss amendments to Jewish prayers and religious services. The suggested reforms were turned down following a bitter dispute. In 1839 the authorities disbanded the state rabbinate of Würzburg, dividing it into six district rabbinates, one of which was located in the city of Würzburg. By the mid-19th century Würzburg housed a new synagogue and a women’s burial society (Khevra kadishah), the community’s charity foundation included a treasury to aid sick and destitute Jewish wayfarers. The head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Isaac Dov HaLevi Bamberger, known as the Würzburg Rabbi (Der Würzburger Raw). He founded a Jewish primary school, and together with other rabbis established a seminary for Jewish teachers (Israelitische Lehrebildungsanstalt). The seminary trained 164 teachers, who worked throughout Germany. Toward the end of the 19th century further Jewish institutions were established: a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish hospital, and a Jewish hospice. After Rabbi Bamberger’s death his son, Rabbi Nathan Bamberger, became the rabbi of Würzburg. He headed the Yeshiva and the seminary, and he further developed Jewish charitable and nursing institutions.

In the last third of the 19th century the number of Jews in Würzburg grew by a factor of 2.5, reaching 2,567 Jews, who amounted to a total three percent of the city’s population. In 1908 a daycare institution for destitute Jewish children was opened in the city, and in 1917 a foundation for crippled Jewish war veterans was established, together with another charitable foundation which collected alms for the poor and provided nursing care.