Early Jewish settlement in Berlin – A somewhat depressing chronicle

The early Jewish history of Berlin is not much different from that of other European cities. It’s a constant story of short lived tolerance followed by persecution, exploitation and subsequent expulsion.

We assume (due to lack of clear evidence) that Jews were settling in the area of Berlin back in the 11th century. At this time Berlin was still a Slavic fisherman village on the spree river. The first mention of Jewish presence in the region dates back to 1237. It was seven years later (1244) that the name Berlin was first mentioned on any official documents. The oldest Jewish grave stone from the nearby city of Spandau was also dated to 1244.

In 1295 we see the first documented mentioning of Jews in Berlin. This document was issued by the local weavers’ guild and it stated that non Jewish weavers are not allowed to buy wool from Jews, perhaps an early sign of the grim future to come.

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A Jewish cemetery in Berlin

There is some evidence to show that quite a few Jews were living within the city walls of Berlin in the 14th century. They mostly lived in an area that could have been blocked off from the rest of the city. This was done in order to protect the Jews of Berlin from the non Jewish locals. At the gate of the Jewish area were paid sentries.

The first chapter of Jewish settlement in Berlin ended in the year 1349 when the black plague reached the city. The Jews were blamed of poisoning the wells, in spite of the fact that many Jews were also getting sick and dying. The Jews were forced to leave the city. In the year 1350 the local synagogue and other Jewish property were sold off by the city of Berlin. Six years later the elector prince allowed six Jews to return to the city.

The Jews of Berlin were expelled a second time in 1510 after being accused of “desecration of the host” a sacrilegious act in which someone (mostly Jews) damages/steals the “body of Christ”. 51 Jews were sentenced to death and the rest had to leave the city.  The rulers of the city quickly invited the Jews to return to the city in order to encourage the local economy.

In 1571 the Jews were again expelled after bitter rioting in the city and this time banned “for all time“. It took about a century until Jews returned to the city.

The year 1671 marks the beginning of the modern Jewish community of Berlin. This time fifty rich Jewish families from Vienna were invited to settle in the city that was struggling financially after the 30 years war. These families were being expelled from Vienna after being accused of causing the Austrian queens miscarriage.

It will be a long time until the Jews of Berlin will receive equal rights, many of the Jews of Berlin chose to convert to Christianity in order to avoid persecution, but slowly and surely the Jewish community of Berlin started building its institutions and even reached a status of wealth and influence in the 19th century.

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The New Synagogue 1866

The next expulsion of Berlins Jews took place 270 years later starting in 1941 as a part of the “final solution” to the Jewish “question” in Europe.

The topic of early Jewish settelment in Berlin is also addresed as a part of the Jewish tour of Berlin.

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