Regensburg Before the Holocaust
The Early Years of the Regensburg Jewish Community
A Jewish community was established in the city of Regensburg at the beginning of the 11th century, the first documented Jewish community in all of Germany. Regensburg served as an important center of Jewish learning. Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid ben Shmuel, a key figure in Ashkenazi hassidic history, lived there, as did poets whose liturgical poetry and lamentations on the murderous period of the Crusades formed part of the Ashkenazi prayer book liturgy for many generations. Parallel with the community’s economic development, there were periods when the community suffered on religious grounds. During the first Crusade, many Jews in Regensburg were forcibly baptized in the Danube, the remainder murdered by the Crusaders.
In the 12th century, the city’s Jews were granted the right to trade, as well as internal judicial privileges. Their customers included the aristocracy, the city councilmen and priests in and around the city. The community established a cemetery and maintained a hospital and a synagogue. The Jewish Council represented the community vis-à-vis the authorities, and paid protection money to the King, the Cardinal, the Bavarian dukes and the city council, thereby ensuring the Jews’ survival during the many murderous rampages that took place during that period.
From the mid-13th century, the Jews’ situation deteriorated as a result of religious persecution. Limitations were imposed on Jewish traders and artisans, and they were forced to make a living pawning and giving loans with interest. In the 15th century, the Jews were made to wear a badge of shame on their clothes, their movements were restricted, they were not allowed to obtain monetary guarantees from Christians and no additional Jews were allowed to settle in the city.
In the 15th century, monks attempted to convert the Jews to Christianity, while others demanded their expulsion. The Jewish law court was closed down, and at the end of the century, the Jews were incarcerated in the Jewish quarter until they paid a tax. Following a blood libel, community leaders and distinguished members were imprisoned and tortured until they gave false confessions. The local authorities and the Christian traders and artisans restricted the Jews’ economic activity and movement, and even tried to have them expelled from Regensburg, but Kaiser Maximilian I prevented this. With the Kaiser’s death in 1519, 500 Jews and 80 yeshiva students were expelled from the city. Jews who tried to enter the city after the expulsion were imprisoned. The Synagogue was destroyed, and a church erected in its stead. Tombstones from the Jewish cemetery were used by the Christians to build houses, pave roads and decorate religious institutions. The community center building was preserved until 1857.
In the second half of the 17th century, Jews were permitted to return to Regensburg and settle there, but they were forbidden from being traders or artisans. Furthermore, they could not offer board to foreign Jews, leave their houses on Christian holidays or build a synagogue. They were forced to wear the yellow badge of shame, the Judenzeichen, and a law passed at the beginning of the 18th century stipulated that the Jews had to conduct themselves quietly and modestly so as not to anger the Christians.