top of page

The History of the Jews of Alsace: Myths and Realities

The geopolitical situation of Alsace during the first millennium.

The history of the Jews of Alsace is singular, different from that of the Jews of the near Rhineland or that of the Jews of Lorraine, itself very different between ducal Lorraine in the south, around Nancy, and that of the episcopal north, around the three bishoprics, Metz, Toul and Verdun.

The first Jews to have frequented the current Great East and the German regions of the Upper Rhine in the Middle Ages settled in  Metz then Verdun and also in Mainz in Germany in the 9th century. They were often merchants who traveled the route from Flanders and England to the Far East by land, via the great European plains, then the northern Black Sea. The European part of this road is known as Via Reggia.. 
Alsace, relatively isolated, a Roman garrison for a time, remained somewhat isolated from the world at least until Otto the Great's first expedition to Italy (951). The latter uses the Alpine passes to connect the Middle Rhine and Italy, which opens up the region. Towns are reborn and clearing is accelerating. Alsace was then ready to participate in the medieval heyday from the 11th to the 13th century. 



1140-1349:   Birth, peak, but also first persecutions

It is in this context that the bishops of Strasbourg bring around 1140 Jews from Speyer who will provide the nobility and the clergy with the most luxurious goods that go with their status. Contrary to what has often been said, there is not the slightest sign of Jewish presence in Alsace before this date, in particular there is no Jewish presence in Roman times. 
Without much competition, spared during the second crusade during which many Jews were massacred elsewhere in Germany (1147-1149), Jewish merchants prospered and made Strasbourg a city that counted in European Judaism since its contribution to the imperial treasury would be quickly the largest in all of Germany. The testimony of Benjamin of Tudela has often been invoked as proof of the richness of Alsatian Judaism. Benjamin of Tudela explored the Mediterranean and Eastern Jewish world as far as Ceylon around 1170 and left us an account of his journey. Aware of having “forgotten” the Jews of the North in his relationship, he ends his work by citing the German cities he has heard of. Strasbourg is one of them, like many others. His "visit" is therefore in fact an abusive interpretation of a text based on "we say"

In the 13th century, other city communities were created, before 1250 in Haguenau, Obernai, Rosheim and then between 1250 and 1300 in Bergheim, Colmar, Ensisheim, Guebwiller, Mulhouse, Rouffach, Soultz, Thann, Wissembourg and perhaps Marmoutier, Rhinau and Molsheim.
However, from 1266, the date on which the bourgeoisie defeated the army of the Bishop of Strasbourg at Hausbergen, the clouds gathered over the Jews of the towns of Alsace. Indeed, the Christian bourgeois resent the competition of these unbelievers who owe their salvation on earth only to the protection of a few nobles and the church. From 1270, in Wissembourg, Jews accused of ritual murder were executed. This is the beginning of a slow deterioration in the situation of the Jews.
Even if after 1306 many French Jews expelled by Philippe-Auguste found refuge there.

The tombstones of the first cemeteries of Colmar and Strasbourg, the medieval ritual bath of Strasbourg and the very beautiful synagogue of Rouffach, unfortunately not open to visitors, testify to the ease of these first Jews of Alsace.

1349- 1488: Horror, then survival  

In 1348, about 53 Jewish communities existed in Alsace, individually less prosperous than those of the 13th century. The worse is yet to come. In 1348/49, the “great plague” arrived in Alsace. Accused of having caused it by poisoning the wells, the Jews were exterminated in many European cities. My personal calculations seem to show that approximately 70% of Alsatian Jews die in two years, massacred or victims of the epidemic.

The survivors fled, then resettled in the cities. Strasbourg will drive them out definitively in 1391. Elsewhere, they survive, victim of vexations, most often very poor even if they are protected by the imperial power.

From 1488 to 1600: “Definitive” expulsions from Alsatian towns.

Fearing for their own safety after a passage of Swiss mercenaries breaking the ban and demanding Jews to be killed, the Alsatian towns insistently ask (and promise large payments) to the Emperor for the privilege!! to no longer have to accept Jews as inhabitants of their city (which at the same time eliminates competitors). The Emperor ended up giving in and it even seems that he participated in the organization of this exodus by preparing the reception in the countryside. Around 1515, almost all the Jews lived in the countryside where the Emperor and some lords still accepted them.  Impoverished, isolated in their villages, the Jews of Alsace seemed doomed as much as the Habsburgs expelled them in 1573 from their territories in southern Alsace. 100 or 200 families were still vegetating in Alsace at the end of the century.


From 1600 to 1648: A surprising reappearance:
A serious economic crisis struck Alsace from 1600. Jews returned to Alsace and participated in the settlement of this crisis, then from 1618, the 30-year war (atrocious war in central Europe between Catholics and Protestants) created a great legal, economic and demographic vacuum, and Jews return to Alsace in particular as suppliers of the armies. 

From 1648 to 1791:  : Accepted in the countryside, but still threatened.
The attachment to France, complete after 1681, created less unfavorable conditions than elsewhere for the Jews, relatively protected by the representatives of the kings of France of whom they were the objective allies. The number of Jews in Alsace is multiplied by 20 between 1600 and 1784, and by 7 between 1689 and 1784. If the situation of the Jews improves continuously, the access of many cities remains prohibited to them and their freedom is very limited. Living in small or medium-sized communities in the countryside, in daily contact with the rural world, the great merchants have become, with a few exceptions such as army suppliers, grain or cattle merchants, peddlers, small cohabiting praetors, or less well with a non-Jewish population with which they are interdependent. On the eve of the revolution, about 25,000 Alsatian Jews represent more than half of the Jews of France

From 1791 to 1918: Free

Against the wishes of the Alsatian population, the revolution gave full citizenship to the Jews on September 27, 1791; Local vexations and violence multiplied on the part of the many who did not accept that yesterday's inferiors had the same rights as them, violence which, moreover, had no effect on the revolutionary enthusiasm of the Jews.   However, Napoleon tried to calm things down by controlling the freedom of the Jews and organizing community life by creating consistories. However, the situation of the Jews in Alsace remained precarious until 1848, when the last anti-Jewish riots occurred. The XIXth century is the period of migrations: From the villages to the cities, from the provinces to Paris where the Alsatian Jews are the most numerous and the most influential, from Alsace to America…. It was also the period of self-assertion and 134 synagogues were built between 1791 and 1939. The defeat of 1870 triggered an important phenomenon of departure for France, homeland of human rights. After the Dreyfus affair, however, Francophile feelings faded. 

1918-2021: A chaotic century

The interwar period (1918 -1939) saw the arrival of many Jews from the east. 
At the start of the war of 39-45, the majority of Alsatian Jews had to leave Alsace like a large part of the rest of the population. They will not be able to return with the others after the armistice of 1940 and will be joined during the summer of 1940 by the rest of the community expelled by the Nazis.   The Vichy police multiplied the arrests and many, exterminated in the Nazi camps, did not return.  
The return after 1945 is difficult for the survivors, within a partially Nazified population at the level of the youngest and itself in difficulty. However, the synagogues were rebuilt and Jewish life resumed its slowly decreasing course. 
The arrival of Sephardic Jews after 1962 revived for a time a community which today continues to wither, victim of a rampant anti-Semitism which for many of Israel makes a possible recourse, but ultimately quite rarely used.  

Text by Jean-Pierre Lambert.

bottom of page