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Jews of the French German Nexus: Alsace, Lorraine / Rhineland

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  • Léopold Kahn (1870 - 1938)
    - General Manager, La Estrella del Norte. -- brought in from France together with the Levy Brothers from Alsace, France as well. Left Alsace, France at the age of 18 (1889) for the Philippines. - Iden...
  • Marianne Hauser (1910 - 2006)
    Marianne Hauser (December 11, 1910 – June 21, 2006) was an Alsatian-American novelist, short story writer and journalist. She is best known for the novels Prince Ishmael (1963) about the legendary foun...
  • Alexandre Joseph Cahen (1808 - 1877)
    Sépulture: Cimetière de Lunéville, emplacement bloc D2, rangée 1, position 5
  • Isaac Joseph Cahen (1805 - 1884)
    Sépulture: cimetière de Lunéville, emplacement bloc E1, rangée 5, position 1
  • Elisabeth Cahen (1803 - d.)

Chassidei Ashkenaz

Some of the first Jewish communities in the Gallo-Roman cities of the extended Rhineland were

Jews lived in Phoenician Marseilles before the Romans invaded Gaul. During the Middle Ages, they were periodically expelled and again allowed to return, until 1384, when some 100,000 Jews had to leave France, mostly to German speaking areas.
Alsace and Lorraine are two areas in eastern France that have often been in western Germany and before that, the Holy Roman Empire.  The eastern border of the region is formed by the Rhine, a river which locals crossed constantly, for love or money.

Outstanding Rabbis of Metz

As in many other European cities in the Middle Ages, the Jews of Metz suffered a great deal of persecution and expulsion on occasion.

During the Crusade in 1096 some 22 Jews were killed in Metz. In 1322 a number of Jews of Metz were burned alive as a result of a cruel libel that the Jews poisoned the wells. Another most cruel blood-libel took place in the year 5430 (1670).

Notable Jews born in Alsace

  • Alfred Dreyfus
  • Marcel Marceau
  • Sam Marx
  • Liliane Ackermann
  • Théophile Bader (born in Dambach-la-Ville), co-founder of the Galeries Lafayette.
  • Hans Bethe
  • Gustave Bloch
  • Moses Bloom
  • Marcelle Cahn (1895 - 1981) French Abstract Artist
  • Isaachar Bär ben Judah Carmoly
  • Herz Cerfbeer of Medelsheim
  • Debré family
  • Javal family
  • Josel of Rosheim
  • Albert Kahn (banker)
  • Alphonse Kahn (born in Kolbsheim), co-founder of the Galeries Lafayette
  • Zadoc Kahn
  • Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Levi
  • Alphonse Lévy (1843-1918, born in Marmoutier), painter
  • Maurice Lévy
  • Francis Libermann
  • Isidore Loeb
  • Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne
  • Camille Sée
  • Isaac Strauss (1806–1888), conductor and arts collector[23]
  • Benjamin Ulmann
  • Claude Vigée
  • Pierre Villon
  • Émile Waldteufel
  • Alexandre Weill (1811–1899), writer[23]
  • Robert Wyler
  • William Wyler

Historic Timeline

400 CE

Alasce Jewry shared a common history with all Jewish communities inside of the Roman Empire: Jewish laws from 417 under Christian emperors, continued by councils of the State Church.

800 CE

The Jewish settlements of the Rhineland increased and became stable. Some cities became famous for their yeshivas (talmudic centers of learning) and the whole area developed to the Minhag Rheinouss.

One of the oldest French synagogues is in Metz, Lorraine, a town that also regularly exchanged rabbis and students with Frankfurt and Worms.

All Jews of the Frank Kingdom were foreigners under royal protection (Königsmunt). At that time Jews got their persistent image as usurers when the Church forbade loans with interests or pawn broking.

1000 CE

First stable communities in Alsace (apart from travelers and peddlers who already passed through the region in the last centuries). These communities remained spared by the massacres in 1096 (1st crusade) in the Rhineland and were under special protection of local lords such as bishops, abbots, city magistrates or the emperor himself.

It's the beginning of a period where the Jews came and went, were driven out and called back again. Nevertheless some Alsatian seigneuries differed from the majority because they protected "their" Jews over a longer period than it used to be at that time.

1100 - 1200 CE

Period of persecution and emigration.

In 1215 the 4th Lateran council decreed that Jews weren't allowed to work in official social and occupational groups such as guilds and had to wear specific recognizable clothes. This is common to the whole Jewish people in old Europe.

In Alsace like in the whole Holy Roman Empire Jews belonged to the "befriedete" among clerics, women and storekeepers because they weren't allowed to carry a weapon; they weren't free and had to be protected.

In 1236 under Friedrich II the Jews got the status of "chamber servants" (servi camerae nostrae) which was developed and codified by the Roman law as the servitude of the Jews : "servitus camerae" meant a personal and economical dependence on the emperor or his representatives.

The Jewish community of Metz probably disappeared entirely in the 13th century.

1300 - 1400 CE

In 1306 and 1394 Official expulsion of the Jews from France. They first emigrated to the neighbor countries that are now French, but at that time still belonged to the Holy Roman Empire: Lorraine, Alsace, Provence, Dauphine, Avignon.

The difference became clear between the so-called "Portuguese Jews" in the South and the "German Jews" in the North (not only Alsace and Lorraine) though numerous German Jews didn't speak any German dialect. The geographical location was relevant.

Every seigneurie or city could decide to expel the new families without any opposition. The local lord who was supposed to protect them didn't prevent the people that were rising up against them from slaughtering or burning alive whole communities in one day.

The year 1349 has probably claimed the most casualties and the consequence was the disappearance of the Jews in almost the whole Alsace, particularly in the cities such as Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Selestat. A few Jews came back and tried to settle down despite a climate of violence or insecurity; they were expelled, robbed or pillaged and the surviving families left Alsace.

In Metz the main urban Jewry disappeared already in the 13th century, a few households could be noticed but those who came back or settled down weren't assured that they could definitively stay. Though there was any official permission from the city authority, some Jews were tolerated. In the 14th century numerous Jews came from Eastern Europe to Metz and created there a ghetto near the port. The cohabitation between local Jews and East-European Jews was a little difficult because of different way of life and way of thinking.

In the dukedom Lorraine Jews experienced the same arbitrariness of the politics and their fate obviously depended on whether they were useful or not. They were alternatively driven out and called back, definitively expelled by duke René II in 1477 because they were accused to support the enemy (Burgundy). The next official permission for Jews to settle down in Lorraine happened only at the beginning of the 18th century.

Gap in the Jewish presence:

  • In Metz from the 13th to the 16th century
  • In Lorraine from the 15th to the 18th century
  • In Alsace from the 14th to the 16th century

That doesn't mean that there weren't any Jews in these regions at all. But the main Jewish communities lived at that time in cities. They were there more visible and in a way more vulnerable! Few isolated Jews were scattered all over the region in the provinces, but it is obvious that there were numerically very few of the whole Jewish population in Alsace.

1500 CE

In Alsace the urban communities of the big cities, we already mentioned, disappeared without a trace and the architectural heritage as well. Only a part of the synagogue of Bergheim, former center of the Alsatian rabbinate, still remains today to recall the Jewish past before the 17th century in this region.

In Metz however the situation changed abruptly when the city became French or under French protectorate in 1552. Ten years later the Jews were officially allowed to settle down in Metz again. It might be for many people very contradictory regarding to the French attitude towards Jews in the main kingdom. But in fact France needed Jews to finance the numerous regiments that were garrisoned at Metz, known as the most fortified garrison town of France on foreign soil and close to the Holy Roman Empire as its main enemy.

Moreover it was in the 16th century that the word "ghetto" for Venetian "foundry" gave its name to all urban Jewish neighborhoods in Europe, which were bordered and sealed off from the Christian parts.

Metz and Strasbourg adopted this ghetto system and referred to Pope Paul IV's ruling in 1555 ordering many discriminatory rules against Jews.

  • Only 24 Jewish households were allowed to live in Metz at that time.
  • About 160 families lived in villages in the 16th century in Alsace.

In a way Jews in Lorraine and Alsace were always in transit or on the alert.

However a lot of Alsatian Jews definitively migrated to Germany, then Middle and Eastern Europe. There was a continual coming and going between West and East, right side and left side of the Rhine; everybody seemed to try his luck there where other people experienced injustice or misfortune. Adversity might be relative!

  • Eastern European Jews came to Alsace and Metz and Alsatian Jews tried their luck in Poland or Lithuania.


In 1614 the governor of the three Lorraine dioceses under French protectorate (Metz, Toul and Verdun) authorized 58 Jewish households in each city.

But the ghetto borders didn't change anymore in the next centuries though the number of the population permanently increased.

From the middle of the 17th century Alsace and Lorraine had to be repopulated after the bloody Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) where everybody regardless of his religion could be a victim of the gratuitous violence in a disorganized and anarchic war.

At the Westphalian Treaty in 1648 France definitively got the vicariate over the dioceses Metz, Toul and Verdun.

However the dukedom of Lorraine remained in the Holy Roman Empire as an autonomous member from 1542 onwards. Lorraine looked at that time like a puzzle.

All the same it is important not to confuse the dukedom with the three Lorraine dioceses that became French unofficially in 1552 and officially in 1648. As already said above, the French crown needed Jews especially in the garrison town 'Metz.

From 1650 onwards numerous Jews came to Alsace from German neighbor countries beyond the Rhine such as Baden, Swabia or Rhineland. This played a major role in the formation of the 2nd generation of the Alsatian Jewry and particularly in the phonetics of the local Yiddish-Deitsch, which is an alemanic-sounding language in comparison with other Yiddish dialects.

Louis XIV decided out of pique to put the Palatinate to fire and the sword. We already stressed the fact that Alsace as a border region experienced contradictory events between France and Germany. The same king accepted to tolerate Jews in the new annexed Alsace while he laid the close German regions to waste and obviously set about Jews.

1700 - Alsace

This century can be seen as a transitional period for Jews on French soil.
In 1711 there was in Frankfurt on of the most reputable and wealthy Jewish settlements, but a big fire destroyed almost the whole neighborhood and caused the emigration of the impoverished people that lose everything.

By 1750 there were 2,585 Jewish families in Alsace that represents 103 % more than in 1716.

Louis XVI ordered a census in 1784 and the result was surprising: 210 % more than at the beginning of the century with 3942 families or 19624 souls.

On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789 there were more than 150 communities in Alsace, the oldest ones were created in the 17th century and the newest from 1750 onwards.

In September 27th 1791 the Constituent Assembly decreed that all Jews of France became full French nationals and got the same civic rights as every French citizen. All special taxes for Jews were abolished; they had to pay the common taxes. From that time Jews were allowed to exercise the profession of their choice, to acquire buildings, to dwell or marry where and whenever they wanted. In a way it was the real revolution for Jews.

There wasn't any shtetl like in Eastern Europe, but small Jewish communities called "kelle".

In most of the Sephardic countries, that means Southern France, and some Ashkenazic areas such as Holland or the city of Metz in Lorraine, it is commonly admitted that the social emancipation of the Jews led up to the real political emancipation, contrary to what happened in Alsace until the beginning of the 19th century: the Jewry remained there semi-proletarian and was generally thought of as conservative and less cultured.

There wasn't any liberal schism in France contrary to Germany. The fact remains that the Yeshiva of Metz in Lorraine became a National Theological Seminary for a while, but was transferred to Paris to avoid the traditionalist influence that was supposed to reign in Metz. On the other hand Metz could take pride in having received illustrious leading rabbis from Europe. They reflected the rather conservative nature of the Lorraine Jews.

Jonathan Eïbeschutz Rabbi Jonathan Eïbeschutz came from Prague to Metz in the 18th century; he was very conservative and his influence was disputed in a period where the notables began to take an interest in the ideas of Enlightenment.

Another illustrious rabbi of the age was the conservative rabbi Arie Loeb or Cha'agath Arie from Lithuania; he came to Metz in 1765 and died there in 1785. He contributed to the renowned yeshiva of Metz and promoted the Hebrew printing in and around this town.

In August 21st 1829, the Central Rabbinical School was created in Metz ensuring the continuity of the ancient renowned yeshiva of Metz since the Middle Age. Other Theological Seminaries were created in Middle Europe in the 19th century, which were also important for Alsatians and Lorraine people who went to these rabbinical seminaries in Germany above all (in Breslau and Berlin).

The successor of Arie Loeb should have been a disciple of Mendelssohn, rabbi Hirschel Loeb Levin from Poland and former rabbi of London and Berlin. But he finally retracted! His decision is obviously ambiguous: if he planned to come to Metz, he knew that this Jewry was more and less in favor of the Jewish enlightenment; but on closer examination, he probably understood that the basic Jew in Lorraine was still conservative in the background.


  • Arthur Hertzberg, "The French enlightenment and the Jews", NYC-London, 1968
  • Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, " les Juifs d'Alsace, village, traditions, émancipation", Musée d'Israel, Jerusalem, Catalogue N° 330
  • François Job, "les juifs de Lunéville aux XVIII et XIVe siècles", 1989.
  • Freddy Raphaël, "Colporteurs et marchands de bestiaux", in Juifs en Alsace, 1976, p. 363-67
  • Freddy Raphaël, "Des métiers et des hommes", in Juifs d'Alsace, 1976, p. 363-367.
  • Freddy Raphaël, "Les Juifs de la campagen alsacienne: les marchands de bestiaux" in revue RSSFE, 1980, p.220-245
  • J.I. Helfand, "The symbiotic relationship between French and German jewry in the age of Emancipation" in Leo Baeck Institute yearbook, 1984, p. 331-344.
  • Max Warschawski, "1000 ans de vie juive: le judaïsme alsacien"
  • Pierre Mendel, "les juifs de Metz de 1789 à l'an VIII", in Cahiers lorrains, 1989.
  • Pierre Mendel, "Les noms des Juifs français modernes", in revue des études juives, 1949-50, p. 54-63, Archives de Moselle, 9E et 199M
  • Robert Anchel, "Les juifs de France", Ed. Janin, coll. La roue de Fortune, 1946
  • Robert Anchel, "Napoléon et les Juifs", 1928
  • Simon Schwarzfuchs, "Du juif à l'israélite, histoire d'une mutation (1770-1880)", 1989.
  • Simon Schwarzfuchs, "La 'Haskalah' et le cercle de Metz à la veille de la Révolution" in Politique et religion dans le judaïsme modern, 1986.
  • Vicki Caron, "Between France and Germany: the Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, 1871-1918", Stanford, 1988