Franz Kobler, editor, Letters of Jews Through the Ages; Volume One: From Biblical Times to the Renaissance. A Self-Portrait of the Jewish People (1952; New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1978)
"Isaac Zarfati to the Jews of Suavia, The Rhineland, Styria, Moravia, and Hungary"
For the Jews of Germany as for those of Spain the fifteenth century was a period of cruel persecution. Utter destruction following the most barbaric treatment came upon the Jews of Austria under the Duke Albert V in the years 1420 and 1421. In other German countries also, trials by the Inquisition, executions, expulsions, and excesses committed against the Jews followed in an almost uninterrupted succession. In contrast to this nightmare, a haven of peace and prosperity was opened to the Jews in the Ottoman Empire after the capture of Cosntantinople by the Turks on 29 May 1453. Two pioneers, Kalmann and David, who almost at once discovered the possibilities of the East, were not slow to bring them to the notice of their oppressed brethren in Germany and to invite them to follow their example. At their request another early settler in Turkey, Isaac Zarfati, of French origin but born and educated in Germany, addressed to the Jews of Germany and Hungary a letter in which he called on them to arrange an exodus to the Ottoman realm. A copy of the letter has been preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Viewed in the perspective of the ultimate doom of German Jewry, Zarfati's epistle, written in traditional biblical style but full of satire and witty allusion, falls not far short of prophecy.
The following abridgment of the original document was made by
Graetz, who dated the letter at about 1454 on the strength of the reference
to the prohibition of assisting Jews to travel to the Holy Land which was issued
in the fifteenth century. Some authorities, however, hold that the letter was
written in the first half of the sixteenth century.
"O Israel, wherefore sleepest thou? Arise, and
leave this accursed land forever!"
[Somewhere in Turkey, probably 1454]
I have heard of the afflictions, more bitter than death, that have befallen our brethren in Germany -- of the tyrannical laws, the compulsory baptisms and the banishments, which are of daily occurrence. I am told that when they flee from one place a yet harder fate befalls them in another. I hear an insolent people raising its voice in fury against a faithful remnant living among them; I see its hand uplifted to smite my brethren. On all sides I learn of anguish of soul and torment of body; of daily exactions levied by merciless oppressors. The clergy and the monks, false priests that they are, rise up against the unhappy people of God and say: 'Let us pursue them even unto destruction; let the name of Israel be no more known among men.' They imagine that their faith is in danger because the Jews in Jerusalem might, peradventure, buy the Church of the Sepulchre. For this reason, they have made law that every Jew found upon a Christian ship bound for the East shall be flung into the sea. [Zarfati alludes here to the Bull of Pope Martin V forbidding the seafaring republics of Venice and Ancona to convey Jews to the Holy Land under pain of excommunication.] Alas! How evil are the people of God in Germany entreated; how sadly is their strength departed! They are driven hither and thither, and they are pursued even unto death. The sword of the oppressor ever hangs over their heads; they are flung into the devouring flames, into swift-flowing rivers and into foul swamps.
Brothers and teachers, friends and acquaintances! I, Isaac Zarfati, though I spring from a French stock, yet I was born in Germany, and sat there at the feet of my esteemed teachers. I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking, and where, if you will, all shall yet be well with you. The way to the Holy Land lies open to you through turkey. Is it not better for you to live under Moselems than under Christians? Here every man may dwell at peace under his own vine and fig-tree. [I Kings IV, 25; Is. XXXVI. 16; Mic. IV 4; Zech. III. 10.] Here you are allowed to wear the most precious garments. In Christendom, on the contrary, ye dare not even venture to clothe your children in red or in blue, according to your taste, without exposing them to insult of being beaten black and blue, or kicked red and green, and therefore are ye condemned to go about meanly clad in sad-colored raiment. All you days are full of sorrow, even the Sabbaths and the times appointed for feasting. Strangers enjoy your goods, and, therefore, of what profit is the wealth of your rich men? They hoard it but to their own sorrow, and in a day it is lost to them forever. Ye call your riches your own -- alas, they belong to them! they bring false accusations against you. They respect neither age nor wisdom; and though they gave you a pledge sealed sixty-fold, yet would they break it. they continually lay double punishment upon you, a death of torment and confiscation of goods. They prohibit teaching in your schools; they break in upon you during your hours of prayer; and they forbid you to work or conduct your business on Christian feast days . . .
And now, seeing all these things, O Israel, wherefore sleepest thou? Arise! and leave this accursed land forever. [Ps. XLIV. 23]