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Selections from Amos Elon, Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time (New York, 1996)

Chapter One: A Small Town in Germany

Only a few crumbling bricks are left today of the Judengasse, a dark, foul-smelling alley in Frankfurt-on-Main where, in the second half of the eighteenth century, a disenfranchised Jew named Meyer Amschel Rothschild founded a European banking dynasty of which it was later said that its history was more important than that of many a royal house.

The old Judengasse where Rothschild lived his entire life was a narrow lane, more slum-like and overcrowded than any other tenements in Frankfurt. A closed compound, it was shut off from the rest of the city by high walls and three heavy gates. The gates were guarded by soldiers and were locked at night, all day on Sundays and Christian holidays and from Good Friday until after Easter. In it lived the largest Jewish community in Germany in conditions of almost total isolation, or apartheid.

The Judengasse was some ten or twelve feet wide. It ran in a half-circle from the Bornheimer gate in the north to the Jewish cemetery in the south where the oldest tombstones testified to a Jewish presence in the city as far back as the twelfth century. The home of the Rothschild family was a dilapidated tenement, at the back of no. 188 Judengasse. Here Meyer Amschel Rothschild was born on 23 February 1744. In 1786, when he had achieved some success, he moved with his wife and children to a larger home at no. 148, on the east side of the curving Judengasse, a few doors down from the main synagogue. This was a four story frame-house of brick, wood and slate and, though it was said to be one of the largest in the ghetto, it was so narrow that in the small dark rooms the beds could be placed only along side-walls, at right angles to the street. This house still stood until 18 May 1944, when it was razed - along with much else in central Frankfurt - during an American air-raid.

In Rothschild's day, Frankfurt was a major trade center, as it still is today, a city of merchants, bankers and craftsmen. Bankers often doubled as wholesale merchants, hence the so-called "merchant bankers". There was much need of merchant bankers in Frankfurt. Favored by a unique geographic position, the city was at the junction of five major international land routes linking England and the Netherlands with Russia and Venice and France with the Hanseatic towns of the north. Equally important, at a time when down-river transport was the cheapest and most efficient, was Frankfurt's position on the banks of the river Main, close to where that river flowed into the Rhine, Europe's most important artery.

Long intervals of peace during the first half of the eighteenth century had increased Frankfurt's wealth and population. By mid century, the city's massive fortifications were crumbling and the old bastions had been planted with trees. Ramparts were converted to public promenades. Frankfurt's population at mid-century was 32,000. Some 3,000 were Jews, locked in a ghetto, subjected to constant humiliations and to punitive levels of taxation. Yet the age was widely known as "enlightened". Montesquieu probably had Frankfurt in mind when, because of its treatment of the Jews, he refused to call his age "enlightened" and instead referred to it as "barbaric".

Though proudly calling itself a Free Imperial City, Frankfurt's inhabitants enjoyed few liberties. Indeed it was a rather despotic place, being neither as fully independent nor as relatively tolerant as the free Hanseatic city-states of Hamburg and Bremen. In his memoirs, Goethe recorded a public book-burning in Frankfurt he had witnessed in his youth. Voltaire made a brief but ill-advised stop in Frankfurt on his flight from Berlin, only to be summarily thrown into prison at the request of Frederick the Great to make him surrender letters deemed important to the Prussian King.

Local power in the city was in the hands of the privileged and rich, an oligarchy of patrician families and wholesale merchants referred to as "Peppersacks" and "Barrelsquires". All were of the Lutheran faith. Only Lutherans had the right to own land, engage in unrestricted trade or be appointed to the city government - the senate. The senate itself was self-perpetuating and acted as both judiciary and legislature. The correct form in which to address it included no fewer than eleven honorific adjectives. Several hundred Dutch Calvinists and French Huguenots were long settled in Frankfurt but could not publicly worship there. To attend church they had to go "abroad", to the nearby village of Bockenheim in the adjacent landgravate of Hesse. The tax system favored the rich. The maximum taxable fortune was 15,000 gulden.

Jews were by no means newcomers in the city but had lived there for centuries, perhaps since Roman times. They had mostly been traders and craftsmen and the remarkable thing about them was that most Jewish males were, as a rule, literate. They were the only ethnic group that, during the Christianization of Europe, had insisted on its right to remain loyal to its own religion, but at a terrible price. Their "protected" status had gradually deteriorated into a kind of servitude; as so-called "serfs of the Imperial Chamber", they were gradually stripped of most of their rights and reduced to objects, like hay or cattle, which their owner could sell, mortgage, massacre or give away as a gift. Worse than the status of Jews was, perhaps, only that of the wretched, illiterate peasantry, who could be pressed into forced labour or sold as soldiers to fight the wars of foreign potentates. Ludwig I of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor from 1314 to 1347, defined the Jews' status thus: "You are Ours in body and possession, We may make, do and deal with you as it pleases us."

In [1549?], Charles V made use of this right and mortgaged his Frankfurt Jews to the city senate for 15,200 pfund heller (a sum which in 1864 was estimated as the equivalent of US$400,000), thereby reducing them to the serfs of the city. Before the year was out they were made to feel their new legal position during a massacre that wiped out more than half their population. The mortgage was never repaid and, in 1685, Leopold I formally renounced his right to redeem the pledged article. All Jews who henceforth were allowed to settle in Frankfurt automatically came under the control of the senate as its serfs. Tolerated or oppressed, at times massacred, at others only expelled, robbed and tolerated again, they were always at the mercy of the moment, subjected to elaborate rules, enunciated from time to time, known as the Judenstattigkeit (Jews' Statute).

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the most recent such Statute, issued in 1616, was still in force. It regulated the personal and professional lives of Frankfurt Jews down to minute details. It severely limited their freedom of occupation and of movement; and it imposed loyalty oaths on Jews which included particularly humiliating references to them as members of an "accursed" race. In a city where Jews were discriminated against by the authorities and habitually massacred by the population, they had to pay an annual tax for the protection of their person and property. Hence the term Schutzjuden (literally "protected Jews"). In the Middle Ages they had still been free to reside anywhere in the city; after 1460 they were compelled to live in the overcrowded Judengasse only. Even in the Judengasse, they could not own land, only the houses on it. They were not allowed to farm, trade in weapons, spices and most other commodities. A few rich Jews dealt in luxury goods, jewellery, silk and ace. By 1760, when this story starts, most Frankfurt Jews were pawnbrokers, moneychangers and dealers in second-hand goods.

How they managed to survive under these circumstances and at times even to prosper was a mark of human enterprise and ingenuity. Until 1726 they were required to display on their outer garments the special insignia stipulated in the Stattigkeit (for men, two yellow concentric rings, for women a striped veil). After 1726 they were still forbidden to leave the ghetto after dark or on Sundays and during any Christian holiday. The maximum number of Jewish families in Frankfurt was limited to 500. To maintain it below that figure, only twelve Jewish weddings were authorized each year. No couple could marry before the bridegroom reached the age of twenty-five. Frequent house controls (known as "visitations") were conducted by city officials to make sure all these regulations were kept. Jews were often molested in the streets. At the cry "dud mach mores" - roughly "Jew pay your dues" - they would have to take off their hats, step aside and bow.

On weekdays they had to be in the Judengasse by nightfall, when the gates were locked until the following morning. Some of the more important Jewish tradesmen were at one time somehow able to rent storage space for their wares outside the ghetto in the nearby Fahrgasse, though they had to be careful not to display signs or offer anything for sale there. The senate ordered these closed in 1697. The Jews appealed against this decree at the highest imperial court in Vienna, starting a legal battle which was still undecided in 1806 when the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation expired.

A vigorous Kleiderordnung (Clothes Ordinance) constrained men from wearing berets or anything but "modest" clothing, and women from putting on silk or jewellery (except on Sabbath). Fines for violating these rules ranged from five to twenty thaler. Jews were strictly forbidden to enter the public gardens as they would be 200 years later under the Nazis. They were able to buy vegetables and fruit in the public market only at certain hours, after Christian housewives had done their shopping. Prison sentences threatened those who dared to watch the procession on Corpus Christi.

No other German city in the eighteenth- century imposed such harsh conditions on its Jewish residents. In a city of hard-boiled businessmen the predominant reasons for such measures, as Heine suggested, must have been commercial rivalry: "He was a Frankfurter and so spoke badly of the Jews who had lost all sense of beauty and were selling English goods at 25 per cent under the factory price."'

Until the French revolution, Jews were allowed to enter the rest of the city only on business, never for leisure and never more than two abreast. They were forbidden to linger in a public square, visit an inn or coffee house, enter a park or walk in one of the new promenades. They could not hire a Christian servant. They were banned at all times from the vicinity of Frankfurt's main cathedral and could enter the town hall only through a back entrance. Not all of these prohibitions were always enforced and some were observed only sporadically. On the rare occasions when the senate agreed to relax one of the more stringent regulations, self-satisfied and mean-spirited merchants in the town guilds rose up to oppose it. . . .

Jews were forbidden to open shops outside the Judengasse, and when caught peddling were heavily fined. This rule was suspended during the fairs. On such occasions they might even attend the local opera, as we learn from the report of a disaster in 1754 when, during the performance of an Italian opera, the gallery collapsed and "Jewish ladies and Christian gentlemen fell upon each other".

The main access routes into the city were from the south, over a many-arched bridge on the river Main.  The traveller entering the city over this bridge saw a busy river port teeming with bearers and beasts of burden and goods from all corners of the earth.  Barrels of wine, logs of wood and bales of cloth were piled high on the wharves.  Heavily laden boats were pulled upstream by oxen on the shore.  Behind the forest of masts rose a silhouette of battlements and spires, not, perhaps, as majestic as that of Cologne or Mainz but massive enough to be impressive.

On the city-side of the river, the first thing a traveller fell upon was the notorious Judensau ("Jews' sow"), an obscene painted relief on the wall of the south bridgehead. It was put there and maintained, as Goethe noted, not by some bigoted individual but by the city government. This was significant, he felt. The caricature depicted a fat sow holding up its tail for a Jew, with his tongue hanging out, to lick its excrement. Several other Jews, dressed in the obligatory round and pointed Jews' hats, were shown sucking the sow's teats, while the whole scene was watched over approvingly by a devil.

Behind the bridgehead, one reached the Fahrtor, the main harbor gate into the city. Here the post-coaches deposited their passengers. Travellers had to state their provenance and were made to pay a toll. The rate for Christians was four kreuzer; for Jews and oxen led to the market, eight. As he was paying the toll at the Fahrtor in 1775, Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher of the enlightenment whom contemporaries were calling "the German Socrates", was asked by a guard: "Jew, what are you selling? I may want to buy something from you." "You'll never want to buy any of my things", Mendelssohn replied. "Well, tell us what you deal in?" insisted the guard. "In reason!", Mendelssohn answered. (Heine said of Mendelssohn, a hunchback, that providence had given him a hump the better to bear his Jewishness.)

On the Fahrgasse, packhorses and heavy wagons harnessed to four or six animals carted goods over cobblestones to and from the wharves. The road was wide enough to allow the heaviest carts to pass. It was lined with shops and stables and workshops with shooing and carpenters' tools outside. To the left, it was only a short walk to the nearby town hall. In open street markets farmers from the nearby countryside offered their wares. The air was saturated with their calls. And everywhere in the crowded streets there was the pungent smell of wood fires, even in summer, for food had to be cooked. Food in Frankfurt was hearty. Fat sausages, cabbages and potatoes were washed down with a local apple wine. Eighteenth-century writers described Frankfurters as lively people, always in a hurry, minding their businesses, speaking a very particular local dialect. Frankfurters were known as "prosaic" people. Ostentation in housing and clothing was frowned upon. The local oligarchy was not headed by a prince with ambitious building projects, but by down-to-earth businessmen who concluded big money transactions in the privacy of their counting houses (comptoirs) and tended to understatement in public. The Gothic town hall was plain enough with its unadorned stepped gable. The cathedral was squat and far simpler in decor than those of Nuremberg or Cologne. The merchant princes lived in large but otherwise plain frame houses. The princes who gathered periodically to elect a new Holy Roman Emperor, and the emperors themselves, were housed in hotels; their large entourages were billeted with burghers. The spirit of the place was workaday and businesslike. Schiller, sending Goethe his poem Die Teilung der Erde, an elegy on the vanity of earthly pleasure, wrote that it be best read in Frankfurt, a city ruled "by the God of this world -Money". Goethe wrote back saying that the people of Frankfurt lived in "a frenzy of making money and spending it". In Faust, he drew a picture of Mephistopheles' favorite city, clearly a portrait of Frankfurt in the second half of the eighteenth century.

I'd choose a typical metropolis
At center, bourgeois stomach's gruesome bliss
Tight crooked alleys, pointed gables, mullions
Crabbed market stalls of roots and scallions
Where bleeding joints on benches lie
Prey to the browsing carrion-fly;
For there at any time you'll find
Ado and stench of every kind.
Then, boulevards and spacious squares
To flaunt aristocratic airs.
And on, past any gates resistance
The suburbs sprawl into the distance.
Turning right from the Fahrgasse into a quarter thick with stables and storehouses, one quickly reached the northern end of the Judengasse. The Judengasse was sunless for most of the day, a narrow, rank-smelling space. Few Christians entered it. Some merely peered in. In the pale and pasty complexion of its Jews they would see proof of divine guilt and just punishment for the denial and murder, long ago, of Jesus Christ. The young Goethe shared some of these prejudices. In the back of his mind, he confessed in his memoirs, were "the cruelties committed by dews [sic] against Christian children". Throughout his life, Goethe remained preoccupied with the state of the "ominous Judengasse":
The confinement, the dirt, the swarm of people, the accents of an unpleasant tongue, all made a disagreeable impression, even when one only looked in when passing outside the gate. It took a long time before I ventured in alone; and I did not return easily after once escaping the obtrusiveness of so many people untiringly intent on haggling, either demanding or offering . . . And yet, they were also human beings, energetic, agreeable, and even their obstinacy in sticking to their own customs, one could not deny it respect. Moreover, their girls were pretty. . .
The population of the ghetto was by then nearly double that of [?] years earlier. Yet the city refused to allocate ground to enlarge it. Congestion was greater than anywhere else in the city, and getting worse every year. The growing demand for living and working space caused the price of houses in the Judengasse to rise far above that in the best parts of Frankfurt. (In 1740, a squalid airless four room house at the northern end of the Judengasse sold for 6,000 gulden, approximately the same price Goethe's father paid for his fine burgher's mansion of twenty rooms and garden in the upper-middle class Grosse Hirschgraben.) Since Jews could obtain legal residence in the city only if they owned property in the Judengasse, most of the houses that had originally been built for one family were now shared by two, three or even five families. The parties often took turns in occupying different parts of a house so that each family was able to enjoy the best, airiest rooms once in every five or ten years.

To provide for the growing population, most of the old houses had been subdivided over the years. Two or three protruding floors had been added above. The new floors overhung the narrow street and seemed almost to touch those on the opposite side. To provide even more living space, a second row of houses was built in the narrow backyards, squeezed in between the first row of houses in the Judengasse and the high ghetto walls beyond. Scarcely enough space was left to admit daylight to either.

The northern end of the Judengasse was its most dilapidated - in the words of a traveller in 1747, "somber, humid and filthy". Barely ten feet wide, wagons could not turn around in it. Outside stairs narrowed this part of the street even more. The general gloominess was further enhanced by grim fire walls between the crumbling tenements reaching high above the gables. Parts of the street were unpaved. The air was foul from the sewer that ran through in open, shallow ditches. The anonymous author of a Travelogue through Thuringia (1796) wrote that it was not necessary to ask for directions to the Judengasse, since one could easily smell it from a distance.

The houses were mostly wood, which was cheap, insulated one from the cold and grew nearby. But in a fire, everything burned down - sometimes the entire street. It might have been said of the Judengasse what Turgenev said about old Russia: "Our towns burn down every ten or fifteen years". During the eighteenth century alone, five fires (1711, 1719, 1721, 1774 and 1796) completely wiped out all, or large, parts of the Judengasse, leaving between one third and the entire population destitute.

The language of the ghetto was not Yiddish (which includes many Slavic words), as is often thought, but Judendeutsch, a mixture of Hebrew and Frankfurt dialect that was written from right to left in Hebrew letters. German suffixes were added to Hebrew verbs to produce the Judendeutsch infinitive. Among non-Jews, Judendeutsch was derided as impudent Mauscheln (whining). And yet according to Heine, Mauscheln was "nothing but the proper language of Frankfurt and is spoken with equal excellence by the circumcised as well as by the non-circumcised population there".

There were four synagogues in the Judengasse, a public bath, a clinic and a communal bakery, where bread was baked on weekdays; for Sabbath they would produce the traditional dish sholet (or cholent, from the French chaud-lent), a hearty cassoulet made of meats and vegetables which Heine celebrated in the "Hebrew Melodies". . . .

In one of these tenements, in the back row of the northern Judengasse, Rothschild grew up in a house called Hinterpfann (literally "House in the Back of the Saucepan"). As if to compensate for the general gloom, houses in the ghetto often had picturesque, colorful names: Red Shield, White Tulip, Tower, Golden Well, Crown of Roses, Saucepan, Elephant, Ship, Green Jar. Although their civil status was often uncertain, the inhabitants of the Judengasse, like aristocrats in rags, derived a proud sense of identity from their squalid ancestral homes. Many took their surnames from their houses. Pictorial representations of these names, like coats of arms, were engraved, painted or embroidered on keystones and doors, household utensils, rings, book bindings, scarves, handkerchiefs and tombstones. People retained their names - and emblems - when they moved to another house.

Amschel Moses Rothschild and his wife Schoenche had eight children. Five survived the disastrous sanitary conditions in the Judengasse. Meyer Amschel Rothschild was the fourth child. Little exposed to the sun, the Hinterpfann was damp and chilly in winter, humid and fly-infested in summer. It was reached from the street by a narrow corridor through the house in front. The cramped yard between the two houses was often muddy or flooded with waste waters that would not run off. Outline plans of the houses on the Judengasse still exist in the Frankfurt city archive. They give an idea of Hinterpfann's dimensions and position in the back of the street. Less than ten feet wide, its total area (on three floors and an attic) was roughly nine hundred square feet. The house was shared by two families (the other family was named Bauer), a total, presumably, of ten or twelve people. It accommodated their businesses as well.

On the ground floor one entered a dim office where accounts and bales of cotton and silk cloth, a main source of income for both families, were kept. The only light came from an opening above the door. The windowless, steep stairway had no balustrade; one pulled oneself up holding on to braided ropes, which were said to have been a cause of skin infections and scabs. Wood was stored in a small cellar. Kitchens and living rooms were upstairs. The five Rothschild children shared a small bedroom. Clothes and linens were kept in wooden boxes and barrels. Every corner, every nook up to the roof was used. The attic was reached by a loose ladder, which could be pulled up to protect the residents from a rioting mob, and its small windows were boarded up. This was in compliance with a municipal ordinance which forbade Jews to look into Christian houses and gardens on the other side of the ghetto wall.