On January 14, 1711, a fire broke out in the Judengasse, the “Jews’ Lane” in Frankfurt, Germany, burning all of its structures to the ground. Although the loss of life was limited, with only four casualties, the extent of the physical destruction reflected the very crowded nature of the ghetto, and more generally, the precarious quality of life for Jews in this ancient European city.

Jews lived in Frankfurt as early as the late 11th century, but it wasn’t until 1462 that they were required to live in a single, confined quarter. Considering that Frankfurt’s Jews were massacred en masse in 1241 and then again, to the last one of them, in 1349, after being accused of spreading bubonic plague in the city, it may have been to their benefit to be relegated to a walled ghetto.

Although the plan for the ghetto was announced in 1442, it was another two decades before the first 11 houses were built by Frankfurt’s city council to accommodate the Jews.

The quarter was established outside the city walls, in a former moat on Frankfurt’s eastern side – a narrow alley 330 meters long, and no more than four meters wide. Residents were permitted only to rent their homes, with ownership remaining in the hands of the city.

The 'wailing of the Jews'

The move to the ghetto required that the Jews evacuate their synagogue, which until that date had stood next to the municipal cathedral. Complaints about the “wailing of the Jews” were among the justifications for moving them into a separate neighborhood. Additionally, Jews were now required to wear distinctive clothing (usually a yellow ring on their outer garment) and were prohibited from visiting public baths.

Initially, the population of the ghetto was small, like the ghetto itself – 15 families, comprising 110 residents. By 1543, that number was up to 260, and a mere 70 years later, 2,700 Jews were living there.

Because the Judengasse could not be extended, the only way to accommodate its growing population was to build up, or to wedge in new buildings between the two existing rows of housing. The Judengasse had become one of the most densely populated areas in Europe.

The ghetto’s three gates were locked each evening at dusk, as well as on Sundays and Christian holidays. Public sanitation was poor, and rates of infection and child mortality high, but Jews kept pouring into the Judengasse, drawn by Frankfurt’s thriving economic life.

The Christians open the gate

The fire of 1711 was apparently accidental, and had its origin in the Eichel House, the home of Rabbi Naphtali Cohen, which stood opposite the quarter’s synagogue. The building was all-wood in construction, and burned to the ground.

The fire quickly spread to the ghetto’s other buildings, destroying them all. The fire began at 8 in the evening, meaning that the ghetto gates were locked. Eventually, however, the Christians allowed for their opening, so that most of the ghetto’s Jews did escape, and deaths in the fire were limited to four.

Reconstruction took place rapidly, and Jews were permitted to rent homes in other parts of Frankfurt until the ghetto was able to re-accommodate them. Unfortunately, another devastating fire occurred 10 years later, in 1721.

There were of course observers who thought the Jews had got what was coming to them.

Historian Eoin Bourke quotes several different observers who compared the ghetto’s inhabitants to sub-human creatures. One of them, writer and scholar, Johann Michael von Loen, for example, noted, after the 1721 conflagration, how “fire had twice tried to purify this slimy habitat and had reduced it by its flames to rubble and ashes.” That only caused the Jews, who live “like vermin in dung,” to rebuild faster, he observed, pointing out that “the more they feel locked in and sit on top of each other, the better they propagate: the place is creeping and crawling with Hebrew figures. To the question of how this ancient remainder of the 12 Israelite tribes nourishes itself, the answer is by fraud.”

In 1796, the ghetto was largely destroyed again, this time by a French bombardment, during the Napleonic Wars. Finally, in 1811, the regulation requiring Jews to live in the ghetto were cancelled, and in 1862, Frankfurt became the second city in Germany to grant Jews complete civic rights and equality.

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