This Day in Jewish History / The People of Erfurt Slaughter the Jews

As the Black Plague devastated Europe, the popes ruled that the Jews weren’t responsible, but not even their own priests were listening.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On March 2, 1349, the Jewish community of Erfurt was massacred en masse, as part of a wave of onslaughts against Jews that accompanied the Black Death as it progressed across Europe. (Some historical records suggest that the Erfurt Massacre took place on March 21.)

Jews first appeared in Erfurt - today the capital of Thuringia state, in central Germany - in the 11th century; the recently discovered and restored synagogue in the city is the oldest known standing Jewish house of prayer in Europe.

Tax records going back to the 13th century testify to the role Jews played in banking, not only in the immediate region but also across the Holy Roman Empire.

As the bubonic plague swept thru European communities, beginning in 1348, killing as much as half the Continent’s general population, blame for the scourge was sometimes assigned to the Jews, even though they, too, were not immune to the disease. In some cases, their rate of infection was lower because they lived in confined communities and because their hygienic practices were stricter.

Pope Clement VI and his successor, Innocent VI, urged the public not to punish the Jews for the plague. Clement said the Jews bore no responsibility. But local priests sometimes encouraged the slaughter, which also provided an opportunity to loot and pillage the property of the Jews.

Evidence of self-immolation

Estimates of the number of Jewish victims of the 1349 pogrom range from 100 to 1,000. Evidence indicates that some victims chose to set fire to their homes and kill themselves and their families rather than fall into the hands of the rioters.

Yet not many years later, in 1357, Jews once again were permitted to live in Erfurt, and over the next century, the Jewish community there would become one of Germany’s largest and most distinguished, in terms of rabbinic scholarship.

Centuries after the massacre, a number of valuable artifacts belonging to the Jews of medieval Erfurt turned up, having survived both the destruction of 1349 and of World War II, among other things.

In 1879, the oldest known manuscript of the Tosefta, a post-Mishnaic compilation of Oral Law, was found - incomplete and stained with blood - in the library of the Augustinian monastery in town. Found together with it were another 16 volumes of Hebrew texts, including several Torah scrolls.

Two coins that were hidden during the Erfurt pogrom of 1349 and were found during the German city's restoration of its Old Synagogue.Credit: Classical Numismatic Group Inc. / Wikimedia Commons

The Erfurt Treasure turns up

What is now known as the Erfurt Treasure turned up in 1998, during archaeological work in the area of the old Jewish quarter.

After the 1349 massacre, the synagogue had fallen into disuse, serving as a warehouse and later as a dance hall and bowling alley.

A huge cache of objects made of silver and other precious metals wrapped in a cloth, as if someone had decided to temporarily store them away from danger, was found buried beneath a wall.

Most of the treasure consists of silver Tornesel coins, more than 3,000 of them, and ingots, the most recent of them minted in the early 14th century.

Also found were more than 700 pieces of goldsmith’s work, including the piece de resistance, an ornate golden wedding ring, with the words “mazal tov” inscribed on it and a depiction of a hexagonal tower that may be the Temple in Jerusalem. It is one of only four such rings known today in the world.

The city of Erfurt bought the synagogue building from its then-current owner - who intended to turn it into a restaurant and brewery - and undertook a scientific excavation and restoration. In 2009, it reopened as a museum of the history of Erfurt’s Jewry.

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