On February 14, 1349 – St. Valentine’s Day – the Jewish residents of Strasbourg, in Alsace, were burned to death by their Christian neighbors. Estimates of the number murdered range from several hundred to more than 2,000.
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The Strasbourg massacre was one of a string of pogroms that took place during this period in a number of towns in Western Europe – 30 alone in the Alsace region, bordering the Rhine River, in what is today France.
Ostensibly, the reason for the pogroms was the widespread belief that Jews were responsible for the Black Death pandemic that swept across Europe in 1348-1350, killing between one-third and two-thirds of the continent’s population. (Black Death has been identified as Yersenia pestis, one of whose forms is bubonic plague.) They were accused of contaminating the wells from which their non-Jewish neighbors drew their drinking water. In the case of Strasbourg, however, even as reports were received from the Swiss cities of Bern and Zofingen of Jews having confessed – under torture – to such crimes, the city elders and master tradesmen came to the defense of the Jewish population, who were under the protection of the Church.
Strasbourg’s patrician class understood that Jews were important to their town’s economy, both in their role as money-lenders and in the high taxes they paid for the protection they received. Being creditors, however, had its down side, as it contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment among the less privileged and, in extreme cases, to the desire to kill the Jews and see the debt cancelled, or even to expropriate their property.
The city’s nobles offered a show trial of Jews to appease the bloodlust of the masses, but the members of the city’s butchers and tanners guilds wanted to rid Strasbourg of them altogether. They accused three patrician leaders of having been bribed by the Jews in return for protecting them and subsequently drove them from office.
The city’s 2,000 Jews were given a choice of undergoing baptism or being killed. About half of them accepted conversion or left the city; the remainder were barricaded in the Jewish cemetery and burned alive. Following this, the new town council passed an ordinance forbidding Jews from even entering Strasbourg for 200 years. Less than two decades later, however, the first Jews were allowed to return. By 1388, another order of banishment was imposed, and there is no evidence of Jews being present in the city, even as visitors, until 1520.
It was only after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, with the Jews gone, that the plague arrived in Strasbourg. It killed an estimated 16,000 residents.