On February 21, 1519, the Jewish community of Regensburg was ordered to leave the Bavarian city, but only after its members had demolished the interior of their 13th-century synagogue.
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Jews had lived in the city, also known as Ratisbon, for 500 years: The first written evidence of the town’s Judæorum habitacula (Jewish quarter) dates to 1006.
In 1096, during the First Crusade, Ratisbon’s Jews were forced to undergo conversion and baptism, but a year later the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV permitted them to return to Judaism.
In 1182, Henry’s successor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), extended formal privileges to the Jews confirming their right to trade in precious metals and other commodities, to lend money and to be tried before judges they accepted.
In the centuries that followed, Regensburg, the capital of the Upper Palatinate, became a center of Jewish learning. A number of Tosafists (Talmudic scholars) were based there, as was the mystic and poet Yehuda Samuel Hehasid (died 1217).
Even as a succession of persecutions, including the Black Death massacres of 1348-49, were visited upon Jews in other German towns, those of Regensburg were protected by the city elders.
Their status began to deteriorate in the 15th century, when additional taxes were levied on the community. By 1452, Jews had been expelled from most other Bavarian towns, and Duke Ludwig began demanding similar treatment for those of Regensburg. It was at this time that they were required to display a yellow Star of David on their clothing.
When city councillors tried to defend their Jewish wards, they found themselves attacked from the pulpit of the Regensburg Cathedral, most notably by the cathedral preacher Balthasar Hubmeier.
The expulsion finally became possible with the death of Emperor Maximilian I, on January 12, 1519. Less than six weeks later, with the emperor’s throne still empty, the city’s leaders were free to act upon their wishes.
They ordered the Jews out of their walled and gated quarter and out of the city. But first they were forced to destroy the interior of the synagogue, which was later replaced by a pilgrimage chapel.
The Jewish cemetery, dating to 1210, became fair game. Some 5,000 gravestones were smashed or taken for use in other buildings, as trophies of the expulsion.
Just days before the Jews’ departure, the artist Albrecht Altdorfer visited the synagogue and quickly made two etchings, one depicting two men in its entrance, and another of the double-naved interior and the bimah.
Altdorfer, a member of the city government, was apparently responsible for informing the Jews of the decree against them, and took advantage of his visit to make a record of a building that soon would no longer exist as a synagogue.
An estimated 500 Jews left Regensburg, and were permitted to settle on the opposite bank of the Danube River, in Stadt-am-hof, until they were driven from there as well.
Only in 1669 were they permitted to return.
In the mid-1990s, Regensburg’s central Neupfarrplatz, the site of the medieval Jewish quarter, was excavated, and today houses a historical museum.
In 2005, the Israeli artist Dani Karavan created a monument to the city’s Jews at the spot where the synagogue once stood.