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1723: The First Jewish Citizen of Prussia Is Born

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Sanssouci, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, Potsdam, Germany, June 20, 2013. Credit: Mbzt / Wikipedia Commons

March 18, 1723, is the birthdate of Daniel Itzig, the richest, best-connected and most honored Prussian Jew of his time. As court Jew and banker to both King Frederick II (“the Great”) and his son Frederick William II, Itzig amassed vast business privileges — and wealth — to become the first Jew to receive full Prussian citizenship. But within two generations after his death, despite the freedom and acceptance accorded to him and his family, none of his descendants were Jewish.

Itzig was born in Berlin to Isaac ben Daniel Itzig, a horse trader, and the former Kela Eschwege. He married Marianne Wulff, daughter to a family of both wealth and rabbinic distinction, whose ancestors included the 16th-century scholar and decisor of Jewish law Moses Isserles (a lineage that Itzig shared with his contemporary Moses Mendelssohn).

The Seven Years War (1756-1763), a conflict that spanned much of the globe, pitted Prussia and its ally Britain against Austria and France. During the war Itzig, Veitel Ephraim Heine and Moses Isaac-Fliess took on the task of running the royal mints. They both supplied the mints with silver and agreed to produce coins containing a reduced amount of the precious metal.

This put more currency — of lower value — into circulation, greatly easing the king’s ability to finance the war. But it also naturally led to higher prices for the public at large, who would direct their resentment at the Jewish masters of the mint.

During the war, Frederick bestowed upon these helpful Jews what was called the “general privilege,” a status that freed them from most of the legal restrictions they and their coreligionists were subject to. When the war ended, the king invited the three men to operate a variety of lucrative government-owned factories.

Daniel Itzig, the first Jewish citizen of Prussia, in a 1787 painting by Josef Friedrich August Darbes. Credit: Magnus Manske / Wikimedia Commons

Itzig, meanwhile, took control of a leather factory and was relieved of certain taxes and inspections. One of his principal clients was the royal army.

Itzig also owned a silk factory and lead plant, as well as an oil press. With his growing wealth, he bought a mansion on the Burgstrasse along the Spree River, and later an even larger home near the royal palace, containing its own synagogue and art gallery.

All the rights of Christians

In 1791, the king, who was now Frederick William, bestowed full citizenship on Itzig, which granted him and his family “all the rights of Christian citizens in our sundry states and dominions.”

Perhaps feeling confident about his position, Itzig petitioned the king in 1795 to eliminate the discriminatory laws that his fellow Jews remained subject to. But the king responded negatively — three years later — even as he admitted that “as much for the honor of humanity as for the good of the citizenship these laws should be abolished.”

Daniel and Miriam Itzig had 13 children, nearly all of them very accomplished. His son Isaac Daniel opened a school for poor Jewish children that taught both secular and religious subjects. Fanny, who married the Viennese banker Adam von Arnstein, became one of the great Vienna salon hostesses. Bella was the mother of Lea, who married Abraham Mendelssohn, son of Moses, and produced Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

A third daughter, Susanna, was married to banker Daniel Friedlander, who with his father-in-law founded the Jewish Free School in Berlin, which became an important institution of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that gave so many German Jews the chance to integrate — if not assimilate — into Christian society.

Daniel Itzig remained religiously observant and his will left instructions to cut off from their inheritance any descendants who converted. But within months of his death on May 17, 1799, his grandson Isaac Itzig, the son of Elias, did just that, to be eligible for a judicial position. This opened the floodgates and in a short time virtually no Itzig descendants remained Jewish.

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