On this day in 1349, riots in the German city of Mainz took the lives of some 6,000 Jews.
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Europe was then in the throes of the Black Death, one of its most devastating outbreaks of bubonic plague, which between 1348 and 1350 killed between and one-third and two-thirds of the continent’s population.
Now it is known that the disease originated in Asia and was brought west via traders to Europe, where it was spread by rats and fleas. But at the time, human scapegoats were sought out, and blame often fell on Jews, who in some cases had lower incidence of the disease because they lived in closed communities.
Beginning in 1348, Jewish communities in Toulon, Barcelona and Brussels were among hundreds attacked and in some cases destroyed. Matters weren’t helped when Charles I, the Holy Roman Emperor, ruled that the property of any Jews killed in such rioting was up for grabs.
When Christian rioters in Mainz, which had the largest Jewish population in Europe, attacked, the Jews put up resistance, killing some 200 of their attackers. When the inevitable counter-attack of the enraged mob took place, on August 24, many of them decided they would take their own lives rather than be murdered and set their homes on fire. Altogether, some 6,000 Jews burned to death that day.