On this day, April 20, 1615, the Jews of Worms were persuaded that it was in their interest to leave the city without delay. While the local citizenry took pride in employing non-violent means after having abused their Jewish neighbors for centuries, arguably the means used to get them to go, which included starvation and threats of expulsion, were not quite benign.
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Worms today is a small city in the Palatinate region of southwest Germany, on the upper Rhine River, with some 90,000 residents and pride in having invented Liebfraumilch wine, but its history goes back to pre-Roman times. It was particularly prosperous in the High Middle Ages, and in the year 1074, was granted de-facto independence from local warlords, becoming answerable only to the Holy Roman Emperor – who in his proclamation of independence for Worms, mentioned the Jewish presence in the city.
Periodically murdered en masse
Actually, it is not clear when Jews reached Worms: Some believe they were there in the Roman era. The first official records of their presence dates from the early 11th century, and in 1090, the Jews of Worms were given special privileges by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. (Over two hundred years later, in 1236, those privileges, including the privilege to live wherever they pleased, would be extended by Frederick II to all Jews throughout his empire.)
Meanwhile, Worms became a great center for Jewish erudition. The city's first synagogue went up in 1034, and even the great sage Rashi made his home in Worms for awhile.
None of that means the Jews lived in peace. On May 18, 1096, knights of the First Crusade, abetted by townsfolk, butchered the Jews of Worms. Rashi survived the pogrom but most of the roughly 1,000 Jews in the city, including ones who had fled to the bishop's palace for shelter, were murdered. Some were forcibly converted, though they were allowed to revert to Judaism the next year.
Yet the Jewish community of Worms soldiered on and by the 13th century, had regained some strength and prosperity. Then the Black Death hit in the mid-14th century. Ignorant of the biology of pestilence, the populace blamed the Jews and again, most were killed.
It would take the next two hundred years for the Jewish community of Worms to slowly rebuild its numbers, though at no time could they rest easy, finding themselves accused time and again of malfeasance.
Despite being wracked by anti-Semitic violence, over its centuries of existence, the Jewish community of Worms gained fame throughout the Ashkenazi realm. The city even became a sort of focus for pilgrims visiting graves of sages such as the 13th-century martyr Meir of Rothenburg, who was tortured and murdered on his way to Israel.
In the year 1615, yet again the Christians of the city rose up to reject their neighbors, spurred by a lawyer named Dr. Chemnitz (or Chemnitius).
Trade guilds had been behind some of the worst treatment of Jews in Germany of the Middle Ages, spurred by sheer anti-Semitism and envy as well. This time, though, rather than aim for the Jews' slaughter, Chemnitz orchestrated a campaign, backed by the guilds, to persuade the Jews to leave of their own volition.
The chief means they employed was to deny the Jews access to basic necessities of life. The Jews were denied the ability to buy food, their cows were seized and they were prohibited from bringing milk for children to the Jewish quarter. The Jews were also barred from movement, denied the ability to enter or leave the city.
The final straw was a citizens' deputation that arrived on the last day of Passover, giving them an hour to leave the city.
As the Jews left, the 1,000-year-old synagogue and next-door cemetery were desecrated and destroyed – but both would be rehabilitated and rebuilt. The burial ground remains standing to this very day as the oldest Jewish burial ground in Europe.
Though the Worms Synagogue too is touted as the "oldest still existing in Europe," the building actually there today is not the original. That is long gone and the synagogue the structures that replaced it were badly damaged, or destroyed, and rebuilt a number of times. The latest act of devastation perpetrated on it was on Kristallnacht, 1938 – and it was rebuilt, original brick by original brick insofar as was possible, in 1961.