Oldest Jewish Community in Switzerland Is Disappearing, but Not Without a Fight

For three centuries, the Jews of Switzerland were only allowed to live in two villages. This is their unique story of resistance and survival in the face of persecution

Ariel David
Ariel David
Interior of Lengnau synagogue, built in the mid-19th century, Switzerland, October 2018. At its peak in 1850 the community totaled some 1,500 people.
Interior of Lengnau synagogue, built in the mid-19th century, Switzerland, October 2018. At its peak in 1850 the community totaled some 1,500 people.Credit: Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

Nowadays, most of the Jews in the Swiss villages of Endingen and Lengnau are found underground.

Buried under crumbling, moss-covered headstones in the sloping land of a peaceful hillside cemetery, these thousands of tombs are perhaps the most touching legacy of these little-known shtetls, which for three centuries served as the singular ghetto for all the Jews of Switzerland.

Jewish cemetery between Endingen and Lengnau, Switzerland, October 2018. These thousands of tombs are perhaps the most touching legacy of Switzerland's little-known shtetlsCredit: Ariel David

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Today, the community has dwindled to a handful of souls. But the last Jews of Endingen and Lengnau are still fighting to preserve this unique heritage, while also trying to strike a blow against anti-Semitism in Switzerland and beyond.

Located in the canton of Aargau, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) northwest of Zurich, between the 17th and 19th centuries these two villages were the only places where Jews were allowed to settle in Switzerland.

Unlike the shtetls of Eastern Europe – largely erased, along with their inhabitants, during the Holocaust – Endingen and Lengnau have survived mostly intact, to tell the story of a community that managed to thrive despite constant persecution.

“This is the oldest surviving Jewish community in Switzerland,” says Jules Bloch, one of the leaders of the tiny community. “For us, this place is what William Tell is for the rest of the country,” he says, referring to the legendary Swiss folk hero.

Jews started coming to the Rhineland (and what would later become northern Switzerland) under the Roman Empire, and by the 13th century there was a community in every major town, says Simon Erlanger, a Jewish history lecturer at the University of Lucerne.

But one by one, these communities were wiped out by massacres and expulsions – especially following the Black Death of the mid-14th century, which led to accusations that Jews were spreading the Black Plague.

Most persecution survivors fled to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is why Ashkenazi Jews are most often associated with Eastern Europe, even though they originated in the Rhineland.

Some Jews, however, continued to survive in small groups in the countryside, leading a precarious existence between Switzerland, southern Germany and Alsace. They continued to keep Jewish customs and spoke their own language, known as Western Yiddish: a mix of Germanic dialects, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Source of income

Though banned from the territories of the Swiss Confederation, by the 16th century a few families began to settle in what would later become Aargau, an area Switzerland had recently seized from the Habsburgs and was not yet officially part of the country.

“It was occupied territory, so the laws were a bit different here,” says Erlanger. The authorities allowed the Jews in the early 17th century to live only in Endingen and Lengnau, tolerating their presence for political and economic reasons.

Switzerland was at the time in the midst of bitter civil wars and conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. While locals frequently petitioned for the expulsion of the Jews, allowing them to stay was a way for the occupying Swiss Protestants to “annoy” the mostly Catholic inhabitants of Aargau, Erlanger explains. But most of all, “Jews were a source of income for the authorities, and the right to tax them became a commodity,” he says.

And taxed they were.

Jewish survival depended on letters of protection that had to be bought from authorities and periodically renewed, explains Roy Oppenheim, an art historian and former producer of cultural programs for Swiss television.

As in most of late medieval and early modern Europe, Jews were barred from the majority of professions and were not allowed to own property or farm the land. In Switzerland, they mainly made a living peddling and cattle trading – for which they had to pay special taxes, explains Oppenheim, who moved to Lengnau 40 years ago and leads efforts to preserve the local community’s heritage.

A large tax was also levied on marriage licenses, which were sometimes outright denied by the canton’s authorities that sought to limit the number of Jewish households. This policy pushed many Jews to emigrate.

Among these was a leading member of the community, a widower called Simon, who decided to move with his family to the United States in 1847 after authorities in Lengnau denied him a permit to remarry.

Simon’s last name was Guggenheim – and his son Meyer would go on to found the Guggenheim dynasty of mining tycoons and art philanthropists.

Lengnau house with double doors, Switzerland, October 2018. Jews and Christians were barred from living in the same house so many old buildings have two entrances: one for Jews and one for ChristiansCredit: Ariel David

Back in Switzerland, there were other restrictions on the Jewish community. Since they could not own their own homes, Jews often financed the construction of a building and then rented an apartment in the building from its Christian owners. However, Jews and Christians were barred from living in the same house, which led to a unique solution still visible in Endingen and Lengnau: Many old buildings have two entrances side by side: one for Jews and one for Christians.

Because of the property ban, Jews also had to bury their dead beyond the Swiss border – on a marshy island in no-man’s-land across the Rhine. In 1750, after the island flooded, they were allowed to buy a plot of land midway between the two shtetls to build a new cemetery. These grounds now form the oldest Jewish cemetery in Switzerland and still house some 2,700 graves.

Despite the many restrictions, Jews were allowed some autonomy in managing their community affairs, building schools, mikvehs (ritual purification bath) and even a kosher butcher and bakery.

Lengnau synagogue, Switzerland, October 2018.Credit: Ariel David

The two synagogues, built in the mid-19th century, still tower above the quaint, low village houses. Services are only held – rarely – at the one in Endingen. The size of the synagogues is a testament to the growth of the community, which at its peak in 1850 totaled some 1,500, according to Swiss census data. Each synagogue had its own rabbi and cantors. At the time, Jews made up about half of Endingen’s population and one third of Lengnau’s, says Oppenheim.

Threat of expulsion

Throughout the community’s history, tensions were always high and the threat of expulsion or violence persisted, says Erlanger. Arguably the greatest moment of danger came after Napoleon invaded Switzerland in 1798 and the French attempted to emancipate the Jews. The move was a major factor in sparking a revolt against the new regime, named the Plum War since it took place during plum picking season. It led to a pogrom in Endingen and Lengnau in 1802, during which Jews were attacked and their property looted and destroyed.

“Imagine this: There were perhaps 2,000 Jews in the country at the time, and yet this attempted emancipation aroused such great passion and controversy that it helped start a nationwide revolt,” says Erlanger.

Unwilling to commit troops to quash the revolt, Napoleon relented and the emancipating reforms were abolished. It would take more than half a century for Jews to gain their freedom: Only in 1866 were they allowed to move to other towns, gaining full rights in 1874 when religious freedom was enshrined in a new constitution.

Emancipation brought a new challenge for the tiny community, as most Jews chose to move out of the isolated shtetls in the following decades and seek better opportunities in Swiss cities or abroad.

Besides the Guggenheims, other renowned émigrés whose families hailed from Endingen and Lengnau include William Wyler – née Wilhelm Weiller, the director of Hollywood classics such as “Ben-Hur” and “Funny Girl” – composer Ernest Bloch and painter Varlin (born Willy Leopold Guggenheim).

There are some 18,000 Jews in Switzerland today, based on a census from 2000. A large number can trace their ancestry to Endingen and Lengnau. But only about 20 Jews still live in these villages, most of them elderly residents of a retirement home that was endowed by the Guggenheims at the beginning of the 20th century. Their spoken language nowadays is Swiss German.

“It would be nice to have a small community with a few families to keep alive our traditions. But I fear that in a few years there will be no Jews left here,” says Bloch, 71, who lives with his family in Endingen.

‘The Holocaust and money’

Still, the few remaining Jews are not resigned to quietly disappearing into history. Take Bloch, for example. After retiring from a career in banking, he became a cattle trader to honor what had been the family profession for generations. He spoke to Haaretz last month while celebrating a festive meal under a sukkah that had been set up in his hometown. The sukkah was filled with dozens of visitors, as part of an effort the community makes at every major holiday to host other Jews from across the country, praying and celebrating their traditions together in the cradle of Swiss Jewry.

Equally important, Bloch notes, are the outreach programs toward non-Jews.

With financing and support from local authorities, the synagogues and cemetery are part of a conservation effort and in 2009 a Jewish Cultural Path was set up connecting the two villages. The initiative offers guided tours through the main Jewish sites and has been walked by some 50,000 visitors since it opened, says project head Oppenheim. Most of the visitors tend to be non-Jews from Switzerland and neighboring countries, Oppenheim says. Besides the synagogues and the cemeteries, visitors are led to the old double-doored houses as well as the Jewish schools in each village, the mikvehs, and the formerly kosher butcher - still a slaughterhouse but no longer kosher since the country outlawed ritual slaughter in 1893.

“The people’s ignorance of Judaism here is enormous,” says Oppenheim, who often leads the tours himself. “I ask each of our visitors what comes to their mind when they think of the word Jews. I normally get two answers: the Holocaust and money – that is, Jews are rich. Nothing else. No word about the great achievements of Judaism in religion, culture, science.”

The tours are often the first introduction visitors get to the persecution suffered by Jews in Switzerland and the rest of Christian Europe from the Middle Ages on, Oppenheim says.

“Many visitors become aware for the first time of these incredible, catastrophic facts,” he says. “Many embrace me. Others have tears in their eyes, they begin to cry or pray. Many come back and want to know more. Others [have told me that they] travel to Israel because of our guided tours.”

Oppenheim is now working on another outreach project dubbed “Double Door” – after the segregated entrances of the old homes of Endingen and Lengnau. The project, supported by Switzerland’s Jewish community and local authorities, will cost some 20 million Swiss francs ($20 million) and will include a visitor center with multimedia presentations on Jewish history and organized tours for schoolchildren, Oppenheim says.

“Our goal is to counteract the anti-Semitism that is currently growing here in Europe, which shows how much of the old myths and stereotypes about Jews have not been overcome,” he says.

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