Jewish Life - and Loss - in Stuttgart

Tomorrow, November 9th, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of terror and destruction that is commonly regarded as the beginning of the end for Germany's Jews.   Being an American with an interest in Jewish history living in Germany can be very upsetting sometimes, but it's important to commemorate the full spectrum of that experience over the centuries - the good and the horrific.

Jewish residence in Stuttgart dates back at least to the 1300's, possibly earlier.  For most of the medieval era, Jews were not allowed to settle within the city walls, and were instead crowded into a ghetto on what is today Brennerstrasse in the Bohnenviertel, or Bean Quarter.  Early Counts of Wurttemberg were relatively tolerant of their presence, but the populace often wasn't, with numerous pogroms and expulsions taking place for the next two centuries.  Things got worse for the region's Jewish population in 1492, when Count Eberhard the Bearded of Wurttemberg issued an order expelling all Jews from the County.  This in spite of renowned Stuttgart priest Johannes Reuchlin, who was affilated with the St. Leonard's Church in the Bohnenviertel.  He was the first non-Jewish German to learn Hebrew and a great humanist, but even his influence could not save the Jewish communities of Wurttemberg from exile.  

 The exceptions were in Free Imperial Cities like Esslingen - cities controlled not by the local counts and dukes, but directly by the Holy Roman Emperor.  As a result, Imperial Cities almost always had larger Jewish populations than other capitals, and Esslingen was no exception.  There are far more traces remaining today in Esslingen of medieval Jewish life than there are in Stuttgart. 

Fortunes changed for the better in the the late 1600's, when small numbers affluent Jews were permitted to settle in Stuttgart, and throughout the 1700's several Jewish men and one woman served as economic advisers to the Dukes of Wurttemberg.  This period of relative harmony ended tragically in the case of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, a trusted advisor to Duke Karl Alexander.  Oppenheimer was unpopular with the court of Wurttemberg, and when Duke Karl died, a mob arrested him and had him hung for treason.  Once again, the Jewish families of Stuttgart were exiled in 1737.  This story was the subject of a Nazi-produced antisemitic propaganda film Jud Suss in 1940.

Duke Karl Eugen Ludwig, founder of Ludwigsburg and otherwise known as the guy who built all the fancy palaces in the area (Neuesschloss, Ludwigsburgschloss, Schloss Solitude, and others) permitted again Jewish merchants to settle in Stuttgart, and after Wurttemberg was elevated to a Kingdom by Napoleon in 1806, conditions continued to improve.  This began the closest thing to a "golden age" the Jewish community of Stuttgart ever experienced, although it was not without widespread antisemitism from the public and setbacks.  Nonetheless, this period marked the beginning of integration into public life for Stuttgart's Jews, with an official city rabbi, a synagogue, ritual baths, and other elements of Jewish religious life appearing.  Bad Canstatt, now part of Stuttgart but then a separate village, also had an increasingly populous and influential Jewish community during the mid-to-late-1800s, and it was during this time that Albert Einstein's parents met in Canstatt and were married at the synagogue there.  Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, city Rabbi Josef Mayer was elevated to the rank of nobility by the King, in recognition for his contributions to literature, poetry, and religious texts as he was an important figure in codifying religiously liberal Reform Judaism.


Within 100 years, the population of Stuttgart's Jews went from 124 in 1825 to 4,548 in 1925, and they had fully equal legal rights under the law.  Jewish people in Stuttgart were teachers, professors, industrialists, judges, soldiers, and politicians.  It's hard to imagine all that progress could be stripped away less than 10 years later, with the rise of the National Socialists and the passage of the Nuremberg laws, which again codified legal discrimination against Jews into German law.

By 1939, the year after Kristallnacht, the Jewish population had been reduced to 2,413 as defined by the Nazi racial laws - which actually counted more people as Jews than previous censuses, as anyone with a Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish, regardless of conversion to Christianity or intermarriage, both of which were common in Stuttgart in the 20s and 30s as Jews continued to assimilate.  This number does not reflect well that as much as 60% of Stuttgart's German Jews, who were mostly middle class, had immigrated, mostly to the U.S.A or what is now Israel by 1939, many of them notable scholars, artists, musicians, scientists, and politicians.  Meanwhile, from the 1910s onward, poorer Jews from Eastern Europe, fleeing antisemitic pogroms, had settled in the area in those decades and lacked the funds to immigrate overseas to escape Nazi persecution.


The synagogue in Ludwigsburg burns on Kirstallnacht

The synagogue in Ludwigsburg burns on Kirstallnacht

Kristallnacht was a Nazi-organized, nationwide pogrom against synagogues, Jewish-owned business, and Jewish homes.  As with nearly every city, Stuttgart's synagogue and most of its holy objects were destroyed.   91 Jewish people died during the attacks, and many were rounded up and jailed under false pretenses.  The "night of broken glass" shattered any remaining illusions that German Jews may have held about attempting to wait out the Nazi regieme as they'd survived so many bouts of antisemitism throughout the centuries.  Those with the ability to immigrate did, but securing visas was difficult and even "friendly" countries like the United States and England severely restricted the number of refugees they would accept.  Nazi laws had made Jews stateless persons, with no legal rights.  For nearly all of Stuttgart's remaining 2,400 Jews, there was simply no way out.

It was under this situation that the first mass deportation of Stuttgart's Jews began on October 24, 1941, from the now-destroyed trade center at Killesberg.  Most Jews deported from Stuttgart went to the Theriesenstadt camp, or to Auschwitz.  Less than 10% of deported Jews from Stuttgart survived the camps.

Memorial to the deportation of Stuttgart's Jews

Memorial to the deportation of Stuttgart's Jews

Some of Stuttgart's Jewish population did manage avoid deportation, through hiding, often assisted by "righteous gentiles" who opposed the Nazi regime.   The vast majority of those who survived the war left Germany in the years immediately after the war.  

Stuttgart's Jewish community has never come close to fully recovering, although it is estimated that the population today is around 500 people.  A new synagogue was built on the site of the old one in the 1950s.  Many of Stuttgart's Jewish population today hails from the former Soviet Union, seeking refuge here to avoid persecution. 

Evidence of the slowly reemerging Jewish community is evident in the Jewish Culture Week, which takes place this year from November 4th through the 17th.  The program includes lectures, klezmer concerts, cooking classes, and tours of the city and synagogue.  A schedule (in German) can be found here.  

This is by no means anything other than an introduction to the topic of the Jewish history Stuttgart.  A trove of more detailed information exists online, and I highly recommend reading this history of Jewish life in Stuttgart as well as this harrowing description of Kristallnacht and the repressive laws that followed.

I also highly recommend watching this 30 minute documentary, in English, about the last two Holocaust survivors from Stuttgart.  It is incredibly moving and informative, and stresses how important it is that this history is never forgotten even when the eyewitnesses have ceased to exist



Two Holocaust survivors on the train from Stuttgart to Theresienstadt. Sharing memories of the deportation of the German Jews with a group of young people and artists from their former home town.