“Michelstadt”
Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities:
Germany volume 3
(Germany)

49°40' / 09°00'

Translation from Pinkas ha-kehilot Germanyah

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1992


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Acknowledgments

Project Coordinator and Translator

Selwyn Rose

 

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to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities, Germany
Volume 3, page 252, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1992


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[Page 252]

Michelstadt, Germany

YearNumber of
Citizens
Number
of Jews
%
Total
1786 18 families 
1791 104 
1828 177 
18613,098926.2
18803,2961745.3
19003,2241243.8
19103,6301263.5
19253,913992.5
19334,071912.2
19394,085260.6
5.2.1945 14 
1945 1 Family 

Religious Affiliations of the Population as a Percentage in 1933

JewsCatholicsProtestantsOthers
2.26.790.30.8

From the History of the Community

The Beginnings of Jewish Settlement

From the 12th Century the City Michelstadt was the capital of the Principality of Erbach and in 1806 became integrated into the Grand Duchy of Hessen.

In about 1570 Yisrael Wolf of Königstein and the Rabbi Hertz of Friedberg, leased the local mint. In the 17th Century several Jewish families were resident in Michelstadt. In 1653 the Municipality borrowed 20 Guilden from 'the Jew Löb'. In 1654 two Jewish families living in Michelstadt paid 'Protection Fees' of 6 Guilden and in 1658 4 Jews, among them the same Löb, are recorded as paying 3 Guilden 'Residents' fees'. In 1686 a local Jew renounced his religion and in the years 1717, 1759 and 1807 additional cases of conversion occurred. The conversion of 1759 was that of the 'State Rabbi' of the Principality of Erbach - Yitzhak Weill - who was baptised as a Christian in Darmstadt together wih his wife and children.

In about 1700 a Jewish cemetery was opened in Michelstadt, serving the local area and in 1740 a wall built surrounding it. From the beginning of the 18th Century the Jewish influx steadily grew and a community apparently was formed - one of the few in the Principality of Erbach. The first synagogue was adjoining the wall of the city, as was the second which was built on the same site in 1791.

The Jews of Michelstadt were considered second-class citizens (Beisassen). Apart from the 'Protection Fees' they were liable for all other taxes placed upon the citizenry. A few of them were 'Court Jews' to the Counts of Erbach; for example Abraham Josef, who in 1780 received exemption from paying the 'Protection Fee'. In 1798 the Count named Moses Emmanuel Spier of Michelstadt as '.... our Court Jew......caring for our financial and other business interests.....enjoying the same rights and priviliges granted to our other servants.' In 1767 the community leader, Haim Spier, donated 531 Guilden to the Michelstadt community for the establishment of a fund for needy students. Moses Emmanuel Spier increased the fund, which from 1838 automatically granted assistance to non-Jewish students as well, and although the inflation which occurred after the First World War seriously reduced its value, 40,000 Marks remained in the fund in 1939. The Court-Agent Spier also contributed 24 Guilden annually to the destitute of the city.

In 1758 the Michelstadt butchers petitioned the Count to prohibit the Jews from selling the non-kosher portions of their meat to the Christians, but the Count decided the case in favour of the Jews. In 1796 the Jews were required to pay 407 Guilden as their share of the City's war expenses.

The 19th and Beginning of the 20th Centuries

Trade and Commerce

In 1815 the value of the property belonging to the 24 local Jewish families was estimated at 69,740 Guilden - triple the average for a Jewish family in the Province of Starkenburg. The property of Yitzhak Leon - one of the wealthiest Jews in the area - was estimated at 18,000 Guilden. It would appear that the economic situation of the local Jews attracted many beggars and tramps to the area. In a report, submitted to Darmstadt in 1810, it was stated that the Jewish community supported its own destitute, although the homeless beggars and tramps constituted a severe burden on the treasury and the assistance extended to them '.. only encouraged numberless others.'

In 1840, 8, of a total of 33 family-heads, were citizens of the town while the remainder were still considered as 'Protected Jews'. 29 Jews were engaged in trade, and the remaining four were artisans. From the second half of the 19th Century local Jews were already engaged in industry and banking. The Leon and Strauss families built a factory for manufacturing match-boxes in Michelstadt; Abraham Solomon Josef (1827-1892) - a supplier of raw materials to local industry, most of which were owned by the Count's family - founded a bank, with the Count's encouragement, and thus laid the foundations of banking operations which came to span Europe in four generations. In 1972 descendants of the family were still managing the bank's affairs in the London Branch.

Jew-baiting and Anti-Semitism

In 1819 there were anti-Jewish outbreaks in Michelstadt and defamatory pamphlets posted on walls and a few cases of bullying, but the government, the Municipal Council and the Citizens' Council came to the help of the Jews. In 1849 inflammatory pamphlets were stuck to the walls of the Town Hall and private houses, and the head of the community, Koppel Wiesbader, received an anonymous letter. Although the culprits were never apprehended, general opinion held that debtors to the Jews were responsible. In 1893 the anti-Semitic delegate Otto Hirschel from Frankfurt gained a majority in the Odenwald elections but he obtained relatively little support in Michelstadt.

Community Life

Antique religious artifacts were found in the synagogue, among them a Torah-Scroll dating from the beginning of the 18th Century. In 1810, the synagogue was damaged by a fire which also consumed Torah-Scrolls. Many Jewish shops were also consumed in the flames. The Community needed assistance from the Frankfurt Community to make good the damage. In 1856 the synagogue was renovated from the foundations up, and again in 1911, with the help of a loan from the Spier Fund. The synagogue contained a memorial-plaque to 'The Ba'al Shem' of Michelstadt (see below). In the years 1836 and 1859 the community adopted new constitutions for the synagogue.

In the second half of the 19th Century Michelstadt became the Rabbinical seat for the whole of the rural district of Erbach - Hirschhorn, Neckarsteinach, Breuberg and Steinbach. The Jews of Steinbach - in 1830 4 families - belonged during this period to the community of Michelstadt, while other local communities - Barfeld, Kirchbrombach, König and others belonged to the local Burial Society, which was an independent organization with its own budgetary management. The cemetery was enlarged in the middle of the 19th Century.

The children of the Jewish community studied in the general school (in 1847 - 40 pupils), where they also received religious instruction under the auspices of the community. In 1900 the veteran Cantor/teacher, Gottschalk, received a Medal of Honour from the Duchy.

During the 60's and 70's the community reached its maximum population - 200 souls - thereafter steadily declining as the Jewish birth-rate fell together with the increase in the number of young people who left for the big cities or emigrated.

The 'Ba'al Shem of Michelstadt'

An unprecedented flowering took place in the Michelstadt community in the first half of the 19th Century, under the leadership of the 'Ba'al Shem' - the Rabbi Arieh (Zekel Leib) Wormser (1768-1847), and the name of Michelstadt became famous far afield. The Rabbi Wormser was considered a prodigy while still very young and sent to study in the famous Seminaries of Frankfurt, where he also obtained a broad, general education, acquired a knowledge of the Cabbala in the Seminary of the Cabbalist, Rabbi Nathan Adler and adopted a life-style of extreme vegetarianism. In 1790, after being ordained as a Rabbi and marrying, he returned to Michelstadt, obtained letters of protection and opened a Seminary which in 1805 had 70 students. The needy among them were maintained by Rabbi Wormser with the aid of donations he obtained. His home and pocket were open to all wandering beggars, irrespective of their religion, while he himself maintained a life-style of ascetism. The flooding of Michelstadt with external students with no means of support, his unusual life-style, his liking for dressing like 'the Polish Jews', and above all his increasing fame as the possessor of supernatural powers, made him a veritable thorn in the side of community leaders, who frustrated his selection as Rabbi and even caused his imprisonment, for a short time, with accusations of ' ...acts of witchcraft and fraud'.

In 1909, after the death of his wife, the Rabbi Wormser moved to Mannheim and occupied himself with medicine in the Jewish Hospital, where his first miracle occurred - the curing of a mentally sick woman who was considered incurable - he married the woman's daughter and returned to Michelstadt. In 1811 he was chosen as Rabbi (unpaid) for the rural communities of Odenwald, on condition that he refrained from occupation with the Cabbala and '...other strange manifestations likely to exploit the simple faith of the peasantry...', thus it was registered in the protocol of the Hessen authorities. Resistence to him was forgotten in time and in 1822 he was invited to officiate as the community's Rabbi, together with the Rabbi Wolf Mohr (d. 1846), again without pay. Thereafter he rapidly became Rabbi of the State. During his later years the name of the Rabbi Wormser spread far and wide as a healer and Jews and Christians alike came to his door. From his diary it would appear that in two years alone he treated about 1,500 patients from 700 different locations, with his unique methods, which combined Cabbalistic knowledge with the exact sciences and use of herbal medicine. The simple people, Jew and Christian alike, saw him as a saint and made pilgrimages to him. Many legends began to be woven about his name and his wonderful deeds. The Rabbi Wormser conducted an extensive correspondence in Germany and abroad, occupying himself with investigations into the Talmud and its interpretations; in 1887 his essay 'She'arit Yitzhak' was published in Jerusalem; in 1948 a group of interpretations on the Talmud and the 'Shulkhan Aruch' and in 1983 'Commentaries on Knowledge', which included an article on topics in the Torah and investigations in botany. (He developed a new excellent species of pear, bearing his name and still growing today in the Odenwald and the United States, where it was taken by emigrants). His extensive library included books on German philosophy, medicine, natural sciences, history and the rest of the sciences, since, in his view. 'the rest of the wissenschaften are also called wisdom..' In 1825 a fire struck Michelstadt and his great library was consumed in the flames. Rabbi Wormser managed to replace it with the help of the Frankfurt and other communities. He was an admirer of Moses Mendelsohn, whom he nicknamed 'The Maharam of Dassau', praising his writings and his 'Explanations' (Beiyur). During the last part of his life, he conducted a bitter battle against the Reform Movement. After his death he became part of the 'folklore' of the Odenwald. Until today his picture can be seen on some of the houses in Michelstadt, and Germans are known to visit his grave, light candles and pray. Even during the days of the Second World War, soldiers would surreptitiously visit his grave before leaving for the front. Rabbi Wormser - the last of Michelstadt's Rabbis - died destitute (1847), and consequently a fund had to be raised in order to support his widow and children. The library passed to the fund and was sold in 1861. In 1908 a committee, headed by the Mayor of Michelstadt, was founded to establish a lasting memorial to the 'Ba'al Shem' and on the house in which he lived, a memorial plaque was fixed. In 1940 the Nazis confiscated the fund, but it was renewed in 1980, in London, with the aim of publishing the writings of the Rabbi and support the Seminary named after him - 'Michelstadt Community'.

In 1859 the Michelstadt community became affiliated to the Darmstadt congregation and later to the Orthodox rabbinical authority there.

During the First World war two of Michelstadt's Jews died fighting.

The Weimar Republic

In 1922 the 'Central Committee' opened a branch in Michelstadt. A Jewish Womens' Society and a Burial Society for men also operated in the town. In 1932 Emil Strauss acted as Community Leader. 13 children received religious instruction under the tutelage of the Cantor/teacher Leopold Strauss, and apart from them children from local villages, who lived in Michelstadt during school periods, also studied there. The Community was affiliated to the Orthodox Rabbinical Authority in Darmstadt. A kosher slaughter-house was available in Michelstadt.

Most of the Michelstadt Jews were traders or shop-holders - mainly dealing in textiles but also timber and agricultural products. A few among them also dealt in livestock. The Jews were accepted by the local population and were active in public and social affairs, not a little because of the influence of the liberal and enlightened Mayor, Heinrich Ritzel, who was particularly sensitive to the rights of the Jews and minorities. In 1930 he resigned and the congregation sent him a Testimonial Letter.

In 1930 a local restaurant was habitually used as a meeting-place by the Nazis. The Central Committee asked the owner to clarify his position in the light of the number of Jews who patronized the premises. He replied that the request itself was proof of Jewish insolence and confirmed the justice of anti-Semitic claims. The owner framed his reply and hung it on the walls of his restaurant. In 1931, the restaurant was included in the list of establishments that Jews were recommended not to visit. In the elections for the Reichstag of 14.9.1930, the Nazis received 31.3% of the votes in Michelstadt (compared to 18.5% for the whole of Hessen), while the Social Democrats received 37.5%. In the follow-up elections (31.7.32) the Social Democrats remained the same while the Nazis increased theirs to 45.6% (compared to 43.1% in Hessen).

Nazi Rule

In August 1934, a local barber, who was a member of the SA, encountered a Jewess in the stair-well of an apartment building, threw her to the ground and began abusing her. The barber was tried, fined a sum of money and the case reported in the press. In 1937 the Jewish teacher, Leopold Strauss, was accused of 'Defiling the Race' and arrested, but released after his wife succeeded in establishing his innocence. The incident was engineered by a German woman neighbour and awakened a storm in the press. Immediately afterwards the family left Michelstadt and moved to Frankfurt. From then on there was no Cantor or Jewish teacher in Michelstadt. The teacher, his wife and 4 daughters managed to emigrate to England, but the 3 sons were transferred to Holland where they were lost during the war. In 1937 Moritz Oppenheimer was the Community Leader.

On the night of the 9th November, 1938 men of the SA from Michelstadt and the surroundings, the SS and the 'Hitler-Jugend', gathered together in the local SA club, where they received their instructions for an 'operation' and divided into several groups. Early in the morning about 15-20 Party-Members broke into the synagogue, accompanied by enthusiastic local citizens. There, with axes and pick-axes, they destroyed the interior of the building, its furniture and some of the religious artifacts. The debris was thrown out into the street. Thanks to an early warning received from a German woman, the community managed to secrete a few Torah-Scrolls and other religious items before the gang arrived. The building was not set alight only because of its proximity to grain-silos and other storage buildings.

A second group set out to destroy Jewish shops and apartments. These rioters smashed furniture and crockery, removed goods from the shops and transported them by truck and cart to the Town-Hall. When the Mayor refused the 'delivery', claiming 'we are not thieves and pillagers', the rioters transferred the goods to the local school-house and jail, where they distributed the 'spoils' among the needy members of the Party and their families. The Mayor was called to account before the Party authorities but retained his position.

A third group of rioters stopped Jewish men - at least 6 in number - chained them together and forced them to march through the streets abusing them and hitting them on the way, together with some active participation from bystanders watching the spectacle. Later, all the men over the age of 16 were sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, from where all of them, or most, were released after a few weeks.

During 'Kristallnacht' the memorial-plaque on the wall of the Ba'al Shem's house was removed. In the Jewish cemetery, the SA and 'Hitler-Jugend' destroyed the purification-chamber and toppled and broke gravestones, among them the gravestone of the Ba'al Shem.. At least 63 Jews left Michelstadt during the years 1933-1941. 48 of them emigrated - 24 to the United States, 9 to Palestine, 5 to England, 4 to France, 3 to South Africa, 3 to South America and 15 moved to other parts of Germany. 9 Jews died as a matter of course in Michelstadt. 14 Jews still remained there in February 1942 (according to Gestapo lists).

At the beginning of 1942 a German farmer by the name of Liszt, from the village of Ernsbach, hid a Jew from Michelstadt in his house, and informers told the police. In March of that year, a few days before the expulsion of the Jews from Michelstadt, the Jew managed to escape to Switzerland, and from there emigrated to the United States. The farmer Liszt was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp where he perished.

In March 1942 10 Jews from Michelstadt were transported to camps in Poland, among them the ex-community leader Emil Strauss and his wife Frida. In September of that year 3 aged Jews were sent to Theresienstadt. One Jewess, married to a German, remained in Michelstadt. She was sent to Auschwitz in April 1943.

In the middle of 1942 the synagogue and the cemetery were confiscated by the Reich. A military barracks was erected in the cemetery. Bones and skulls were exposed and left lying on the ground. The synagogue was used as a store for old iron until 1945.

After the War

In 1945 a Polish-Jewish family settled in Michelstadt and opened a cinema. They were the only Jews in the whole of the Odenwald district. The American Occupying Forces compelled ex-SA, SS and 'Hitler-Jugend' members to renovate the Jewish cemetery. In 1947, the Centenary of the Ba'al Shem's death, his great-grandson, Fritz Dreyfus, erected a new gravestone on his grave and the Municipality re-affixed a new memorial-plaque to the wall of his house. The Municipality also maintains the cemetery which contains 125 graves, the oldest of which dates to 1720.

In February 1949, in the Darmstadt District Court, 23 rioters of the Michelstadt 'Kristallnacht' were tried. At least 12 were sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 2-18 months.

In 1962 the Weizman Institute of Science bestowed an Honorary Membership upon the ex-Mayor Heinrich Ritzel, who even during the Nazi era did everything in his power to assist the Jews. After the war he was elected to the Bundestag.

The synagogue was used for many years as a storeroom, but during the 70's was renovated as a part of old Historic Michelstadt. In 1977 The 'Society of Hessen Jewish Communities', with the help of the Hessen Parliament, created a historical museum in the synagogue, to the memory of the Jews of Odenwald, and named after Rabbi Dr. Y.A. Lichtigfeld, the Rabbi of Hessen in the years 1957-1977.

Bibliography:

Hildsheimer, Meir: A Historical Portrait of Rabbi Zekel Leib Wormser (The Ba'al Shem of Michelstadt); Publications of the American Academy of Jewish Research, Vol. 53 (1986), pp 7-28.-
Herz, Erhmann (Judaeus): Der Baalschem von Michelstadt, Frankfurt a.M. 1908.-
Maier, Mathilde: Die Geschichten des Wunderrabbi von Michelstadt, Michelstadt- Neuther 1982.-
Roth, E. & Haas, A.: Landesrabbiner Dr. J.E. Lichtigfeld Museum, Frankfurt a.M. 1978.-
Schmall, Martin: Die Juden in Michelstadt 1658-1942, Michelstadt 1982.-
Strauss, R.: The Ba'al Shem of Michelstadt, Mesmerism and Cabala, Historia Judaica, pp 135-148.-
Wormser, Michael: Das Leben un Wirken des zu Michelstadt vestorbenen Rabbiners S.L. Wormser, Offenbach/. 1953

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