When we look back on the events of 1349, it’s easy for us to connect the massacres of Jews with the 20th century’s Holocaust. The connection is real, but we need to look with fresh eyes at the events of 1349. The horrific mass deaths were motivated by prejudice and greed, but even more, by fear. By their standards, there was solid forensic evidence that the mysterious plague was really a simple matter of poisoning. In our terms, the evidence if flimsy, and even then not everyone believed it. But we’ll understand the collective trauma better if we try to take seriously what it felt like to be a German townsman of the 14th century. What they did to the Jews of their cities was more inhuman than the plague itself; but it can help us understand both the extremities to which fear can push people and the lasting effects of the fear and trauma on both victims and perpetrators.
Germany was the last major European region in which life went on as before. There were few trade routes with Germany, and by 1349, the Hanseatic League’s dominance of shipping had ended. Sadly for London and Paris, they had become much more dependent on Mediterranean vendors, who brought the plague. But the Hanse’s old territory was still a bit set apart, due to its previous tight monopoly. There were few overland roads, so not many people moved from Italy to Germany, across the Alps, or even across French territory to inland cities.
So Germany had fully a year to hear of the horrors in Rome, London and Paris. During this year, they tried to find out if they could stave it off. When rumors spread that perhaps Jews were causing the “plague” by deliberate poisoning, they listened.
In the Swiss town of Chillon, on Lake Geneva, the city council heard evidence straight from a local Jew. They wrote out a document that was duly copied and signed with their seals, and sent it to the cities nearby. It warned that the Chief Rabbi of Toledo, Spain had commissioned Jews to put poison into wells, and that they had been shown this poison and told how it was placed into wells.
We’ll probably never know what really happened. It seems likeliest that they tortured some Jews to get them to confess, but it is also possible that someone lied under oath for other reasons. It was patently false to sensible people even at the time; the Pope issued his own document, a Bull (named for the type of seal the Pope used), to declare that the plague was not caused by poison or Jews. Some local secular rulers declared it nonsense, too, including the King of Aragon and the Duke of Austria.
But the people of Germany were hysterically gripped with fear. Some city councils voted to believe the document from Chillon, while others did not—but the people took it into their own hands. They felt that they could not take any chances; the only safe Jew was a dead Jew. So in many places in Europe but especially in German cities like Strasbourg and Mainz, Jews were rounded up and deliberately put to death.
Germany had been one of the safe havens for Jews since Roman times. While England and France had often overtaxed or expelled Jews, these German cities had encouraged prosperous vineyard owners and traders. Strasbourg recorded the death of 16,000 Jews; Mainz recorded 12,000 deaths. In Mainz, Jews tried to fight back and succeeded in costing the Christian attackers 200 lives, but they were a minority and the people were hysterically determined. From the Swiss border to the Baltic, the German Jewish population became extinct. Survivors, probably those who took alarm first, escaped to Poland, where the King welcomed them. (And that’s why so many of them were in Poland and Lithuania in the 20th century.)
There’s a really gripping, personal sorrow to these accounts since medieval life didn’t offer the modern mask of machine-like efficiency. In one city, the Jews were ferried to a river island, where they were stripped of their clothing (a valuable resource) and placed in a large wooden house or barn. When the doors were locked, the ferry returned; the buildings were burned down. In another city, they disposed of dead Jews by putting their bodies into old barrels and pushing them into the river. Many of them were killed by the sword.
Is it possible that some of Germany’s later antipathy to the Jews originated in collective historical guilt from the 14th century? Their cities hosted no Jews for a long time, until in the early modern years Jews began to migrate back from Poland. Humans don’t always greet the descendants of those they once wronged by making it up to them in compassion. Sometimes they justify their actions and hate all the more. They pick and criticize, finding reasons why it was okay to despise and wrong these people. We all do it; it feels better than guilt, which is surely one of the most intolerable emotions. We should always ask ourselves if we are guilty toward those we hate and criticize.