Jewish Heritage in Halberstadt

Tracing the early history of the city's Jewish communities

Halberstadt is a city in Germany, with a long Jewish history stretching back centuries. In the early 18th century, its Jewish community was one of the largest in Central Europe and the city was known as a centre of theology.

A formal written order of protection is the earliest documented evidence of Jewish life in Halberstadt in the Middle Ages. In the writ, issued by Bishop Voldrad von Kranichfeld along with the city council in 1261, the city promises to protect the Jews as it has done ‘in the past’

After the Thirty Years War when Halberstadt became part of Brandenburg-Prussia, more knowledge on Jewish life surfaces. By late 1641 there were almost complete preservations of artefacts from the Jewish Community of Halberstadt.

In 1650, the Great Elector Frederick William issued a decree that allowed Jews in Halberstadt to engage in trade, to butcher ‘according to their custom’ and to maintain a synagogue.

In 1669, the synagogue was destroyed and the Jewish community sued the city of Halberstadt. The Great Elector Frederick William allowed an investigation. In the end, the city of Halberstadt had to pay compensation to the community. It remains unclear if another synagogue was built right after or if religious services were held in private rooms.

In the 1680s, Berend Lehmann (1661-1730) originally from the Prince-Bishopric of Essen, moved to Halberstadt. He had married Mirjam, the daughter of the deceased local Court Jew Alexander Joel. Court Jews were Jewish money lenders who financed European royalty and the nobility, as well as providers of luxury goods, advisors in questions of reorganising the administration, and diplomats. Starting in 1691, Lehmann was registered in the lists of Jews mentioned in the above picture as the owner of his own writ of protection. He is considered to be one of the most important Court Jews of his day.

From Halberstadt, he set up connections to the courts of Brandenburg-Prussia, Hanover, Brunswick and Saxony. As was typical of Court Jews, Lehmann also promoted Judaism. He supported both the local community and German-speaking Jews beyond Halberstadt. Among other things, he financed the first complete printing of the Babylonian Talmud (religious text and centrepiece of Jewish cultural life ) in Germany between 1696 and 1699. It was printed in Frankfurt (Oder) and he donated half of the copies to educational institutions free of charge.

Around 1700 the Klaus was built and was founded by Lehmann. It was a place of learning where two or three distinguished Rabbis would be able to study, teach and publish, free of any duties in the community. In 1857, Joseph Hirsch, a successful businessman, arranged to modernise the existing building of the Klaus, and an additional part was built. It included a beth midrash (a hall dedicated for Torah study), and a study centre with a library, which was connected to a prayer room, stretching over two stories. It was in use until 1938.

Financing synagogues was also quite common among Court Jews and thanks to Lehmann, a new Baroque Synagogue (located between the streets Bakenstraße and Judenstraße) was completed for the community around 1712. The synagogue was inspired by the royal court in Dresden and was considered to be the most beautiful Baroque Synagogue in the German realm. The community paid 6,000 taler, a loan from Lehmann; the yearly interest paid went to support scholars at the Klaus.

The two oldest Jewish cemeteries ‘Am Roten Strumpf’ and ‘Am Berge’ lie just outside of the medieval city wall close to the former Jewish quarter.

Burials took place there since the middle of the 17th century. Lehmann's gravestone is preserved, and it praises his generosity as a community benefactor. The Halberstadt Jewish cemeteries are a unique testimony to the important community and its burial culture rooted in Neo-Orthodoxy.

To learn more about Jewish life and sites in Halberstadt, visit the website J Story for a full tour.

This blog is part of the Jewish History Tours project, which explores location based storytelling highlighting multiculturalism, persecution and migration.