Obtaining German Citizenship – History of German Jews
German Jews have a long and complex history dating back to the Middle Ages, with the first mentions of the community appearing in the 4th century AD. In the 19th century, Jews in Germany gained legal rights and social acceptance (the Emancipation), and contributed to German society in fields such as science, medicine and the arts. However, the rise of anti-Semitic sentiments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which culminated in the Nazi regime’s rise to power in 1933, led to the persecution and murder of millions of German Jews during the Holocaust.
This article aims to promote the possibilities of obtaining German citizenship that were changed in August 2021 regarding victims of Nazi persecution and their descendants. Since this change, hundreds of thousands of Israelis related to Nazi persecution victims are able to apply for and obtain high-quality European citizenship. The article presents the history of German Jews throughout the generations and at the end also addresses the legal aspect of obtaining a German passport.
The history of German Jews
The early history of German Jews and the beginnings of the community’s formation are relatively unknown. However, a single reference in 321 CE by the Roman Emperor Constantine regarding a Jewish community in the city of Cologne cleared up some of the uncertainty surrounding the community’s beginnings. The reference appeared in a decree issued by the Emperor allowing local residents as well as Jews to take part in the local labor market.
This decree is considered historic not merely because it mentions the city’s Jews, but also because it heralds their freedom as citizens with equal rights alongside the residents with whom they lived. The document officially recognizes the right of the Jews to take an active part in municipal jobs together with members of the city’s elite. In addition, it officially permits them to engage in any administrative or financial position they wished.
The document tells us not only about the presence of Jews in the city, but also about their relatively high socio-economic standing. According to the document, it can be proven that their population was large, and that they were also economically involved and held prestigious public positions. Accordingly, it is claimed that the community’s early prosperity was responsible for attracting more Jews, especially from the Roman Empire.
Although this period of time is not documented on paper in a detailed historical manner, it is known in research as a peaceful period of time, in which Jews enjoyed extraordinary social equality and were allowed to live where they wanted. Research also claims that, similar to the locals, the Jews did not have a high level of literacy (due to a lack of correspondence) and were not proficient in reading and writing foreign languages, but only the Hebrew alphabet for the purpose of prayer.
Although the literacy that accompanied Jews for generations, granting them an advantage over the locals, did not exist then, it nevertheless seems that they secured themselves a high reputation and were a decisive factor in raising the prestige of the cities in which they were resided. As far as is known, the cities they lived in at this early stage of their settlement in the Ashkenaz region were along the famous Rhine River, which probably indicates that most of them were farmers.
Community life from the 8th century onwards
We have a slightly more extensive historical background about the Jews from the 8th and 9th centuries, especially in the days of Charlemagne. During this period, Jews from countries such as Iraq, Iran (Persia), Italy, Egypt and North Africa came to Germany in order to develop urban economies. It is important to note that at that time the Christian countries were in conflict with the Muslim ones and for that reason the trade route was often dangerous for Christians.
The Christians, who feared Islamic intelligence services in their provinces, banned their Muslim enemies from living in Europe, especially in the western part of the continent. This led to a lack of merchants to link the Western world to the Eastern one – which at that time controlled the main international trade route, from India through Iran and Central Asia, and west to wealthy Iraq and Egypt.
Jews, who at that time had almost exclusive access everywhere, were known as those who could revive the economy thanks to the connections they had with their fellow Jews on the various continents. This is why the authorities often sought them out. It is claimed that during the reign of the Judeophilic Charlemagne, merchant colonies and sometimes guilds were built, most of whose employees were Jews.
The king first settled the Jews in the south of France in the regions of Provence and Aquitaine. Over the years he continued to settle them in other cities in northern France and western Germany. It is known that he founded a Jewish guild in his hometown – Aachen. This city also served him during his adulthood, and it is where he chose to build his most magnificent palace out of the 65 palaces he built throughout the Carolingian Empire.
A Torah center and incubator for scholars
The movement of Torah sages that would later form Ashkenazi Hassidism flourished in the 10th century with the presence of spiritual greats such as Abun HaGadol, Rabbeinu Gershom, Kalonymus the Elder, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Yehuda the Hassid and more. This movement transferred the center of the Torah and Halacha from Babylon of the Geonim period to the Ashkenaz region. The aforementioned rabbis managed to attract sages to Germany from all over the Mediterranean.
For the first time, respectable yeshivas began to spring up on the banks of the Rhine, proudly presenting Torah to all of Israel’s diaspora. Unlike the rest of Islamic Jewry located in North Africa, Spain, the Land of Israel or Iraq, the Ashkenazi Jews focused exclusively on Halacha and sometimes even on anti-Christian theology such as Rashi’s, while they hardly paid any attention to philosophy or poetry of any kind.
The writers of the Tosafot developed a sophisticated mode of thinking when they composed comprehensive footnotes and commentaries to the Talmud and Rashi’s commentaries. This daring writing project was intended to clarify the Talmud, so that all of Israel could understand the meaning of the text. The educational project was successful for generations and is still considered a cornerstone in understanding the Torah. A little later, admiration for Kabbalah also began to develop among these sages.
The German Carolingian dynasty and its attitude towards the Jews – obtaining German citizenship
The Carolingian dynasty was deeply influenced by biblical role models such as David, Solomon, Josiah and more. For this reason, they used to imitate the ceremony of anointing heirs to the throne in the royal palace, and made sure that it was performed in a biblical style. The reason for this was the attribution of the Carolingian dynasty to the House of David (like quite a few royal houses in Europe at the time; even the Hanoverian dynasty of the British royal house considers itself related to the House of David).
Therefore, the Carolingians, led by Charlemagne, cherished the Jews, who served as an example and symbol of rule and order for them. Several centuries later, during the Renaissance, this admiration led to the establishment of the “Hebraism” movement. This movement flourished in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, England and Italy, and it praised the biblical kings and presented the biblical path as an example of a prosperous, ethical kingdom.
Another interesting story told about Charlemagne regards his foreign relations with the Abbasid caliph – Harun al-Rashid. In order to restore the economic order, the Frankish-Carolingian ruler knew that he had to stabilize trade policy with the Islamic world. To that end, he sent a delegation to the Caliph in Baghdad which also included a Jewish interpreter from Aachen named Isaac.
For Ashkenazi Jews, the years of the Charlemagne’s reign are known as the Ashkenazi Golden Age of the Middle Ages. The restrictions of the previous Visigothic kingdom were prohibited and in their place the Carolingian kings promoted equal rights. It is said that Charlemagne’s father, Pepin “the Short”, owed allegiance to his Jews because they helped him in his wars against the Muslim Moors.
The period of the Jewish crisis in Germany
The period of calm enjoyed by Jews for perhaps a thousand years ended with the Catholic Church’s conquest of the hearts of the Western European nations. When Pope Urban II began to make speeches inciting the Christian nations to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, the Knights Templar began to assemble their armies from all over Western Europe.
The incitement began at the end of November of the year 1095, and was intended to shake up the hearers’ and instill them with a fighting spirit. This was in order to embark on a campaign to conquer the Holy Land and additionally help balance the Christian power in the Levant region. During that period of time, the Byzantine forces in the Middle East were gradually weakened by the Muslim Seljuk forces. In order to restore deterrence, it was decided to embark on an extensive campaign of conquest in Syria as well.
For this purpose, three European empires contributed by sending their armies – the English, the French and the Germans (who at the time were part of the Holy Roman Empire). In August 1096, the united forces of about 150,000 knights set out. However, a crowd of eager Christians unexpectedly flocked to join the knights in order to lend them a hand in the conquest of Jerusalem and bestow blessings on them until they arrived there.
Although the goal was to travel to the Land of Israel, the mob began to unleash its fury on Jewish towns it encountered along the way. The massacres spread by word of mouth very quickly and even reached distant Jewish districts on the Rhine River. These murderous events were referred to by the Jews as the Rhineland Massacres. According to researchers’ estimates, during the two weeks of the massacres, about 12,000 Jews were murdered in the cities of Mainz, Worms, Speyer and Trier.
Communities were destroyed, babies’ heads were maliciously smashed against walls, boys preferred to die sanctifying God’s name than to convert to Christianity – even just outwardly. The anarchy, the cruelty and the number of murdered people caused great trauma among the Jews. This shock grew over the years into an intergenerational trauma which caused the Jews to choose to isolate themselves from their neighbors and distance themselves from any kind of social interactions.
These events were a primary factor in the emigration of Ashkenazi Jews to Eastern Europe and especially to Poland – a kingdom that at the time promoted a spirit of tolerance towards minorities. Slowly, the Jewish-German language (Yiddish) began to integrate words from Polish and other Eastern European dialects. Names such as Lazar, Zalman, Moshka, Kalman, Lipa and more became common among Jews.
German antisemitism in the 14th century
The second and decisive factor regarding Jews’ immigration to Eastern Europe was the libel of well-poisoning. This libel had been periodically spread against Jews since the 12th century, however, in the 1440s it reached its peak in the midst of the Black Plague. The plague hit Europe and depleted its overall population by a third, but Jews represented a lower proportion of the victims than Christians did.
This fact immediately raised suspicions among the authorities that the plague was a deliberate act on the part of the Jews, and that they were trying to poison the wells in Europe because of their hidden hatred for Christians. Throughout Germany, France and Switzerland, thousands of Jews were burned at the stake in groups, severely tortured, put to the sword, or threw themselves into fires in order not to fall victim to the Church’s cruel tortures.
It is said that the entire community of the city of Basel (a city within the ancient German kingdom), some 650 Jews, were burned alive in a wooden building built for the purpose of the punishment. About 600 more Jews were massacred in Mainz, 3,000 in the city of Erfurt (central Germany), and about 2,000 Jews were burned at the stake in Strasbourg. The communities of Cologne and Frankfurt were completely destroyed, as were another 210 communities out of some 500 throughout Germany.
From here on, the massive Jewish migration towards Eastern Europe began. The persecuted and their descendants who survived the inferno of the Black Plague days built new communities in the territories that are today identified with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and Romania. The territories of Eastern Europe were significantly less affected by the Black Plague than the Western Europe, which led to an expansion of the Jewish population in this part of the world.
German Jewry from the Renaissance period
It would be difficult to say that until the Enlightenment period or even after it, the German principalities (which later coalesced into united Germany) were kind or egalitarian towards Jews. Even after the Renaissance came to Europe, the German region was unusual in its hatred towards Jews. The well-known reformist Martin Luther taught that the killing of Jews is a legitimate thing and will not result in punishment in the afterlife.
The religion that so thoroughly shaped everyday life had such a profound effect on the zealous religious public that it would sometimes go on massacre and revenge campaigns against the Jews. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, murderous riots such as the “Hep-Hep” riots or blood libels such as the Berlin libels did not cease. However, at the beginning of the 19th century Western European countries, along with the United States, began promoting the idea of emancipation.
This idea paved the way for the acceptance of masses of Jews into prestigious jobs among German society. The various principalities such as Hesse, Westphalia, Frankfurt, etc., opened their doors similarly at the beginning of the 19th century. From here on there was a socio-economic flourishing of the Jews of Germany and this Jewry rose to greatness, probably more than any other Jewry in the last thousand years.
Obtaining a German passport
Thanks to legal amendments passed in Germany over the past two years, many Jews are able to apply for and receive a European German passport. Eligibility to receive a German passport is extended to descendants of people who were victims of Nazi persecution in Germany between 1933-1945. This is on the condition that the original citizenship holder was a German citizen or resided in the country between the aforementioned years.
Our thanks to Mr. Jonathan Gabrielov who helped in writing this article.