The Jewish community of Groningen
Prof. Dr. Wout J. van Bekkum and Engbert Schut
In the middle of the 16th century a few Jews entered the walls of the trading city of Groningen for the first time. They received residence permits from the Mayor and the City Council. Among them was a merchant who sold the city council some leather fire buckets in 1549 and 1558.
In 1555 a Jewish physician settled in the city, and in 1573 a Jew by the name of Simon was given permission to open a lending bank. He was also granted tenancy and the freedom to engage in money dealing. However the management of the bank did not satisfy the requirements of the city council. In 1576 a Jewish brother and sister were refused residence permits because of a disagreement between Simon and the goldsmiths’ guild about the sale of silver, and a number of citizens almost lost all their jewelry as a result.
The city council therefore decided that Jewish trade (‘Jodenhandel’) did more harm than good, though apparently did not see this as grounds for cancelling Simon’s tenancy, as from a lawsuit in 1583 it is clear that he was still residing in the city. However that same year a request from another Jew to open a lending bank was refused.
In the 17th century there were probably no Jews left in the city of Groningen, as its inhabitants were on the whole strongly opposed to their arrival. The Protestant church had objections, and apart from the religious obstacles Jews also had to contend with the guilds, which they could join only with difficulty or not at all. Without guild membership the only profession open to them was banking or money lending, as the church forbade Christians to charge interest and regarded monetary gain as usury. Fortunately the local authorities did not always pay heed to the church’s smear campaign. The city’s yearly free market in September attracted many street traders, including Jews from Emden and Amsterdam, some of whom decided to settle in the North and apply for citizenship, which was granted in places like Appingedam and Delfzijl.
It was not until 1661 that Jews tried to settle in the city of Groningen again. A number of Portuguese Jewish families were granted permission by the city council, but under pressure from the Protestant church they were forbidden to practice their religion openly. Towards the end of the 17th century more Jewish families settled in the city, for a longer period of time. In May 1689 a Jew gained permission to live in the city “quietly, without making the slightest noise”. In 1691 Levi Joseph, 'keeper of the mail coach', applied to the city council to be allowed to live there in perpetuity and enjoy the same privileges as other inhabitants. When permission was granted, he applied for permission to trade with the other citizens (‘borgernering’) in 1692. Although this request was declined, he was more successful two years later. Upon payment of 142 guilders and 10 five-cent pieces (‘stuivers’) and at the request of a number of other traders and citizens he was granted reduced citizen’s rights (‘klein burgerrecht’) and membership of the merchants’ guild.
There may also have been a rabbi in the city around this time, engaged by a professor to assist students with the learning of Hebrew. To the considerable alarm of the Mayor and City Council the Jewish community held religious services as well. These were strictly prohibited in 1691, in the vain hope of reducing the growing number of Jews settling. When in the last years of the seventeenth century a large number did settle in the city, the local authorities consulted Levi Joseph on how to limit the number and manage the influx.
Levi Joseph was born in Poland and had moved from Appingedam to the city of Groningen, where his father died. His stone exists to this day and is the oldest in the province. Levi Joseph was their head (‘bestuurder’) and functioned also as mohel in the city and surrounding area. Although the local authorities were aware that services were being held, they turned a blind eye for the time being. This tolerance was short-lived however, for the Mayor and City Council decided in 1710 to expel all Jews from the city and surrounding area, the reason being that Levi Joseph had bought stolen goods. He was banished from the city ‘forever’ and subsequently moved to Leeuwarden.
The 18th century
During the 18th century the attitude of the authorities towards Jews became more lenient. Commercial interests prevailed, and in 1711 the city decided to admit Jews to the new leasing of its lending bank also. In 1732 the Jew in charge of the leasing submitted a request to the Mayor and City Council to admit more Jewish families in the city, to be permitted to hold religious services in his own home, and to allow them to bury their own dead. In 1737 he was given citizen’s rights, and allowed to trade and enjoy the same freedom, privileges and immunities as other burghers and inhabitants of the city. His name was Moses Goldschmidt. On 1 January 1732 he was appointed leaseholder of the lending bank. His arrival brought about great changes in the situation of the Jews in the city of Groningen. After Moses Goldschmidt and his son Levie Goldschmidt Stadthagen ten more Jewish families arrived.
On 19th February 1732 he submitted the following request to the Mayor and City Council: “Moses Goldschmidt, leaseholder of the lending bank here, requests that he and his family and other Jews here be given freedom to practice their religion unhindered, that he be permitted to practise his religion unhindered in his own home according to the Jewish tradition, and that the Honourable Members allow him and other Jews in the city to bury their dead locally where and in which manner the Honourable Members sanction”.
Goldschmidt was indeed given permission to settle in the city with his family and “practise his religion in his home in a modest manner”. It could thus be said, that the Jewish community of Groningen came into existence thanks to Moses Goldschmidt.
Who was this Jewish leaseholder whom the Groningen authorities allowed freedom of religion and to whom they granted citizen’s rights in 1737? Moses Goldschmidt Stadthagen was born in 1681. His family hailed from Hamburg-Altona. After his marriage in 1698 he moved to Amsterdam where as a merchant he acquired great wealth. From his will it appears however that one of his sons-in-law, Isaac Joseph Cohen, caused the family a great deal of trouble. Isaac Joseph Cohen was the son of an important Jewish family from Hamburg. He was entrusted by Goldschmidt with the management of the lending bank while he himself remained in Amsterdam. Large accounting irregularities led to legal proceedings in 1736. What exactly happened is not clear, but Goldschmidt had to contribute a large sum, which by the terms of his will was later deducted from his daughter’s share.
In May 1737 he was declared a citizen of Groningen and was now allowed to trade. When he drowned in November 1738, he was initially identified as Moses Cassel but later turned out to be Moses Goldschmidt.
In 1729 a Portuguese Jew arrived who very soon obtained reduced citizen’s rights and guild membership. In 1736 he was given permission to open a weaving and spinning mill in the Pelsterstraat. In 1728 he had bought a shop near the A-poort (gate near the river A which gave entry to the city).
The synagogue and the Jewish community
In the seventeenth century the Jewish community probably used a ‘home’ synagogue (‘huissynagoge’) for their services, as they were forbidden to practise their religion publicly.
In 1744 a request was submitted to the Mayor and City Council that the ‘Regulations of the Jewish Community’ be recognized and approved. The tasks of the Parnassim (elected leaders of the congregation) were laid down in 18 clauses. It was their duty to extend hospitality to visiting Jews in turn and to make sure they were amply provided with food and drink on Shabbat and the High Holidays. If someone did not fulfill his duty, “a visiting Jew or Jewess” could without further ado receive hospitality elsewhere at his expense. If he refused to pay, the mayor would be informed and a council employee would collect the money. In addition a fine of three stuivers would be imposed which would go to the poor.
New members had to pay five Caroli (Charles V) guilders to the synagogue. Non-attendance of services was an expensive business and would incur a fine of three stuivers a week (the daily wage of an unskilled labourer was about five stuivers). Non-payment would again mean that the debt would be collected by a council employee.
The regulations also dealt with inappropriate behaviour in the synagogue. Congregants were forbidden to discuss matters not pertaining to the service, and if this was disregarded, a fine of three stuivers was imposed after a final warning. Disturbances in the synagogue were not only beneficial to the Jewish poor but also to the city’s poor. Swearing during the opening of the torah roll incurred a fine of 18 stuivers, half of which went to the city’s poor and half to the Jewish poor.
These somewhat odd regulations, which also covered death practices and rituals, were approved on 20th January 1744. This gave the Jewish community in Groningen a legal framework and assured them of the Mayor and City Council’s support. At the slightest transgression by one of its members the community could appeal to the City Council, probably also governed by the fact that half of the fines went to the non-Jewish poor.
Membership fees and enforced fines also constituted part of the income of the Jewish community. This was augmented by the rental of permanent seats in the synagogue. This ‘home’ synagogue was evidently located in the Poelestraat. Out-of-town merchants conducted their religious services elsewhere, depriving the Jewish community of much needed funds for relief of the poor. The City Council was therefore urged to disallow such synagogues. In 1745 the Mayor and City Council decreed that services could only be held in places designated by the Jewish community.
Although the word ‘synagogue’ was used all the time, the community in fact made do with a room in the lending bank in the Poelestraat. As the community expanded, this room became too small, and a house in the Steentilstraat was rented and designated as synagogue. The non-Jewish neighbours were initially curious about the goings on, but this soon turned to hostility. A committee came to the conclusion that the Jewish community should be allowed to buy a house in the Volteringestraat, later called Folkingestraat. The Jewish community had meanwhile decided to update the 1744 regulations, as they no longer covered punishment for troublemakers adequately. This greatly increased the powers of the Parnassim, and in 1767 it became clear that the rabbi’s power had grown considerably as well.
Under the city’s protection the construction of the new synagogue in the Folkingestraat took a year and a half. For security reasons there were no windows at the front. In 1756 the new synagogue was festively inaugurated. Relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens had worsened considerably in the meantime.
The young Jewish community in the city of Groningen had more than enough problems in the early stages. The number of members who did not want to or were unable to contribute financially and pay for the large debt on the synagogue building, was rapidly growing and led to a financial crisis in the 1770s. The then treasurer conveyed his complaints to the Mayor and City Council, who intervened resolutely. In 1775 a “Decree on the Jewish community” was issued in which the affairs of the community were regulated to the last detail. Their finances were now entirely in the hands of the City Council, and the number of Jews allowed to settle in the city was under stricter control again. Henceforth the Jewish community would be administered by six supervisors appointed for life. Despite all these new measures the Jewish community was plagued by financial debt up to the French period.
The year 1904 was a period of preservation and decline. Decline because many Jews had become disaffected, and the Parnassim and rabbis had become alienated from the largely poor members of the community. Many Jews did not feel like attending services anymore, even though a choir had been added to make the service more attractive. It was thought that a modern synagogue would be the solution to the problems. A synagogue which appealed to the imagination, would constitute a binding factor. To this end a Protestant architect was called in, and in 1905 the first stone was laid. The building was inaugurated in March 1906.
The fact that the Jewish community did not possess its own cemetery caused many difficulties. Apart from the fact that the deceased had to be buried in Farmsum, Pekela or Leeuwarden, a decree from 1677 forbade burials outside the city gates. Due to the increase in the Jewish population this situation became more and more untenable. Jews from the city of Groningen were therefore exempted from this decree, leading the Parnassim to apply for a cemetery of their own. Initially they had their eye on a small piece of land outside the Eastern gate (‘Oosterpoort’), but this was declined by the City Council. Eventually they acquired a plot of land in the Dwinger, North of the Galgendwinger, now called Jews’ camp (‘Jodenkamp’). This cemetery had to be enlarged in 1782 and was in use until 1827. Later on it had to be cleared for the construction of laboratories for Groningen University. The remains were moved to the cemetery in the Moesstraat, which was in use from 1827 to 1909. It still contains 906 stones. When this cemetery was no longer usable, a new one was established on the Winsumer straatweg.
Jewish tuition was primarily aimed at preparation for the Bar Mitzvah (religious maturity of boys). In the Jewish community children could be educated either at home or in school. In Groningen both methods were used. Private tuition was often chosen by the better off, or when there were too few children to start a school. The Jewish community was not directly involved with the education. The tutors’ fees were paid by the parents, and the Talmud Thora society paid for the children of the less well off. The first evidence of a Jewish schoolteacher dates from 1750. It is likely that there was a Jewish school at that time as well.
In Jewish circles the call for emancipation was very strong. In 1815 a school called Tif’eret Bachoeriem (fine young men) was established in Groningen. This was not exclusively concerned with Jewish subjects and Hebrew, but included Dutch, French, geography and arithmetic as well. From the school rules it is clear that Jewish Groningen also attached great importance to the ideals of enlightenment and progress.
In education class distinctions were manifest: whereas at the Schoolholm school tuition was free, tuition at the Peperstraat school had to be paid for.
In May 1940 a youth and day synagogue was inaugurated.
After the French period
After the French period and the investiture of King William I in 1814, the situation of the Jewish communities in the Netherlands underwent a drastic change. From then on the Jewish Nation (“Joodse Natie”) would be based exclusively on religious status and be called the Organisation of the Jewish communities in the Netherlands (‘Nederlands Israelitische Kerkgenootschap’: NIK for short). Jews became Dutch citizens, and would be described as ‘Israelites’ in preference to ‘Jews’, as the word ‘Jew’ was said to have a negative connotation. In Groningen some people used the term ‘Groningens Israel’, but all these wonderful names could not disguise the fact that Jews were still thought of as “Jeud’n”!
It is not surprising that new views regarding religious matters were also adopted and influenced religious life in Groningen in this period. The Jewish community was strongly influenced by the German ‘reform movement’. In 1848 it was felt that a reorganization of the Jewish community was due, for example that the service would gain greater prestige through the addition of a choir. A number of community members (mainly intellectuals) felt something was lacking, and thus a separate community, ‘Tshuat Jisrael’, was established in 1852.
The existing community made it clear that claims on possessions, income and rights had to be relinquished. Tshuat Jirael’s demand to use the Jewish cemetery outside the Boteringepoort free of charge, was not accommodated. The conflict escalated to such an extent that the Mayor and City Council had to mediate. Eventually the cemetery was divided. Later on there was a reconciliation, and in 1903 the community had grown to about 3000 members.
The segregation was also deeply rooted in the social wrongs that prevailed. Rich and poor were separated as was clearly reflected in the synagogue’s seating arrangements. The poor Jews lived in the Nieuwstad, and the middle classes in the Folkingestraat or at the Zuiderdiep. The rich left the Jewish neighbourhood altogether and moved to the Schildersbuurt, to the Parkweg or to the J.H. Feithstraat. And, as described above, class differences came to the fore as well in education.
Care of the poor
In contrast to former days, the Jewish community was now responsible for social welfare. Several chevras (organisations) took care of the most urgent needs. The Bikkur Holim chevra (visiting the sick) gave financial support to the sick for a fortnight and helped with clothing and food if necessary. Burials of poor people were paid for, and shiva expenses were reimbursed.
The Berit Avraham chevra (covenant with Abraham) assisted in circumcision preparation and expenses. The Beth Zekenim chevra was responsible for the old people's home, and the Teref Cholim chevra provided kosher food in public hospitals and was also active outside the city of Groningen.
Although the Jewish gymnastic society Atilla formed part of the non-Jewish club Sparta, only Jewish members were admitted to Atilla. The gymnastics and athletics club Iwria was founded at the beginning of the 1920’s, and the Jewish football club ‘De Raven’ followed soon after. The latter was replaced by ‘Hakoach’ in the thirties. There were various dramatic societies active in the twenties: ‘Onderlinge Vriendschap’, ‘Tot ons Genoegen’ and ‘Voor ons Plezier’. The Groningen Orchestra had many Jewish members.
Prominent Jews in academia
Izaak van Deen (1804-1869), son of a rabbi, became the first Jewish professor in the Netherlands, when he was appointed professor of medicine at Groningen University in 1851. Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929) the first female student of medicine in the Netherlands, studied at Groningen University. She grew up in the village of Sappemeer where her father was a General Practitioner.
An eminent representative of the legal profession was Isaac Bennie Cohen (1867-1954), professor of law in Groningen from 1910-1935. Later, as an elected member of the Provincial Executive in Groningen, he was involved with the day-to-day management of the province. As a former member of the Groningen students’ association Vindicat (the oldest student association in the Netherlands), he laid the foundation stone for their new building on 25 October 1952.
Leonard Polak (1880-1941) was professor of philosophy at Groningen University from 1928. In November 1940, like other Jewish colleagues, he was discharged from office. In protest he wrote several letters to the university’s Governing Body, labelling the occupying power invariably as the “enemy”. When this was brought to the attention of the Germans by the new head of the faculty they had appointed, Polak was arrested on 15 February 1941 and imprisoned in Leeuwarden. He was deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on May 7th, where he died on December 9th of that year.
Maurits Levie (1885-1957) was a well-known barrister, not only in Groningen but also in the rest of the Netherlands. He was a committee member for many national Jewish organisations and chairman of the Jewish community in Groningen for many years, until 1952 when he resigned in protest at the sale of the great synagogue to a dry-cleaning business. He was also a talented amateur filmmaker and made many films of Jewish life in Groningen. The colour films he made of the royal family in the thirties give a unique insight in their lives, and those about the Apeldoornsche Bosch (Jewish psychiatric institute) from 1934 and 1936 show how modern and advanced was its treatment of patients.
Jewish residents of Groningen and surrounding area
* relevant links:
Publication "Joodse stadjers" - R.U.G.
Filmmaker Maurits Levie
Congress "Nieuw licht op Leo Polak"
Joods Historisch Museum
Extracted from source:Yael (Lotje) Ben Lev-de Jong
Translation from Dutch:Michael Jamenfeld
Review:Ben Noach & Sara Kirby-Nieweg
End editing:Sara Kirby-Nieweg & prof.dr. W.J.(Wout) van Bekkum
The Synagogue of Groningen
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