The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: Facing the Holocaust

By Livia Rothkirchen | Go to book overview

1
The Historical
Setting

Throughout the centuries early Jewish settlement in the Bohemian Crownlands has intrigued many a scholar trying to determine the precise date of its beginning. The crux of the ongoing discussion appears to be the presence of Jews in the city of Prague.1 Legend has it that “they had dwelt unmolested in that city from time immemorial. No one knew when they had first settled there; but tradition said it was in times when Bohemia was yet heathen.” Even today views differ widely, and in fact historiography to all intents and purposes avails itself both of records and of ancient chronicles and legends as points of departure.2

Owing to its geopolitical situation, laying astride important trade routes, Prague acted from the beginning as crossroads connecting East and West. First reference reaches back to the early tenth century, to the so-called Raffelstatten Toll Ordinances (903–906), which regulated relations between the Great Moravian and Carolingian empires, and which note the Jewish slave-traders in this enclave.3 The second important record is the description of the noble Spanish Jew Ibrahim Ibn Yaqub, who in his travelogue from the year 965 presents Prague as a highly prosperous center of trade where among merchant caravans, converging from near and far, Jewish traders barter their goods and wares.4

The relatively favorable conditions were disrupted at the time of the First Crusade in 1096. Many of the Jews were massacred, their property looted; others were forced to convert.5

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries economic conditions encouraged the growth of Jewish settlements. As elsewhere, the Jews engaged in trading, money lending, agriculture, and manufacturing, rendering them useful to the monarchs. Their function as servi camerae regiae (servants of the royal chamber) afforded them status and protection. Historians describing the relationship between the monarch and his Jewish subjects likened their usefulness to that of bees, whose personal safety had to be guaranteed for the benefit of the royal treasury.6

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