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How my historical research into the Jew-licenses of Cologne freed me from the grip of hate

Shulamit S. Magnus
March 27, 2019

This morning, I donated another batch of archival materials to the Central Archives of the Jewish People, Jerusalem.

Some were related to my many-years-long project on Pauline Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother, which eventuated in three books. Sending that off was pretty uncomplicated emotionally. Done.

Other material—painstaking notes, photocopies of pivotal documents—were from my first project, a case study of Jewish emancipation in Germany, begun as the dissertation for my doctorate in Jewish history at Columbia University. Letting go of those, surprisingly, was much more difficult.

In this first work, I studied the city of Cologne over a period of nearly 100 years, seeking to grasp dynamics from both sides, Jewish and not, of a period in which, as I put it, the rules that governed Jewish-non-Jewish relations changed fundamentally. This is how I defined “emancipation.” Not as a series of laws or even political processes, which is how I encountered emancipation in my graduate studies, and which I sensed was not even the beginning of the story; but as a vast human process between an historic out-group, Jews, and a majority society compelled by overwhelming social forces to change how it related to Jews. That process was messy and uncharted, an unprecedented situation in the history of both groups.

Cologne, as my mentor, professor Fritz Stern, noted when I presented my basic idea for a dissertation, was the perfect place to study these dynamics, since its history on the Jewish question was extreme. Recorded Jewish settlement in the city goes back to the early 4th century CE, under the Romans. For complex reasons I present in the 1997 book that eventuated from my research, Jewish Emancipation in a German City: Cologne, 1797-1871, the city expelled its Jews in 1424, not at all unusual in early modernity, the high period of Jewish expulsions in Central Europe.

But Cologne, unlike most places, rigidly excluded Jews thereafter: not letting some back in, only to re-expel and readmit, as happened in many Central European locations. In Cologne, there was no ghetto, no Jewish street: no Jews at all. In the rare event that political pressures forced permission for a (very wealthy) Jew to traverse the city en route elsewhere, he (I don’t recall reading any were women), had to be accompanied in the streets by a red-cloaked guard, proclaiming, “Jew! Jew!”

Then, in 1789, the French Revolution happened, and shortly thereafter, was carried across the map of Europe by armies of the Revolution. Cologne, on the left bank of the Rhine, near France, was not just conquered, but annexed. Administratively at least, the erstwhile self-governing Free Imperial City of Cologne was now as French as Paris and was forced not only to admit Jews but to accommodate them as full and equal citizens—“citoyens.” This was a totally new concept in Europe, tried out on Jews, Europe’s congenital out-group, against the backdrop of millennial discrimination and demonization.

How did a city with such a history react to the new order? Which Jews came to a city that, after all, lacked the most elementary Jewish institutions—a synagogue, a cemetery, a mikveh? And what happened when they not just appeared, but settled? Did they create a synagogue, openly? How and what businesses did they conduct; with whom? Integration is necessarily a two-way process. Out-groups can strive for inclusion but if they achieve it, it means that the in-group has allowed it. Were Cologne’s Jews able to integrate into the economic life of this, the largest and economically most important city on the German Rhine?

The story in Cologne was very complicated. If one relied on official records, that is, those of governing organs, one would say, as several older works did, without elaboration, that acceptance was grudging and difficult with much bias and discrimination. Yet Jewish settlement in the city not only took hold but thrived, and if one studied the actual record of what went on there over the course of the 19th century, which is what I set out to do, there was a rather different story, of remarkable de facto, and even de jure, acceptance. Both resistance and accommodation were the “story” of Jewish emancipation in this place. And even the resistance proved far more complicated than had been understood previously. Not all who opposed those rights hated Jews; and not all who supported them liked Jews, at all.

It is well known that the French Revolution emancipated French Jews and that Revolutionary armies then razed ghettos and imposed emancipation wherever they went, as far east as Poland. It is less well known that there was a serious struggle about equality for Jews within the Revolutionary Assembly, which eventually emancipated French Jewry, not out of love for Jews but because doing otherwise would have subverted the Revolution. It is even less well known that Napoleon was profoundly Judeophobic and that, as emperor, he severely compromised the emancipation the Revolution had extended, and instituted discriminatory legislation that hearkened back to that of the ancien regime.

Under Napoleonic legislation, Jews were guilty until proven innocent. For Jews to practice business, they had first to obtain a special “Jew-license” in addition to any regular license needed to conduct business. To qualify for this license, Jews had to prove that they had not engaged in usury or fraud and to bring a character testimonial from the local synagogue, implicating the organized community in systematic discrimination.

Discrimination produces records. Napoleon’s anti-Jewish legislation remained on the books on the left bank of the Rhine until 1847—decades after he was shipped off in defeat to Elba and France retreated back behind the Rhine. Decades after the legislation lapsed in France itself.

While the discrimination was surely unpleasant for those it touched, which I saw for myself in letters Jews wrote to the authorities, the records it produced were an historian’s boon. These became the major source for my work.

I knew from works published before World War II that such records had once existed: minutes of City Council and Chamber of Commerce deliberations about individual Jews applying for “Jew-licenses,” and the decisions of these bodies; records from the organized Jewish community that the first immigrants created, whose existence Napoleonic Judeophobia, if nothing else, mandated (ironies, I was to find, abounded). But I did not know what of any of this material had survived the Nazis and the severe Allied bombing of the Rhine area toward the end of WWII, as the Allies prepared to cross from France and Belgium into Germany.

On a frigid January night in 1980, I took a flight via Iceland to Belgium, and from there, boarded a bus to Cologne. The border came more quickly than I anticipated or was prepared for, and suddenly I was in Germany.

It is hard to convey the feeling behind that seemingly factual statement, “I was in Germany.” For me, the very word “Germany” evoked something near panic. My mother was the only survivor of her family (a brother who had left their town in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia in the 1930s for Palestine was killed in the siege of Jerusalem in 1948). Germany was responsible for the lack of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. It was not some abstract reality but, if one can call the omnipresence of dead family this, a living one. I would recoil from scissors marked “Made in Germany.” I do not remember when I first learned that Germans had killed my mother’s family; there was never a time that I did not know. My father became mentally ill and was institutionalized when I was 4, compounding the loss. When my beleaguered, immigrant mother needed help, instead of her large and close family being there, she was alone—but for the beloved woman who had saved my mother from Europe, and her husband. The three of us, my mother, sister, and I, were alone, bereft. Germany was responsible, and hatred of Germany was very personal, alive, and intense.

One might well ask why, then: How did I ever come to choose a dissertation topic in German Jewish history, one that would require me not only to learn German, which I did not know, but to go to Germany? Not briefly, but for months. As a bewildered Israeli cousin of mine put it, when I came to Israel for the Passover holiday and spoke of my experiences in Germany, “But Shula, there are Jews in the U.S.—?”

Germany was responsible, and hatred of Germany was very personal, alive, and intense.

A therapist I discussed this with, after the fact, introduced me to the term “counterphobic.” People have phobias (I do, fear of falling), and we avoid situations (as in my case, heights) that trigger them. But there is also behavior that does the opposite: confronts. Part of me, a lot of me, wanted to just go there and be in their face. Mir zenen duh, as I proclaimed when my sister’s first child was born: We are here.

Part of me wanted to know what “they” did with this history. I lived with it; did “they”?

After about a week of seeking a place to live, I got a room in a suite in the dorm of the University of Cologne, run under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Across from me was a gifted graduate student in art and music, who invited me to her room for coffee my first morning in the dorm.

We spoke French. Because, while I had taken an intensive reading course in German, I did not want to learn to speak it. I did not want that language in my mouth. Which made doing mundane things, like shopping or taking the tram quite a challenge, the more so as I found people not particularly helpful.

My suite mate asked my name.

“Shulamit,” I said.

“What kind of name is that?” she asked.

“Hebrew,” I answered.

“Are you Jewish?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Ah,” she said. “I have never before met a Jew.

“It must be very difficult for you to be here,” she added.

“Yes,” I answered.

I told her that my mother was the only survivor of her family. In case she missed what that meant, I spelled it out. No grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

Si triste,” she said. So sad.

She paused a moment, then said: “People of my generation say they had nothing to do with it, it was before their time. I had nothing to do with Goethe or Beethoven either,” she said, “but I claim them. You can’t pick.”

Honesty lanced rage. Trust was instant and deep. We became friends.

Other experiences were less uplifting. This was 1980. Plenty of people were around then who were around “then.” One, a former soldier in the Wehrmacht, wounded on the Nazis’ Eastern front, lived in the same dorm, a room given to him in return for his offering German lessons to foreign students. I even took some with him. Once, he tried to tell me, in great detail—he would speak German, I would answer in English—how beautiful old Cologne had been, before the Allies bombed it. He was actually asking my sympathy! Too bad they didn’t bomb it some more, I thought. Next time, don’t invade Poland, I said.

A pharmacist in a nearby town turned out to be a Nazi they had never prosecuted. The rebbetzin of the synagogue, at whose table I ate every Shabbat all the months of my time in Cologne, told me of a Nazi radiologist: A congregant had gone for a chest X-ray. He took off his shirt and the doctor asked about the numbers on his arm. “I was in Auschwitz,” the man said. The doctor raised his arm in the Hitler salute and said, “So was I.” The man fled, she said, came to her apartment, in the upper story of the synagogue, and shook there for hours.

The rebbetzin told me this not to scare me but to assure me that I was not entirely crazy to be in the state I was constantly in there, the light on while I slept; eight months without a haircut. Afraid to see a doctor when I was sick. Fainting in his office when I finally went to one, the second they put in a needle to draw blood.

But I was there to plumb 19th not 20th-century history, and I set off to the City Archive, a starkly postwar building. Everything about it said business.

The first documents I ordered and handled—literally held in my hands—were copies of the decrees of emancipation, from Paris, the red-wax stamp of the Revolution still on them. I read decrees from provincial and municipal French authorities stating that Jews were citizens with equal rights, no violation of which would be tolerated. Church property was nationalized, and Jews, like any other citizen, were allowed to purchase it—in this case, a small building, for use as a synagogue. Cologne was as ancien regime as one could imagine, and it was clear from documents of the French municipal authorities that they enjoyed rubbing local noses in the new realities, and that the matter of Jewish rights was particularly useful to that end.

Jew-license for the Jewish hides dealer Marcus Schilo Schubach, 20 March 1827 (Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln)
Jew-license for the Jewish hides dealer Marcus Schilo Schubach, 20 March 1827 (Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln)

From French records I saw exactly who were the first Jews to venture into Cologne, and I began a file-card record on them: names, age, gender, place of origin, occupation, family status, number and names of children, address. When the French imposed mandatory fixed family names for Jews—this was not a Jewish, nor a traditional, “thing,” nor was husbands naming wives in marriage—“my” married Jews arrived with wife and husband having different last names—I revised the card collection to keep track.

I plumbed these records, which the research certainly demanded. But I also clung to the French material until I had wrung it dry for fear of what came next. Eventually, I had to leave this easy stuff and order the Jew-licenses, or Judenpatente, as they were called in German. To find out if indeed these documents had survived the war or if I had sold myself and a fair number of others on a dissertation that was fantasy. Part of me realized with relief that if there was nothing, I could just go home.

If the stuff did exist, it meant going from quite accessible French, which I knew far better than German, in handwritten or printed sources written in a Latin alphabet, to handwritten German, in Gothic (“Schrift”), a non-Latin alphabet. Which I had taught myself while still in New York—an archivist had told me, rightly, that the best way to learn to read it was to learn to write it, so I sat in the university library doing Schrift penmanship assignments while others read books. This however, would be a whole other order of dealing with it.

Cologne’s city archive, professor Stern had told me, was extremely well-organized and usable, another reason it was a good site for research. There were clear inventories of holdings, by number and description.

Yet I felt I had perpetrated an enormous fraud in selling this project, which for some reason very smart and experienced professors bought. Now came the time to deliver. And I did not have the goods.

One morning, I sucked in my breath, filled out an order slip for the Judenpatente, and then watched in amazement as an archivist wheeled out a trolley on which three bulging volumes marked with this name were piled. About a thousand pages total. There would be no easy escape; no blaming the Allies, or even the Nazis, for my inability to proceed with this project.

Post-Napoleonic Cologne, along with the rest of the left bank of the Rhine, was annexed by Prussia, Germany’s most powerful state. Cologne did not get to return to its status quo ante, as a self-governing city. It suffered the indignity of incorporation into a far-away, East German, Protestant state; its capital, Berlin. Prussian authorities immediately began to administer the city. City authorities sent their documents to Berlin in the steady, clear hand of professional scribes. What remained in the city and eventually its archive were copies of these documents, not just hand written, but sloppily so. So it was not just thousands of pages in Schrift, but in handwriting that looked, as I said in letters home and in diary-like entries I kept, as if written by a drunk who got up in the morning and stuck a feather pen between his toes.

There it was. A bulging collection of 40 years of records of city and state administration of the Napoleonic strictures, including, not least, their dealings and intense conflict with one another about this: modern Cologne’s version of “the Jewish question.” The material contained copious information about Cologne’s Jews: names, ages, gender, marital status, children and other family and household members, including servants, occupations, income level. From this material, as I had done for the French years, I would map out where Jews lived in the city—seeing if they clustered, or dispersed, their addresses corresponding to their incomes—meaning, that for all the official discrimination, there was actual integration, something I found to be the case.

Both prejudice, discrimination, and a fervent desire by some to limit competition by restricting Jews through appeals to ancient prejudice; and tremendous actual socio-economic integration and advance marked the decades of my study. As an older scholar had put it about German Jewish experience in the 19th century altogether, there were laws, and there were “facts of life.”

I also treated Rhenish liberalism on the Jewish question and how the prominent liberals of Cologne, who were among the leaders of German liberalism altogether, shook out on this question, also very complicated and not what I expected.

Rather than there being a straightforward liberal position about Jewish civic status, which we might have expected to be—liberal, I found three different kinds of liberal stance regarding Jewish rights. There were liberals who opposed these rights in the name of democracy: Their constituents hated Jews and opposed them having civic equality. There were liberals who could not abide Jews but who, like their counterparts in the French Revolution, realized that there was no birthing a liberal, constitutional Germany while withholding rights to any segment of the population, even Jews, because of religious or other prejudices. Finally, there were liberals who were not only sincere but fervent in their support for Jewish rights.

As for the Jews of Cologne, I found that, from the lowliest peddler and small-goods merchants, women and men, to the wealthy Oppenheim banking family, Jews were extremely active on behalf of their rights. The stereotype of the craven German Jew, afraid to assert identity or press for rights, was simply not accurate. This also became clear from municipal records that document the Jewish community insistently pressing for municipal funding for the Jewish school, as was done for Christian confessional schools, and then, when offered a poor location for this school, demanding a convenient, central one. In short, the community pressed for equal treatment of Judaism as a religion, alongside Christianity. And equally remarkably, they eventually won.

I found that Jews were represented at all income levels, most on the lower ones; but that Jewish economic fortunes paralleled those of the city and the region, expanding or contracting with larger trends. In short, anti-Jewish discrimination was not the determining factor in how Jews fared economically, for all the official noise that might indicate otherwise.

I discovered that city and state used the question of Jewish rights in a power struggle over their respective authority. The City Council and Chamber of Commerce on the one hand, argued for a very restrictive policy on Judenpatente, and insisted on the right to deny such licenses liberally, against Prussian policy that was far more forthcoming. (The council and the chamber also vied with one another for ultimate authority over who would decide the question of Jew-licenses.) In short, modern Jews were a symbol of political power, or the lack of it—just as Jews had been in the European Middle Ages, a dynamic responsible for the expulsion of the Cologne’s Jews, in 1424. Eventually, there was a city-state showdown, Cologne vs. Berlin, which Cologne lost, decisively.

In the meantime, however, Jews continued to immigrate to the city, establish themselves, do business, build a community. Eventually, I found, to my amazement, that the Jewish community engaged the same architect who completed the imposing Cathedral of Cologne to design a prominent synagogue building, and that souvenir postcards for newly introduced Rhine cruises featured this synagogue building along with the Cathedral and City Hall—arch-embodiments of historic power over, and hostility to, Jews—as sites worthy of notice.

In short, I was to find, as I put it, that “Cologne was a great success story in the troubled history of Germans and Jews.” There was nothing in its history to predict what would occur in the 20th century. To read history backwards is to distort, to turn knowledge into propaganda.

I became not only the seemingly unlikely bearer of this message, but a fervent bearer of it. I knew, of course, before I went to Germany, that a community had successfully established itself in the city. My compulsion, and that is absolutely what it was, to pursue this mad project, was driven by many forces. But one of them was that I was positively desperate to grapple with something normal in German Jewish history: tensions, hatred, struggles, on both sides—are normal. I needed something normal in my lexicon of associations with Germany.

The above descriptions of my scholarly work—“I found,” “I discovered”—belies and utterly distorts what actually went on until I “found” or “discovered” or understood anything. Day after day, I sat in the archive of Cologne, trying to figure out what, anything vaguely useful—scholarly—I could do with what stared up at me from the table. I began to transcribe documents in my own handwriting, which was far easier to read than that of the originals. Then I set out to translate them, so that I had a record in English. None of which, of course, is what one gets a Ph.D. in history for doing.

By the time I left Germany, I had some idea of the broad contours of the story but was nowhere near making sense of it. I microfilmed hundreds of documents, from municipal and regional archives, fat reels of shiny plastic, ordered photocopies of others, and after eight long months, went home. It took years after that for me to plow through the materials; I was already teaching, full time, in my first job.

The stereotype of the craven German Jew, afraid to assert identity or press for rights, was simply not accurate.

But the gap between my presumption to the outside world and what I was actually experiencing; the resulting feeling of “Fraud!”; and the terror of discovery, plagued me and took a terrible toll on my ability to proceed even on nonteaching days, which I would spend in a state of rising anxiety reaching paralysis. The gap between the pretense (“working on my dissertation”) and what was actually going on was extreme.

I kept at it. One day, in exasperation at the spinning of wheels, which was so much of what I was doing, I cried, “I can’t do this!” And then I asked myself: “Could Paula Hyman (my second dissertation adviser), do this?” “Of course,” was the answer. “Then you’re Paula Hyman!” I screamed at myself. “Now do it!” That was it. I would make believe I was Paula Hyman. The masquerade would continue, but now more productively.

I could already recognize the handwriting of various officials and begin to anticipate what they might say. But the language was also bureaucratese: full of references that I had to investigate before I could parse.

I reconstructed who the Jews were, their occupations, addresses, tax assessments—and corresponding record of obtaining or being denied Jew-licenses. That is what I finally donated to the Central Archives of the Jewish People. After I had donated other, Cologne-related material, the reels of microfilm, for instance, with no difficulty, these artifacts, documenting my own gargantuan struggle for emancipation, are what I had a hard time giving up. The work of that “auto-emancipation,” to borrow from Leon Pinsker, was far from over even with this project but it was definitely a major stage. And I was “annussa al pi hadibbur,” compelled in ways I could not possibly understand fully until it was long over.

When I looked over my copies of those documents and my painstaking, handwritten efforts to make sense of them, I remembered it all, not as an intellectual exercise, but in the guts.

I have three more things to say about all this.

In the period before I left for Germany, I did a lot of reading about postwar German Jews. Some were doubly tragic—survivors from wherever in Europe who, for whatever reasons, did not succeed in finding somewhere else to go after the DP camps emptied, and remained in Germany. I spent many a Shabbat in their presence in the synagogue, utterly ignored by them. Not a happy bunch.

Some, like me, were on a crazy trip of witnessing. I remember reading accounts about and by them and saying to myself, diese zenen meshigge. Und di?—“These ones are nuts. And you?” It’s not like I did not know before I went how crazy it was to be doing this. But there are distinct limits to what rational awareness can do.

In this period, in the run up to leaving for Germany, I had a stark dream. I was in a clinic; I still remember—feel—exactly what it looked like. I was on a bench in a narrow, curving corridor, outside a medical office, in an older building. All was white. A short young woman, with short, brown hair, with Slavic features and speaking a Slavic language, emerged in a white coat. We had no common spoken language but we communicated telepathically, through our minds. I was in a lot of pain. My stomach, I told her, clutching it. She peered at me with big, brown eyes and immense understanding. I was in Germany. She said, it must be very difficult for you to be here. I wept and said yes. They murdered my family. Her name was Liebe; my mother’s name.

The name of the graduate student who befriended me and opened the crack of emancipation that first morning in the dorm in Cologne was Lioba.

Second: I dedicated my dissertation, and then the book it became (based on additional archival research during a return, much shorter, far more efficient trip to Germany), to my maternal grandparents and my mother’s siblings, each by name; and to my mother. All but one of the dead lacked marked graves. I meant this as a matzeva.

Third: In 2009, there was a catastrophic collapse of the building that housed the City Archive of Cologne, the Historisches Archiv der Stadt Koeln (or HASK, as it appeared innumerable times in my notes). I have been in touch with the archive to tell them that fat reels of microfilmed documents, many photocopied documents, and my notes about all this, now reside in the Central Archives for the Jewish People, in Jerusalem.

Shulamit S. Magnus, Professor Emerita at Oberlin College, is a Jewish historian who specializes in questions of identity and cultural change and the workings of gender in Jewish societies, and in the history of Jewish women. She is the author of four books, including a critical edition of Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother, which won a National Jewish Book Award, and a biography of Wengeroff and of her writing, A Woman’s Life: Pauline Wengeroff and Memoirs of a Grandmother.