Emancipation and Its Discontents

My great-grandfather Michael Wiener was born in 1831 in Trebitsch (present-day Třebíč) in Moravia, then one of the Crown Lands of the Habsburg Empire, now part of the Czech Republic. His surname did not derive from his move—after the 1848 Revolutions—to Vienna, but from an ancestor who was among the Jews expelled from that city in 1670 and who subsequently settled in neighboring Moravia, where the moniker “Wiener” was attached to their names. This ancestor, identified as “Rabbi David me-Wien” in Pinkas Kehilat Trebitsch, had been a ritual slaughterer in Vienna, but when he settled in Trebitsch he apparently became the local rabbi. So I approached Miller’s book in a spirit of filial piety, with just a touch of historical interest. This interest grew, however, as I made my way through his fascinating account of a small, marginal community of Jews grappling with the challenges modernization and secularization brought to European Jewry.

The twenty thousand to forty thousand Jews of Moravia have typically been treated as a mere appendage to the neighboring, more significant Prague-centered community in Bohemia. Miller, an American historian who teaches in the Jewish studies program at the Central European University in Budapest, demonstrates how wrong it is to do so. While about half of Bohemia’s Jews lived in Prague, Moravian Jews, despite their relatively small numbers, were spread among fifty-two communities based in market towns and villages. Barred from residing in the Moravian Royal Cities from the 16th century until the middle of the 19th, Moravian Jews found refuge in the smaller towns owned by the nobility.

Moravia’s fifty-two Jewish communities, 1798-1848. (Adapted from Hugo Gold, ed., Die Juden und  Judengemeinden Mährens in Vergangeheit und Gegenwart (Brünn: Judischer Buch-und Kunstverlag, 1929.)
Moravia’s fifty-two Jewish communities, 1798-1848. (Adapted from Hugo Gold, ed., Die Juden und
Judengemeinden Mährens in Vergangeheit und Gegenwart (Brünn: Judischer Buch-und Kunstverlag, 1929.)

The lack of one hegemonic Jewish community brought about a fierce feeling of local autonomy. While the rabbi of the major Jewish community in Nikolsburg (Mikulov) was eventually recognized as the chief rabbi of Moravia, there were yeshivot and famous rabbis in other communities as well. The 311 regulations (takanot) of the Council of Moravian Jews (Va’ad medinat Mehrin) set up an extremely decentralized representative system. Under the corporative regime of the Habsburgs, the council was elected by the communities but officially recognized by the imperial government, and its organs, including the chief rabbi, were vested with judicial and tax authority by the Gubernium in Brünn (Brno).

The dispersed Jews of Moravia faced harsh limitations on their freedom, including the 1726-1727 Familiants Laws, which limited the Jewish rights of marriage (and residence) to first-born sons only. Miller shows how this legislation was part of the general Habsburg Catholic Counter-Reformation; the legislation against Protestants was in some cases much more drastic—they were not even allowed places of worship. Because the local communities had a role in granting “Familiant numbers,” this legislation gave rise to internal strife, ugly nepotism, and corruption. It also led to “illegal” marriages and consequent claims against “Jewish immorality,” and it pushed an unknown number of Jews toward conversion. This “Pharaonic yoke” fell on the shoulders of every family and individual and caused massive emigration of younger sons to neighboring Hungary, which did not have similar restrictions.

The Edict of Tolerance (Toleranzpatent) issued in1782 by the enlightened Emperor Joseph II famously sought to make the Jews “more useful and of greater service to the state.” It opened many branches of commerce to the Jews, encouraged them to invest in manufacture and industry, and allowed them to lease agricultural land. In Moravia, it abolished rabbinical jurisdiction in civilian matters, making the Jews subject to the general court system. It also set up a network of German-Jewish schools that gave Jewish youngsters an enormous advantage in commercial life and furthered their Germanization in a region that was seventy percent Czech-speaking—with problematic future consequences. But it did not abolish the Familiants Laws, which remained in force until the 1848 Revolution.

Miller’s account of these historical developments is accompanied by detailed portraits of some of the key Moravian chief rabbis at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, including Mordecai Benet and Nehemias Trebitsch—names which are today almost totally forgotten—and shows how the unusual circumstances of Moravia brought about a moderate rabbinical Haskalah. While Jewish boys received German-language education in the German-Jewish schools, rabbis like Trebitsch insisted that prayer continue to be in Hebrew—a combination that countered radical reform and created a linguistic pluralism somewhat akin to the ideal of the maskilim. It is a fascinating story, told by Miller with great erudition and much sympathy for the ability of Moravia’s rabbinical leaders to steer their community through the shoals of modernization under conditions that combined great autonomy with the continuing oppressive burden of the Familiants Laws. While Miller wears his scholarship lightly, his extended accounts of rabbinical policies and disputes may tax the patience of some readers.


Nehemias Trebitsch, Moravian-Silesian chief rabbi, 1832-1842. (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum,  Prague.)
Nehemias Trebitsch, Moravian-Silesian chief rabbi, 1832-1842. (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum,Prague.)

This is definitely not the case, however, with respect to the section about the Hamburg-born Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the founders of German neo-Orthodoxy whose four years as chief rabbi in Nikolsburg (1847-1851) are usually portrayed as a mere preface to his later, much more central and illustrious career in Frankfurt. Because Hirsch’s tenure in Moravia straddled the 1848 Revolution, the account of his activities there brings out both the promises and the frustrations of what emancipation meant for Moravian Jews—and for the Jews of the entire Austro-Hungarian realm. With a subdued sense of humor and empathy, Miller shows how the Moravian Jews greeted the celebrated Hirsch in almost messianic terms. His foreign background also created hope that he would be able to overcome the petty local quarrels that had left the Moravian chief rabbinate unoccupied for several years. As Miller recounts it, Hirsch—traveling by train and stopping at some communities en route to Nikolsburg—was accompanied by “pomp and circumstances usually reserved for a royal dignitary or head of state.” Rabbis and congregations came to railway stations to greet him, and at one of his stops a torch-lit procession escorted him from the train station to his overnight quarters.

Initially, however, Hirsch’s tenure created considerable tension with the established rabbis of Moravia and their communities. Young and ambitious, his well-intentioned attempts to put some order into the chaotic and sometime sclerotic structure of the local Jewish institutions were perceived as authoritarian. He was no doubt insufficiently attuned to the long traditions of pluralism and local autonomy that characterized the fifty-two Moravian Jewish communities, and he perceived his role not just as a moreh halakha but also as the sole political leader of the Moravian Jews. However, the excitement following the outbreak of revolution in 1848 in Vienna gave him an opportunity to unite his disparate flock and show his extraordinary leadership qualities. Hirsch issued two circulars, one to “our Christian brethren”, the other to our “Israelite co-religionists.” Together, they attest to his sophisticated and astute understanding of the momentous developments unfolding all over Europe.

Hirsch urged his Christian audience to help promote Jewish equal rights not on account of their past mistreatment, but because the universal values of the struggle for freedom and equality demanded it. But he also maintained that Jewish emancipation would help Christians to atone for generations of injustice done to Jews, asserting that “a people that enslaves the Jews is not ripe for freedom.” To his own flock he issued calls for prudence, circumspection, and patience. There are many pitfalls, he said, on the road to equal citizenship, and there would be opposition on religious as well as social grounds. Eventually the transformation from “Moravian Jews” to “Jewish Moravians” would take place, but one should tread carefully, he cautioned, find political allies both among the authorities and the populace, and not “push the end” (dekhikat ha-ketz). Given his basically conservative world view, Hirsch perhaps was able to discern these ambivalent aspects of the situation better than some of the more politically and religiously radical members of the Jewish community.

In the convulsions of 1848-1849, the Imperial Court and all-Austrian Reichstag decamped from revolutionary Vienna to the safer Kremsier in Moravia. Sensing a unique opportunity to act, Hirsch approached the authorities with detailed and learned memoranda regarding Jewish civil disabilities. He convened an ad hoc Jewish representative council to provide an institutional basis for Jewish claims and repeatedly insisted that Jewish rights should be discussed not as a separate issue but under the overall rubric of civic rights. To that end, he asserted that issues of residency requirements, special taxes, and occupational restrictions had to be addressed.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moravian-Silesian chief rabbi, 1847-1851. (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, Prague.)
Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moravian-Silesian chief rabbi, 1847-1851. (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, Prague.)

While the liberal all-Austrian Reichstag was abolished by the emperor before it could voice its support for Jewish emancipation, an imperial decree eventually granted equal rights for all, albeit in a rather general way, leaving unresolved many matters pertaining to the status of the Jews. The lifting of occupational and residency limitations led to massive Moravian Jewish emigration to cities such as Brünn—and, even more so, to the imperial capital, Vienna. Tax-paying Jews were granted voting rights, and Hirsch himself was among the three representatives from Nikolsburg elected to the Moravian Diet. He prepared a draft “synagogue constitution” to replace the ancient takanot, and though it met with strong opposition among many of the Jewish communities and was not ultimately approved by the authorities, it served as the impetus to a vivid and fierce debate about the status and role of the Jews and their communal institutions within a constitutional Habsburgian Moravia.

Moravian Jews also appeared in the forefront of the revolutionary movement itself. A Jewish student from Moravia, Carl Heinrich Spitzer, became the “first revolutionary martyr” after he was killed on March 13, 1848 by troops who opened fire on demonstrators surging toward the Lower Austrian Diet in Vienna. Spitzer was buried, together with Christian demonstrators killed the same day, in a common grave as a priest and a rabbi delivered funeral orations, symbolizing the new spirit of equality and brotherhood.

On another level, the new freedom of the press marked the emergence for the first time of a number of Jewish newspapers, while the prominence of Jewish journalists in the liberal papers published in Brünn as well as Vienna—with many of these Jewish journalists originating from Moravia—was noted by Jews and non-Jews alike.

But Miller also brings out the shadows. As the almost forgotten Israeli historian Jacob Toury showed, 1848 brought more than the heady promise of emancipation. From Alsace to Hungary, the “Spring of Nations” was accompanied by popular anti-Jewish outbursts. Following Toury, Miller shows how in Moravia, Jewish emancipation gave rise to fear and criticism coming mainly from burgher circles. The lifting of occupational restrictions on Jews was presented as a threat to the livelihood of Christian merchants. The end of residential restrictions, said the Jews’ adversaries, would lead to Christians being “thrown out” of their homes by Jews erupting from the confines of the Jewish quarters. There were anti-Jewish speeches in the newly elected Moravian Diet, and there was some violence as well. The burghers’ most effective tool was simple non-compliance with the authorities’ attempt to join the Jewish quarters to the adjacent Christian towns. Of the fifty-two Jewish communities that functioned as separate townships, only twenty-seven were amalgamated with their adjacent Christian towns, while twenty-five retained their status as “Jewish Political Communities,” i.e., separate municipal entities, well into the 1920s.

By the time things settled down, Hirsch’s initial reaction to the revolution had proved prescient. The so-called Sylvester Patent of December 31, 1851 abolished most of the provisions of the relatively liberal constitution of 1849. Subsequent legislation reintroduced some marriage restrictions, limited Jewish ownership of real estate, and made it clear that equality before the law was far from being implemented. Most of these restrictions were finally lifted only after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which regulated relations between the “Austrian” and “Hungarian” parts of the Habsburg monarchy.

The rules that were reimposed still left the Jews of Moravia with rights they had not previously possessed. Many migrated from the smaller communities to the urban centers—including Brünn, Znaim (Znojmo), and Mährisch-Ostrau (Ostrova)—where Jews could not legally reside before 1848. Many more moved to the imperial capital of Vienna, including the ancestors of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Stefan Zweig, Bruno Kreisky, and countless other well-known figures. It was then, too, that my great-grandfather moved from Trebitsch, first to Brünn and eventually—though with more modest success than those illustrious landsleute—to Vienna.

“View of Jews’ Gate, Brünn,”  by F. Richter, 1835. (Courtesy of Brno City Archive.)
“View of Jews’ Gate, Brünn,” by F. Richter, 1835. (Courtesy of Brno City Archive.)

For all the benefits this migration brought to Vienna, and, for that matter, to Western civilization, it led to the transformation of the smaller Moravian communities from all-encompassing structures into mere Kultusgemeinden, providing only religious services and needs. One after the other, the Moravian yeshivot closed down. The rabbis’ authority shrank, and the unique and complex structure of Moravian Jewry, an unusual blend of autonomy, cohesion, and organizational pluralism in the face of brutal restrictions, disappeared. Meanwhile, the rise of pan-Germanism and Czech nationalism put Moravian Jews in the crossfire of two national movements. These developments would later convince Theodor Herzl that Jews in Central Eastern Europe were now facing an impossible situation, one that called for a new kind of thinking beyond emancipation—a quest for a place in the sun they could call home—the Judenstaat.

In both the opening and closing passages of this remarkable study, Miller refers to Stefan Zweig’s idyllic description of his ancestors’ supposedly bucolic life in the Moravian countryside, in which Jews lived on “friendly terms with the peasants and petty bourgeoisie.” As Miller shows, it was far more complex than Zweig’s evocation of the “the world of yesterday” suggested. Of course Zweig was not a historian, and painting this picture during the nastiness of Nazism in the 1930s was understandable. We are fortunate now to have Miller’s enormously acute and perceptive account of “wie es eigentlich gewesen war,” how things really were for the Jews of Moravia.


  1. trputnam9

    This sentence may be misleading: "Many more moved to the imperial capital of Vienna, including the ancestors of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Stefan Zweig, Bruno Kreisky, and countless other well-known figures." Regarding Mahler, he was born in July 1860 in Bohemia near the Moravian border, but grew up across the border in Moravia, in Iglau (which is one of the fifty-two Jewish communities on your map), his family having moved there in December of 1860.

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