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Germany (Vilna Archives) Collection

Identifier: RG 31

Scope and Content Note

The Germany (Vilna Archives) Collection contains materials of diverse provenances pertaining to Jewish life in Germany, and, to a lesser extent, other German-speaking areas of central Europe (Austria, Bohemia, Moravia), from the 16th century until the beginning of the Second World War. It includes correspondence, financial records, official documents, business records, writings, minutes, reports, book catalogs, printed ephemera, occasional clippings, and a handful of photographs. The writings include sermons, eulogies, poems, essays, and, in one instance, a diary (kept by Simon Mansbach a teacher of Karlsruhe; Folders 122-123).

Series II (Documents of Individuals and Families) accounts for a little more than 60% of the collection, with approximately 140 different name headings. This series includes small collections of personal and family papers. It also includes some single items or groupings of correspondence, which are typically filed under the names of the writers (rather than the recipients), since they are found here in isolation from any larger grouping of personal papers.

The personal papers of greatest extent (0.4 linear feet) are those of Josef Sandel (Subseries II.15), an art dealer and art historian who ran a gallery in Dresden in the interwar period. The majority of the material consists of correspondence received by Sandel from a diverse array of artists and cultural figures between 1923 and 1934, in Dresden, or in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he moved following the Nazi rise to power in Germany. The papers contain correspondence from the artists Alexander Riemer and Henryk Barczyński, among others.

A file of equal size is that of engineer Erich Kempinski (Subseries II.8), and his wife Ilse, originally of Berlin, who emigrated to Palestine in 1933. The papers mostly comprise detailed letters that the Kempinskis wrote from Palestine in the period 1933 to 1939, addressed to Ilse's sister Helene Herz, and her husband, Arthur Herz, who were still living in Berlin. During this time, Erich Kempinski re-established himself as an engineer and became a collaborator with architect Erich Mendelsohn on building projects in Palestine.

Two other, slightly smaller groupings of personal papers (0.2 linear feet each) especially worth noting are those of comparative law scholar Ernst Rabel (Subseries II.13) and Rabbi Josef Jona Horovitz (Subseries II.7). Rabel was born in Vienna and raised Catholic, the son of Jewish parents who converted to Catholicism. His papers (correspondence, ephemera, notes) mainly document his term as the first director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Foreign and International Private Law, in Berlin, and his activities in that period as an eminent scholar in his field, and a judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice, and international arbitral commissions, before he was forced into retirement under the Nazi regime. Rabbi Horovitz headed a well known yeshiva in Hunsdorf (Huncovce, Czechoslovakia), before being called to Frankfurt am Main, in 1929, to serve the orthodox community there; his papers contain correspondence pertaining to his continued fundraising efforts on behalf of the Hunsdorf yeshiva.

Other significant groupings of personal papers include those of the Henschel brothers, artists (Subseries II.5), writer and social activist Lina Morgenstern (Subseries II.12), and writer and editor Julius Rodenberg (Subseries II.14). Among the rabbis represented are Salomon Breuer (Subseries II.2) and Isidor Friedmann (Subseries II.4), both of Frankfurt am Main; and Wolf Landau, of Dresden (Subseries II.10). Further individuals and families are highlighted in the scope notes in Series II.

A little over 20% of the collection comprises portions of the records of several Jewish communities, with Series IV containing larger sets of records from three communities, Filehne (Wieleń), Raschkow (Raszków), and Rybnik, all in eastern areas of Prussia that became part of the newly independent Polish state following the First World War. There are also smaller amounts of records of other communities, in particular Darmstadt (financial records of the early 19th century, Folder 21, and later records pertaining to religious life, Subseries III.4), and Frankfurt am Main (records from a legal case in the early 18th century, Folders 7-14, as well as ephemera and a library catalog in Subseries III.5). Other scattered materials from Jewish communities are found under location headings in Series III, especially Berlin, Breslau, Hamburg-Altona, Prossnitz, and Vienna.

Also noteworthy are some 15 individual older items dating from the mid 16th to the early decades of the 19th century, including Schutzbriefe (residence permits), petitions, and attestations, as well as a mohel book (registry of circumcisions); for further details, see the scope note for Series I.

The remainder of the collection consists of various printed ephemera and scattered records related to Jewish communities, organizations, or firms, including publishers and booksellers (Series III, Documents by Geographic Origin), as well as a small amount of material of unidentified provenance (Series V).


  • 1567-1945
  • Majority of material found within 1732-1938

Language of Materials

The collection is predominantly in German, with some Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, French, and Hungarian (in approximate order of prevalence), as well as occasional items in English, Dutch, Polish, Bulgarian, Russian, Latin, Croatian, Czech, and Greek.

Access Restrictions

The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.

Use Restrictions

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Historical Note

The history of Jews in Germany (in brief outline, with some references to Austria-Hungary)

Medieval Hebrew sources referred to the German lands in the Rhine region with the Biblical term "Ashkenaz." In early medieval times, Jewish merchants coming from France and northern Italy settled along major rivers and trading routes. The oldest continuous Jewish settlements are documented in the 10th century at Mainz, Speyer, and Worms, along the Rhine River, as well as Regensburg, on the Danube. In the 11th century communities were established in Cologne, Trier, Bamberg, Würzburg, and Erfurt, as well as Prague; at the end of the 12th century, in Vienna; and in the 13th century, in Breslau (Wrocław, Poland), Frankfurt am Main, and Munich.

The early Jewish communities in Mainz, Speyer and Worms became great centers of Jewish learning. Gershom ben Judah (dubbed 'Light of the Exile') presided over a yeshiva in Mainz at the end of the 10th century. The first synagogue was built at Worms in 1034. The Jewish population in the German lands was approximately 5,000 to 10,000 at the end of the 10th century, and 20,000 to 25,000 just before the First Crusade (1096).

The Yiddish language emerged as a vernacular language of Jews in the middle Rhine region in the 9th to 10th century; by the 13th century it had developed its own literature. Written in Hebrew characters, it originated as a fusion of medieval spoken German (Middle High German) and Biblical and rabbinical Hebrew, with some elements of Romance languages. When Yiddish-speaking communities later migrated into Eastern Europe, the language incorporated Slavic elements. A western variant of Yiddish was the predominant language of Jews in the German lands until the late 18th century.

The Holy Roman Empire; the Habsburgs

Following the fragmenting of the Carolingian empire, the German lands eventually came under the political umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire (laying claim to the tradition of the ancient Roman Empire), a loose confederation of large and small states (kingdoms, duchies, principalities, free imperial cities), headed by an emperor who was elected by the most powerful member rulers, termed prince-electors. Generally encompassing what would be present-day Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, and other regions, extending to parts of Poland and northern Italy, the Holy Roman Empire existed from the 10th century until its dissolution in 1806.

From the mid 15th century on, the office of Holy Roman Emperor was dominated by the house of Habsburg (the Austrian branch until 1740, then Habsburg-Lorraine), whose territories included Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia, as well as Hungary (the latter outside the boundaries of the empire). In the era of the Reformation, the Habsburgs remained Catholic, while many of the German states became Protestant. In 1804, in the face of Napoleon's ascendancy, Emperor Franz II founded the Austrian Empire (1804-1867), based on his own dominions. In 1867, under a compromise agreement (Ausgleich) that gave the kingdom of Hungary greater autonomy, the empire became known as Austria-Hungary (1867-1918), or the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Jewish life in the medieval and early modern periods

The Jewish population in the Holy Roman Empire, including Switzerland and the Low Countries, was an estimated 100,000 in the year 1300, and 80,000 in 1490, in both instances less than 1% of the general population (around 12 million).

Until the early 19th century, Jewish communities and individuals settled in the German lands by obtaining special permission, in the form of a charter, or a writ/letter of protection (Schutzbrief), which specified commercial privileges, religious rights, and such, in exchange for the payment of special taxes and fees. Such 'protected' status was at first secured directly from the Holy Roman Emperor; later the emperor, for political and economic reasons, often transferred this function to the free imperial cities and territorial princes. Often Jewish settlement was welcomed in order to foster economic activity.

Jewish communities acted as a fiscal corporation vis-à-vis the authorities, to ensure the payment of taxes and fees, and internally exercised a form of self-government according to Jewish law and customs. The community typically had an elected council, or executive body, responsible for both the secular and religious structuring of Jewish life, and employed a rabbi or teacher to provide spiritual leadership. Distinctive communal institutions included the synagogue, cemetery, mikveh (ritual bath), shochet (ritual slaughterer), cheder (elementary school for boys focused on Torah and Talmud study), and chevra kadisha (burial society).

In medieval times Jews were rarely permitted to own land, and were barred from the guilds that controlled the handicrafts and trades. They therefore often made their living as merchants, moneylenders, pawnbrokers, or peddlers. Many were also engaged in small businesses or trades, such as tailoring, baking, the butcher trade, or cattle or horse dealing. Some were physicians.

In cities Jews were sometimes restricted to a specific area, known as the Jewish quarter, or ghetto. Pursuant to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Jews were required to distinguish themselves from Christians in their dress, typically with a certain style of hat or veil; in the 15th century ordinances requiring the wearing of a yellow circular badge were enacted in many German cities, the first in Augsburg, in 1434.

The High Middle Ages marked the beginning of anti-Jewish violence and expulsions throughout the German lands. Religious anti-Semitism was rooted in a popular view holding the Jews collectively responsible for the death of Christ. The first horrific events occurred in 1096, during the First Crusade, when Christian hordes threatened Jews with conversion or death. Some 5,000 Jews were killed, or committed suicide to avoid conversion, decimating the major Jewish communities in the Rhineland and Bohemia. Later, anti-Jewish attacks included 'blood libels,' and accusations of 'host desecration.' In 1348 to 1350, during the Black Death, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells; some 300 Jewish communities in the German lands were either massacred or driven out. From the Reformation era on, Martin Luther's hostile attitudes toward Jews in his late writings further encouraged anti-Jewish attitudes and violence.

From the 14th to the 16th century, due to persecution and expulsions in the German lands, the center of gravity of Ashkenazic Jewry shifted significantly eastward toward Poland and Lithuania (including present-day Belarus and Ukraine). Yet Jews remained scattered in smaller localities in the German lands, and communities gradually reestablished themselves from the late 16th century on.

With the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) concluding the Thirty Years' War, the rulers within the Holy Roman Empire achieved greater autonomy and evolved as absolutist regimes, based on a mercantilist system of economy. From the late 16th to the late 18th century a small class of 'court Jews' (Hofjuden) played important roles in the service of local rulers, acting as financial and commercial agents. Though their positions remained precarious, court Jews achieved great wealth and status, and could sometimes exercise their influence to assist other Jews.

The acceleration of industry and the growth of a money-based economy led to greater economic differentiation within the Jewish population. By the mid 18th century a small portion of Jews in the German lands (estimated at 7% to 20%) were propertied and well off, while the great majority lived at the poorest levels of society, subsisting by petty trade and begging.

18th century: Growth of Prussia; Partitions of Poland; Acculturation

The Hohenzollerns, the prince-electors of Brandenburg, founded the kingdom of Prussia in 1701, based on the duchy of Prussia (later East Prussia), with its capital at Königsberg (Kaliningrad, Russia), an area outside of the Holy Roman Empire that they originally held as a fiefdom of the Polish crown. Another eastern area, Silesia, originally part of medieval Poland and later the Bohemian crown lands, was seized by Prussia in 1742, during the War of the Austrian Succession.

Through the partitions of Poland (i.e. the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), in 1772, 1793, and 1795, both Prussia and Habsburg Austria (in addition to Russia) incorporated areas that included large populations of Jews. Austria acquired Galicia, including the cities of Lemberg (Lviv), Tarnau (Tarnów), Tarnopol (Ternopil), Brody, and Kolomea (Kolomyia). In 1775, Austria also annexed the Bukovina region (previously under the Ottoman Empire), which included Czernowitz (Cernauti, Romania). Prussia acquired what became the provinces of West Prussia, including Danzig (Gdańsk), Kulm (Chełmno), and Thorn (Toruń); and Posen, including Posen (Poznań) and Bromberg (Bydgoszcz). (Posen province initially was a subdivision of South Prussia, the majority of which was ceded to Russia in 1807.)

In the late 18th century German Jews began to engage in a cultural reorientation. The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (d. 1786), who arrived in Berlin from his native Dessau in 1743, was an influential figure in this era. Grounded in Talmudic and rabbinic learning, he acquired great secular learning as well, and participated in the earliest phase of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. Encouraging his fellow Jews to learn German, he published a German translation of the Torah (Pentateuch) rendered in Hebrew characters. In his writings, and by his life example, he anticipated the greater integration of Jews in the wider German culture, a trend that accelerated in subsequent generations.

The first modern Jewish free school, in which boys learned secular as well as religious subjects, was established in Berlin in 1778, and others soon followed, including schools for girls. One of the largest free schools was the Philanthropin, in Frankfurt am Main (school for boys founded 1804, and for girls, 1810), which remained in existence until 1942.

From this time on German Jews gradually abandoned the Yiddish language in favor of German, as they developed more acculturated lifestyles. They advocated for full civil rights, or emancipation, and increasingly lived in urban centers, where they participated in the general intellectual and cultural life. These changes contributed to a decline of communal and rabbinical authority. In contrast, Jews in Eastern Europe tended to retain Yiddish as their primary vernacular language, and a closer connection to traditional ways of life, even as they modernized.

19th century: Napoleonic era; German liberalism; Struggle for civil rights; Developments within Judaism

Napoleon's military victories led to the end of the Holy Roman Empire, when Emperor Franz II abdicated in 1806. Prussia fell under French occupation later the same year. Laws enacted under Napoleonic rule granted Jews full civil rights, allowing them to be admitted to professions and government jobs previously closed to them. But these gains were short-lived; in the restoration period following the Congress of Vienna (1815), emancipation edicts were either repealed outright, or circumvented in practice.

Under Napoleon, the over 300 German states in the old empire had been consolidated into 39 in the Confederation of the Rhine (1806-1813), a configuration that persisted, with some revision, in the German Confederation (1815-1866). The Napoleonic era, as well as the Romantic movement in philosophy and the arts, spurred a rise in German nationalism. At the same time there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism, including the 'Hep-Hep' riots of 1819.

In the mid 19th century German Jews often identified politically with the German liberal movement seeking a constitutional monarchy, civil rights, and a unified Germany; some, such as Gabriel Riesser (d. 1863), were active as political representatives. The statement of basic rights adopted by the revolutionary Frankfurt parliament in 1848-1849 included a proviso that civil rights should not depend upon, nor be restricted by religious belief. Following the failure of the revolutionary movement, the impact of the proposed liberalization measures varied from state to state.

Jewish cultural developments in the 19th century included the founding of the movement known as Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism), by Leopold Zunz (d. 1886), and others, which promoted the scholarly study of Judaism and Jewish culture. Changes in synagogue services in many congregations included such innovations as German-language prayers, organ music, choir singing, and rules of decorum. Congregations began to call for university-educated rabbis. The first modern Jewish theological seminary in Germany opened in Breslau in 1854, under the leadership of Zacharias Frankel (d. 1875). New religious directions included the founding of Reform Judaism by Rabbi Abraham Geiger (d. 1874), and others, and the emergence of modern orthodoxy, especially under the leadership of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. 1888), who served the 'secessionist' orthodox community of Frankfurt am Main.

Founding of the German Empire (1871); Demographic and economic developments; Anti-Semitism

The unification of Germany finally came about as a result of the Prussian military victories in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. With the founding of the German Empire, in 1871, full civil rights were finally granted to Jews uniformly throughout the German states. Nevertheless, they continued to be discriminated against and, unless they converted, had limited opportunities for higher level civil service appointments, and were excluded from the officer corps of the German army. Educated young Jews gravitated to the free professions of medicine, law, and journalism.

In 1871 there were 512,000 Jews in Germany, comprising 1.2% of the population. In a reversal of the economic pyramid of the 18th century, approximately 60% were in the middle and upper income brackets. Jews tended to identify with German educational and cultural ideals (Bildung) and middle-class values. By the end of the 19th century German Jews on the average achieved higher educational levels, were better represented in the free professions, and, if engaged in commerce and trade, were more often self-employed than their non-Jewish counterparts.

German Jews migrated to cities at a faster rate than the general population, with Berlin being a favored destination, especially for Jews of the eastern Prussian provinces. The Jewish population of Berlin grew six-fold between 1837 and 1871, increasing from 6,000 to 36,000, so that Jews made up over 4% of the city's population in 1871. In 1885 about 33% of Jews lived in cities of over 100,000 inhabitants, and in 1910 fully 60% lived in cities that size, compared to only 21% of the general population. By 1914 almost 30% of all German Jews lived in Berlin.

In the late 19th century, Germany experienced an intensive industrial boom, with rapid development of the coal and steel industries, and an extended economic depression beginning in 1873. This period of modernization saw the rise of a new form of anti-Jewish prejudice based on racial theories, with the term "anti-Semitism" coming into popular usage from 1879 on. Intellectuals such as historian Heinrich Treitschke (d. 1896) contributed to establishing anti-Semitic views as mainstream.

In 1893 a group of German Jews founded the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central association of German citizens of Jewish faith), which sought to unite Jews and counter anti-Semitism. The Centralverein, or CV, grew to 60,000 members by 1926. It published a monthly newspaper, Im Deutschen Reich (In the German Empire), from 1895 to 1922, and then a weekly newspaper, the CV-Zeitung, from 1922 to 1938. The latter was perceived as a successor to the long-running German-Jewish newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums (1837-1922).

East European Jews in Germany; Zionism

In the period from 1881 until the First World War the number of East European Jews residing in the German Empire rose significantly. Fleeing persecution and economic hardship, Jews from Czarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (mainly Galicia, but also Bohemia, Moravia, and Bukovina) migrated into Germany, often on their way to overseas destinations, but sometimes remaining in Germany for longer periods. The number of Jews of foreign nationality, and their percentage of the Jewish population in Germany, rose from some 22,000 (2.7%) in 1880 to 79,000 (12.8%) in 1910. The total Jewish population in Germany reached a peak in 1910, at 615,000 (just under 1% of the general population). Among the German-Jewish organizations that assisted East European Jews was the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden (Relief association of German Jews), founded 1901.

Against the background of the desperate economic and political circumstances of East European Jews, and the rise of anti-Semitism in the West, the modern Zionist movement took shape under the leadership of Theodor Herzl (d. 1904), a Viennese journalist and playwright. The World Zionist Organization (WZO) held its first congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. It built upon earlier scattered Jewish associations promoting settlement in Palestine ("Hovevei Zion," or lovers of Zion), including one founded by Max I. Bodenheimer and David Wolffsohn in Cologne, in 1893. From 1897 to 1914 the WZO newspaper Die Welt (The World) was headquartered variously in Vienna, Cologne, and Berlin. The newspaper of the German Zionist organization, Jüdische Rundschau (Jewish Review), appeared from 1902 to 1938.

Many of the acculturated Jews of Germany and Austria-Hungary who embraced Zionism (a small minority of the Jewish population) did so in a spirit of solidarity with East European Jews, rather than in terms of a personal preparation for emigration to Palestine. The movement also provided a framework for exploring and reviving Jewish cultural identity.

The First World War (1914–1918) and its aftermath

Like their compatriots, German Jews generally responded to the outbreak of the First World War with expressions of patriotism. A unified national spirit seemed to prevail in Germany. Yet, as the war dragged on, rumors that Jews were shirking their patriotic duty led to a German government census of Jewish servicemen (Judenzählung), in November 1916; the results, which disproved the claims, were never made public. Of some 550,000 German-Jewish citizens in 1914, approximately 100,000 (18%) served in the German military during the war; 12,000 were killed in battle. In Austria-Hungary, 320,000 Jews served, with 40,000 killed.

The defeat of Germany and its allies (the Central Powers) led to the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II, in November 1918. During an interlude of revolutionary turmoil in Germany in 1918-1919, notable public figures included the German-Jewish socialists Kurt Eisner and Rosa Luxemburg, and anarchist Gustav Landauer (all three victims of political assassinations in 1919).

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) held Germany and its allies responsible for the war, and imposed high monetary reparations. In the peace settlement Germany ceded Alsace-Lorraine to France (it had been annexed by Germany in 1871); and most of West Prussia and Posen, and parts of Silesia, to newly independent Poland.

The Treaty of St. Germain (1919) settled the breakup of Austria-Hungary. The province of Galicia went to Poland, and Bukovina to Romania. Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia, where approximately 354,000 Jews lived as of 1921, making up 2.6% of the population. In the remaining Austrian lands, the Republic of Austria was established. In 1918 approximately 300,000 Jews lived in Austria, in 33 communities; the majority lived in Vienna, where they numbered 200,000 in 1919.

The Weimar Republic (1919–1933)

In August 1919 the national assembly meeting in Weimar adopted a constitution establishing a new government, Germany's first representative democracy, commonly known as the Weimar Republic. The constitution provided for universal suffrage (including women, who also were for the first time eligible for political office), and an elected president with considerable executive powers, who could act by decree in times of emergency.

In 1925, there were approximately 564,000 Jews in Germany (0.9% of the total population). One third lived in Berlin, one third in other large cities, and the rest in hundreds of other localities, some of which did not have an organized Jewish community. Most Jews were middle class, making their living in commerce and transportation, or the free professions. In the 1920s interfaith marriages reached a high of some 20% of Jewish marriages.

Although the total Jewish population in Germany was in decline, the number of Jews of foreign nationality continued to grow during the Weimar period, reaching 100,000 in 1933, making up 20% of the Jewish population. Some notable East European Jewish scholars, scientists, and writers resided in Germany during this period, including historian Simon Dubnow (d. 1941). For a few years Berlin became a center of Yiddish and Hebrew publishing.

During the Weimar Republic there was a flourishing of Jewish communal, religious and cultural life. Jews also played a prominent role in the general culture, in journalism, literature and the arts, and as civil servants and politicians. The latter included Hugo Preuss (d. 1925), who drafted the Weimar constitution; and Walther Rathenau, who served as minister of reconstruction and then as foreign minister (until he was assassinated in 1922).

The Weimar period was marked by political and economic turmoil, including the hyperinflation of 1923. Popular resentment against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles included the right-wing 'back-stab legend' (Dolchstosslegende), which held that German military victories during the war had been sabotaged by unpatriotic elements at home. Anti-Semitic right-wing propaganda identified Jews both with the dangers of revolutionary 'bolshevism' and with the Weimar Republic as a whole. Beginning as the German Workers' Party, Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP; later commonly called 'Nazi' party) was founded in Munich in 1920. It was mainly active in Bavaria until its putsch attempt in Munich in 1923; and up to 1928 received no more than 3% of the vote in national parliamentary elections.

The severe effects in Germany of the worldwide economic depression of 1929 to 1930 contributed to dissatisfaction with Weimar democracy and the rise of extremist groups. The Nazi party received 18% of the parliamentary vote in 1930, and 37.3% in July 1932. In the last free election, in November 1932, the party's share of the vote declined to 33.1%. Hitler came to power as the result of negotiations within the coalition government; once President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him as chancellor on 30 January 1933, he moved quickly to consolidate the power of the NSDAP and suppress opposition.

1933–1938: Jewish life under National Socialism; Emigration

After the Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 the German government suspended civil liberties under an emergency decree and conducted sweeping arrests of Communists. The first concentration camp was erected at Dachau in March 1933.

A boycott of Jewish businesses was organized on 1 April 1933, officially as a defensive measure against anti-Nazi propaganda abroad. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed the same month, brought the dismissal of Jewish ('non-Aryan') civil servants, except for those who had held their positions since before 1914, or were veterans of the World War. The civil service encompassed government officials, judges, teachers, and university professors, as well as employees of state-run cultural institutions, including actors, musicians, conductors, theater directors, and writers. Another Nazi racial law limited Jewish admissions to schools and universities. The Nuremberg Laws (1935) further defined racial categories; banned any remaining Jewish participation in government and civil service; forbade marriages and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews; and deprived German Jews of citizenship.

In the face of increasing persecution, and their isolation from German society, German Jews created new forms of Jewish communal and cultural life. An umbrella group, the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden (Reich representation of German Jews), encompassing most Jewish communities and organizations, was formed in September 1933, with Rabbi Leo Baeck as president. The Reichsvertretung represented German Jews in dealings with the government, as well as overseas organizations; coordinated Jewish educational systems; organized economic and charitable assistance; and supported emigration efforts. In June 1939, it was folded into the new Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (Reich association of Jews in Germany), which was more directly under the control of the Nazi regime and included de facto all persons defined as Jewish under Nazi law.

The Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish cultural alliance), founded in Berlin in July 1933 on the initiative of Kurt Singer (d. 1944), and others, sponsored a theater, an orchestra, an opera company, and other cultural activities. The Kulturbund expanded to localities throughout Germany, growing to a membership of 70,000 in 1935; it existed until 1941.

Additional Jewish elementary and high schools were set up within Jewish communities to accommodate Jewish students who had been expelled from public schools. Jewish institutions of adult education dating from the Weimar period renewed their activities. In 1934, Martin Buber (d. 1965) initiated the Mittelstelle für jüdische Erwachsenenbildung (Central office for Jewish adult education), which supported teacher training. The Jüdische Frauenbund (League of Jewish Women), founded in 1904, expanded its charitable and educational work to help maintain Jewish communal life, and grew to a membership of 50,000 in 1935.

In June 1933 there were approximately 500,000 Jews in Germany (by religion), making up 0.75% of the total population. From 1933 on, increasing numbers of German Jews sought to emigrate. Primarily two agencies of the Reichsvertretung offered emigration assistance: the Palestine Office (of the Jewish Agency for Palestine) and, for other destinations, the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden.

From 1933 to 1939 approximately 250,000 German Jews emigrated from Nazi Germany, the majority to the United States, Palestine (under British Mandate), or Great Britain; many also to South America, South Africa, or the Far East. Of the tens of thousands who early on emigrated to neighboring European countries, many later again fell victim to the Nazis during the Second World War. Jews emigrating had to pay heavy emigration taxes; were strictly limited in the amount of currency they could transfer abroad; and were forced to sell businesses and property at a drastic loss. Among other obstacles were the requirements of potential destination countries. During the period the British maintained limits on emigration to Palestine, and the United States continued to follow the country quota system, and affidavit requirements, instituted under the Immigration Act of 1924.

1938-1943: German annexations; Kristallnacht; Beginning of the Second World War; Deportations

On 12 March German troops occupied Austria, and Hitler declared its incorporation into Germany (Anschluss) the following day. The Jewish population at the time was approximately 182,000, or 2.7% of the total population; over 90% of Austrian Jews were living in Vienna. Violence, arrests, and seizures of property against Jews and political opponents began immediately, and within a period of a few months the new Nazi administration had enacted measures ensuring the economic and social exclusion of Jews on a par with that in Germany. Approximately two thirds of Austrian Jews emigrated between 1938 and 1941.

On 29 September 1938 Germany annexed the so-called 'Sudentenland,' the areas of Czechoslovakia inhabited primarily by German speakers.

Some 18,000 Polish Jews were precipitously expelled from Germany on 28 October 1938, among them the family of a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, who was living in Paris and subsequently shot and killed a German diplomat in Paris. Using the assassination as a pretext, the Nazi government orchestrated a wave of pogroms against Jews throughout Germany and the annexed territories, on the night of 9–10 November 1938, later known as Kristallnacht (The night of broken glass). These events, with indiscriminate arrests, destruction of Jewish property, and burning of synagogues, marked a new, more frightening stage in persecution, and greatly spurred emigration of Jews from Germany and Austria.

In March 1939 Germany occupied the remaining parts of Czechoslovakia; it governed the Czech portion as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, while Slovakia became an independent state allied with Germany. The May 1939 census showed 214,000 Jews in 'Greater Germany' (including Germany, Austria, Sudentenland). On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and two days later France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, marking the beginning of the Second World War.

Some German Jews still managed to emigrate after 1939. In October 1941 approximately 164,000 Jews were left in Germany. In late 1941 the Nazi regime began deportations of Jews from Germany to ghettos and camps to the East, and eventually to extermination camps. The Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland was dissolved in 1943.


An estimated 160,000 to 180,000 German Jews, and 50,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Of Jews who had resided in Czechoslovakia in 1938, an estimated 263,000 were killed in the Holocaust. After the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies in April to May 1945, there were some 15,000 German Jews in Germany who had survived concentration camps, had been in hiding, or had remained free because they were in marriages with non-Jews. From late 1945 through 1946 a large population of East European Jewish Holocaust survivors arrived in Germany and Austria, and resided in displaced persons camps administered by an agency of the United Nations, until they were able to emigrate to Israel, the United States, or other destinations.

A new umbrella organization of Jewish communities, the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland), was established in 1950. As of the early 1960s the Jewish population included some 6,000 German Jews who had remained in Germany, and 2,000 Jews from other countries who had settled there.


Elon, Amos. The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. Various articles, including "Germany," by Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, et al., vol. 7, pp. 518-546.

Gay, Ruth. The Jews of Germany: a historical portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

German-Jewish History in Modern Times. Ed. Michael Meyer and Michael Brenner. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996-1998. 4 vols.


6.9 Linear Feet (17 boxes, including one flat oversize box)


The Germany (Vilna Archives) collection contains materials of diverse provenances pertaining to Jewish life in Germany and, to a much lesser extent, other German-speaking areas of central Europe (Austria, Bohemia, Moravia), from the 16th century until the beginning of the Second World War. It includes correspondence, financial records, official documents, business records, writings, minutes, reports, book catalogs, printed ephemera, occasional clippings, and a handful of photographs. A little more than 60% of the collection comprises personal and family papers, or individual items of correspondence (approximately 140 different name headings); and a little over 20%, portions of the records of the Jewish communities of Darmstadt, Frankfurt am Main, Filehne (Wieleń), Raschkow (Raszków), and Rybnik. The remainder of the collection consists of various printed ephemera and scattered records related to Jewish communities, organizations, or firms, including publishers and booksellers. Also included are some 15 individual older items dating from the mid 16th to the early decades of the 19th century, including Schutzbriefe (residence permits), petitions, and attestations, as well as a mohel book (registry of circumcisions). Especially noteworthy among the personal papers are those of art dealer Josef Sandel, comparative law scholar Ernst Rabel, the Henschel brothers (artists), writer and social activist Lina Morgenstern, engineer Erich Kempinski, and writer and editor Julius Rodenberg. The several rabbis represented include Josef Jona Horovitz, of Hunsdorf (Huncovce) and Frankfurt am Main; Salomon Breuer and Isidor Friedmann, both of Frankfurt am Main; and Wolf Landau, of Dresden.


The collection encompasses materials of multiple provenances, including individuals and families; organizations; and Jewish communities. In view of this complexity, the materials have been grouped into five series representing general categories. Series I is an exception to the arrangement scheme otherwise employed; it comprises a grouping of older documents established during a previous processing, which has been maintained as is. Series II and Series III contain files categorized according to either personal name or geographic origin, respectively, with the geographic category comprising materials from organizations, as well as some materials of unidentified provenance for which at least a geographic origin could be determined. Series IV contains three larger sets of Jewish communal records. Series V contains materials for which neither a definite provenance nor a tie to a specific geographic location could be determined. Following is an overview of the series:

  1. Older Manuscripts, 1567-1820
  2. Documents of Individuals and Families, 1753, 1771, 1790-1941
  3. Documents by Geographic Origin, 1718-1940, 1944
  4. Communal Records, 1824-circa 1920s
  5. Miscellaneous or Unidentified, 1788-1945

Other Finding Aid

The original finding aid produced by Steven M. Lowenstein in the 1970s is on file at YIVO; attached is a concordance of the old and new folder numbers.

Acquisition Information

The collection contains materials originally gathered by YIVO, Vilna, which were part of the YIVO archives taken by the Germans during the Second World War, and later recovered by YIVO, New York, after the war. These materials were first organized into a record group in New York, in 1973.

Related Material

At YIVO the following collections contain related materials concerning Jewish life in Germany:

– RG 116, Territorial Collection, dating from the 16th century to the 1950s, sections "Germany I" and "Germany II"

– RG 126, Genealogy and Family History Collection, containing papers of individuals and families from various geographic areas, including Germany and Austria

Also, YIVO holds the following three collections of records of Jewish communities in towns that were located in the eastern provinces of Prussia until the end of the First World War and subsequently became part of Poland:

– RG 13, Ostrowo (Ostrów Wielkopolski) Jewish Community Council Records, 1824-1919 (note: in 1912 the Raschkow community, in the present collection, subseries IV.2, dissolved and merged with the Ostrowo community)

– RG 14, Krotoschin (Krotoszyn) Jewish Community Council Records, 1828-1919

– RG 15, Briesen (Wabrzezno) Jewish Community Council Records, 1871-1926

Materials relating to numerous Jewish communities of Germany were collected by the Gesamtarchiv der Deutschen Juden (Central Archives of German Jewry), which operated in Berlin from 1906 to 1938. Some of those archives were taken over by the East German state archives in the post-World War II period, and later returned to the German-Jewish community; today that portion of those materials can be found in the archives of the Centrum Judaicum foundation, located at the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue), on Oranienburger Strasse, in Berlin. A catalog was published in 2001, as Volume 6, Parts 1 and 2, of Quellen zur Geschichte der Juden in den Archiven der neuen Bundesländer, edited by Stefi Jersch-Wenzel und Reinhard Rürup (Munich: Saur). Among materials pertaining to communities with a significant representation in the present collection are: 23 files related to the Filehne community, 1829-1921; 45 files related to the Rybnik community, 1834-1916; and 88 files related to the Darmstadt community, 1650-1912.

Following is information about related archival materials pertaining to several of the personal name headings in Series II:

– Bier, Nathaniel M.: A collection of Bier Family Papers (AR 25102) held by the Leo Baeck Institute, New York, contains materials related to Nathaniel Bier, including correspondence and family trees.

– Busyn, Max (correspondent of Josef Sandel, Subseries II.15): The Leo Baeck Institute, New York, holds materials collected by Busyn, including personal papers, a family album and artwork (AR 7093).

– Frankl, Ludwig August: At YIVO, RG 128, Rabbinical and Historical Manuscripts, contains two letters written by Frankl, in Folder E 005.

– Glanz, Rudolf: YIVO holds the Rudolf Glanz papers, RG 1133, containing correspondence, writings, and source materials.

– Landesmann, Heinrich: The major portion of Landesmann's papers are held at Wienbibliothek im Rathaus, in Vienna.

– Leiffmann, Ludwig: Photo albums of Leiffmann's family are held at the Zentralarchiv zur Erforschung der Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland, Heidelberg.

– Michalski, Rabbi Abraham: The Leo Baeck Institute, New York, holds a transcript that Michalski made of the 1885 genealogical material found in Folder 131 of the present collection; see: Hermann London, "Die Genealogie meiner Ahnen väterlicher Seite" (AR 6453).

– Rabel, Ernst: Posthumous papers of Rabel are held at the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), Koblenz (N1691); and his correspondence with Gerhart Husserl, 1946-1954, at the Archiv zur Geschichte der Max Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin.

– Rosenthal, Max: The Leo Baeck Institute, New York, holds correspondence and a scrapbook of Rosenthal as part of the Judith Helfer Collection (AR 25079), Subseries V.3.

Finally, the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York, at the Center for Jewish History, focuses on materials pertaining to the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry; and materials related to German-Jewish life are also held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, in Jerusalem.

Processing information

The collection was first processed in the 1970s by Steven M. Lowenstein, who compiled an inventory list with summary descriptions; the arrangement included a grouping of "older manuscripts" (Series I), and communal records (Series IV), but did not otherwise reflect any specific scheme. During the present processing all of the materials were systematically examined, resulting occasionally in the identification of provenances that had not previously been noted. Larger files, and those containing miscellaneous groupings of materials, were further arranged.

Approximately 1.5 to 1.75 linear feet of materials not included in the 1970s inventory were also integrated into the collection during the present processing. These additional materials were selected from a cache of previously unprocessed materials from YIVO in Vilna, and were considered appropriate to include in RG 31, since they originated in Germany, or German-speaking areas of Austria-Hungary, and lacked any specific relationship to other record groups. Among the added materials are the Josef Sandel papers (Subseries II.15), the antiquarian catalog materials of Louis Lamm (Folders 232-237), some papers of Rabbi Josef Jona Horovitz relating to the Hunsdorf yeshiva (Folder 208), a Judaica library catalog of Frankfurt am Main (Folders 385-386), Jewish community library records believed to be from Breslau (Folder 370), printed matter of various German-Jewish publishers, and a variety of other individual documents or very small groupings, mostly correspondence.

All of the materials were refoldered into new acid-free archival folders, and the collection arranged in the current scheme. In the few instances in which previous folders or enclosures were thought to possibly bear unique traces of provenance or custodial history, they were retained, and are filed and described together with the materials to which they pertain.

Guide to the Germany (Vilna Archives) Collection, 1567-1945 (bulk 1732-1938) RG 31
Originally processed by Steven M. Lowenstein. Materials further processed, described, prepared for digitization and finding aid encoded by Violet Lutz in 2016.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Earlier work funded by the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation (2006) and the CJH Holocaust Resource Initiative from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (2012).

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

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