Yair Mintzker: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial.

You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?

YM: Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.

Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?

YM: Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.

Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?

YM: We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.

What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?

YM: I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

What do we learn from these stories?

YM: What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.

Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?

YM: No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.

And the result?

YM: A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866 The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Evgeny Finkel on his new book, Ordinary Jews

Focusing on the choices and actions of Jews during the Holocaust, Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival During the Holocaust examines the different patterns of behavior of civilians targeted by mass violence. Relying on rich archival material and hundreds of survivors’ testimonies, Evgeny Finkel presents a new framework for understanding the survival strategies in which Jews engaged: cooperation and collaboration, coping and compliance, evasion, and resistance. Rather than looking at the Holocaust as a whole, Ordinary Jews focuses on three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—to try to understand why Jews in these communities had very different responses when faced with similar Nazi policies. Recently, Finkel took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

The Holocaust is one of the most researched episodes of human history. What new angle does your book contribute?

EF: It is true that the Holocaust had been extensively researched, but we still know very little about why European Jews chose different responses to the genocide—why some rebelled against the Nazis while others collaborated with them; why some escaped while others did nothing. This book is different from the existing research in that it focuses exclusively on the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and on what made individual Jews choose different survival strategies in response to the Nazi genocide. Instead of looking at the Holocaust as a whole or focusing on one place, as historians usually do, I compare three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—and try to understand why, when faced with similar Nazi policies, the Jews in these communities reacted in dramatically different ways.

So what could the Jews do during the Holocaust and why did they behave in different ways?

EF: I identify four main strategies used by the Jews: cooperation and collaboration with the Germans; coping with the danger and attempting to survive while staying put; evasion via escape and hiding among the non-Jews; and armed resistance to the Nazis. What I discovered is that the choice of a particular survival strategy was shaped more by the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and the regimes under which they lived—decades before the Holocaust—than by what the Nazis did. People who were politically active before the Holocaust were more likely to choose cooperation with or resistance to the Nazis. Jews who were more integrated into the non-Jewish society were much more likely to escape and hide, and the stronger the pre-WWII local Jewish community was, the higher was the number of people who chose coping.

But eventually, no matter what the Jews did they almost all died?

EF: True, in those parts of Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Nazis most Jews did not survive the Holocaust, but this general observation obscures important local dynamics: for instance, those who chose evasion were more likely to survive than those who stayed put. Even more so, buying fake documents and going to Germany proper (and often to Berlin!) as a Polish or Russian laborer was likely the most successful survival strategy. The tragedy was that the evasion strategy was not available to everyone because it heavily depended on the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and interactions with non-Jewish people. Even very basic contacts such as having non-Jewish janitors in one’s workplace or apartment building could sometimes be the difference between death and survival. Speaking Polish or Russian without a Yiddish accent was much more important than having “non-Jewish looks” or being rich. For minorities, integration into the majority’s culture takes decades. In places where pre-WWII government encouraged such policies, Jews were more likely to have the tools to successfully escape and hide than in places where segregation between the Jews and the Christians was almost complete. In Kraków, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed and encouraged the Jews’ integration before Hitler was even born. The Empire itself collapsed twenty years before the WWII, but the legacy of its policies allowed quite a few Jews to successfully hide and eventually survive. In Białystok, neither the Russian Empire nor the interwar Polish state encouraged Jews to integrate into the broader society. When the Nazis came, for the local Jews, evasion was simply not an option because very few spoke Polish or had non-Jewish acquaintances to ask for help.

What about resistance?

EF: Actually, Jewish armed resistance was not as rare as people think. We tend to equate Jewish resistance with open uprisings like that of the Warsaw ghetto. But there were several ways to fight the Nazis and not all of them involved rebellions. The three communities I study all had Jewish armed resistance groups, but only the Białystok ghetto rebelled. In Kraków, the Jewish resistance bombed a coffee shop packed with German servicemen and engaged in anti-Nazi sabotage. In Minsk, the Jewish underground helped to establish and supply communist guerilla units in the forests around the city and smuggled numerous Jews out of the ghetto. Yet, because the Białystok ghetto uprising was a highly visible, symbolic act of resistance, it tends to be widely remembered, while the Kraków and Minsk Jewish undergrounds are largely overlooked and forgotten, in spite of the fact that they likely killed more Nazis than the Białystok uprising did.

Is it true that only a minority of the Jews resisted? Why wasn’t there unified resistance as the Nazi agenda became clear?

EF: Overall, only a minority of Jews chose resistance, but the expectation that all, or even the majority of Jews should or could have resisted is naive. Resistance, especially organized resistance, is not a matter of spontaneous decision taken on the spot. It required time, money, and resources that most Jews, especially those with families to provide for, simply did not have. It also required cooperation with likeminded and equally committed comrades, which is why this strategy attracted mostly Jews who were politically active before the Holocaust. Most importantly, skills to outfox the Nazi security services were essential. Without these skills, a resistance group was doomed to fail. As with other strategies, pre-Holocaust realities influenced who could become skillful resisters to the Nazis. In pre-WWII Poland, communism was repressed by the government and Jewish communists had to go underground. In the Soviet Union, the communists were the ruling party and therefore no young Jewish communist had underground resistance skills. On the other hand, the Zionists were persecuted in the USSR, but not in Poland. As a result, organized Jewish resistance to the Nazis was most widespread in Eastern Poland – an area that was briefly occupied by the Soviets in 1939-1941 prior to the Nazi takeover, and in which both the Zionists and the Jewish communists had the skills to fight back.

Can your argument explain the behavior of victims of mass violence beyond the Holocaust?

EF: Obviously, there are differences between the Holocaust and other instances of mass murder and genocide, but I think the overall list of possible behaviors is the same everywhere, be it during the Holocaust or in areas currently under the control of ISIS. That the behavior of victims of mass violence is heavily influenced by their pre-war lives is, I believe, also true beyond the specific case of the Holocaust. And if we know which potential victims of mass violence are more likely to try to escape, and who is more likely to fight back, then the hope is we would be better equipped to assist these people as the violence unfolds.

FinkelEvgeny Finkel is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.

Happy Hanukkah!

Since Hanukkah is officially underway as of Wednesday night, we at the Press would like to say Happy Hanukkah by showing off some of our most interesting books about Jewish culture and history. So take a break from your Black Friday shopping and check out some of these Jewish gems!

Happy Hanukkah!

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Maimonides: Life and Thought

By: Moshe Halbertal

Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of the medieval period, a towering figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on Jewish law, philosophy, and religious consciousness. This book provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to his life and work, revealing how his philosophical sensibility and outlook informed his interpretation of Jewish tradition. A stunning achievement, Maimonides offers an unparalleled look at the life and thought of this important Jewish philosopher, scholar, and theologian.

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No Joke: Making Jewish Humor

By: Ruth R. Wisse

Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish joking–as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that have called Jewish humor into being–and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

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How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought

By: Leora Batnitzky

Is Judaism a religion, a culture, a nationality–or a mixture of all of these? In How Judaism Became a Religion, Leora Batnitzky boldly argues that this question more than any other has driven modern Jewish thought since the eighteenth century. This wide-ranging and lucid book tells the story of how Judaism came to be defined as a religion in the modern period–and why Jewish thinkers have fought as well as championed this idea. More than an introduction, How Judaism Became a Religion presents a compelling new perspective on the history of modern Jewish thought.

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History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage

By: Beth S. Wenger

Most American Jews today will probably tell you that Judaism is inherently democratic and that Jewish and American cultures share the same core beliefs and values. But in fact, Jewish tradition and American culture did not converge seamlessly. Rather, it was American Jews themselves who consciously created this idea of an American Jewish heritage and cemented it in the popular imagination during the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. This is the first book to examine how Jews in the United States collectively wove themselves into the narratives of the nation, and came to view the American Jewish experience as a unique chapter in Jewish history.

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A Short History of the Jews

By: Michael Brenner
Translated by: Jeremiah Riemer

This is a sweeping and powerful narrative history of the Jewish people from biblical times to today. Based on the latest scholarship and richly illustrated, it is the most authoritative and accessible chronicle of the Jewish experience available. Describing the events and people that have shaped Jewish history, and highlighting the important contributions Jews have made to the arts, politics, religion, and science, A Short History of the Jews is a compelling blend of storytelling and scholarship that brings the Jewish past marvelously to life.

More Upcoming Ruth Wisse Events You Don’t Want to Miss

NoJokeAuthor Ruth R. Wisse will be making several appearances in the next couple of months to discuss her new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish joking–as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that have called Jewish humor into being–and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

The next two events will be held in November, the first being November 20th at 7:00 PM at the APJCC Auditorium in Silicon Valley. To learn more about the event, click here.

The second event will be held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on November 21st at 7:00 PM. To learn more about the event, click here.

For both events, Wisse will discuss “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” her book about the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. She is the author of The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture, which won a National Jewish Book Award. Her other books include Jews and Power (Schocken) and The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.

New and Forthcoming Titles in History

history catalog coverIntroducing our new 2011 History catalog:
http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/history11.pdf
We invite you to browse and download the catalog.

There are many new titles this year to check out.  Our catalog cover image features The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History by Jill Lepore.  This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation’s founding, including the battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to “take back America.”

You will also enjoy checking out Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash.  It is a sweeping cultural history of India’s largest city.  Other highlights in the catalog include titles by Louis Hyman and Margot Canaday in the Politics & Society in Twentieth-Century America series.  You can find titles by Thomas J. Sugrue, James T. Kloppenberg, Julian E. Zelizer, Emma Rothschild and many more in the history catalog.  From U.S. history to Asian history, the catalog covers the globe.

If you’re attending #AHA2011 in Boston this week, please make sure to stop by our booth no. 420 to say hello and browse the books.

You can also learn about new books by signing up for our e-mail notification service at:
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Your e-mail address will remain strictly confidential.