Prestige & Persecution – Rise To Cataclysm: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part One)

Forgotten amid the wartime destruction of Germanic Konigsberg and its resulting transformation into ethnically Russified Kaliningrad were the Jews who once inhabited the city. They made up a vital part of the commerce and culture of Konigsberg. Just as the German Empire ascended to Great Power status in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews were playing an important role in the booming economic development of Konigsberg. Their presence in the city had begun in the smallest yet most important way possible. The first Jews allowed to settle in the city served the Duke of Prussia in the mid-16th century. This began a long affiliation with power brokers in the city. By the 20th century, the community had grown to one of the largest and most cosmopolitan in Germany. Unfortunately, this led to discrimination and ultimately to their destruction. Tragically the Jews of Konigsberg would end up despised, excluded and ultimately exterminated by their fellow Germans. Their fate was much the same as that suffered by millions of other Jews in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. The difference was that the persecution of Konigsberg’s Jewish population began several years earlier than other Jewish communities in the eastern hinterlands that would prove so deadly.

East Prussia – the provincial home of Konigsberg –  was a hotbed of Nazi sympathies and conservative German nationalism during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The province would offer a proving ground for the initial iterations of what would morph into the Final Solution. The persecution of Konigsberg’s Jews took place several years prior to the Soviet occupation of the city in 1945. When Germans lament the demise of Konigsberg at the hands of the Soviet Union, they almost always fail to mention the Third Reich’s role in murdering some of its most productive and patriotic citizens. This is easy to forget because the pre-war Jews of Konigsberg, like the German population of that historic city, have all but ceased to exist. Thorough efforts to erase all traces of Konigsberg’s vibrant Jewish community were just as much a part of Nazi militarism as the invasion of the Soviet Union which ultimately led to the Third Reich’s destruction. The Jews, along with socialists and communists, were the chosen enemy within. Those living in the most prosperous city on Germany’s eastern frontiers were usual suspects so to speak. The Jews hard-won foothold in Konigsberg had been precarious ever since their arrival four hundred years earlier.

New Synagogue - Konigsberg

New Synagogue – Konigsberg

A Class To Itself – The Limits Of Tolerance
The first known Jews in Konigsberg were doctors brought in to care for the health of Duke Albert. It would take another two centuries before Jews would establish a foothold in the city. Even then they were administered and segregated by a system setup by Frederick the Great that was considered liberal by the standards of the time, but would be inconceivable today. They were broken up into three classes “tolerated Jews”, “non-tolerated Jews” and “protected Jews”. The classes were differentiated by residential rights. Most Jews were “non-tolerated” and could not settle or own property in Konigsberg, only “protected Jews” could. This kept the population at a very minimal level. Though the Jewish population in Konigsberg tripled during the 18th century, there were still less than a thousand Jews living in the city by 1800.

It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that Jews obtained full rights in Prussia. Their population, power and prestige grew to unprecedented levels during what turned out to be a Golden Age. The earned Influence and affluence as bankers, financiers, merchants and jewelers. They gained a foothold in the professional classes that only grew as Germany boomed during an age of rapid industrial development.  Synagogues were built for both Orthodox and progressive Jews. The most famous of these was constructed to host more liberal Jews. Completed in 1896 on Lomse Island, it was known as the New Synagogue and quickly became an iconic structure in a city filled with impressive houses of worship. At the same time, Jews were becoming more and more integrated in larger German society. The First World War proved this trend, as hundreds of the city’s Jews served with distinction. On average one out of every eight Konigsberg Jews serving in the German Army won the Iron Cross for heroism.

Lost World - Interior of the New Synagogue in Konigsberg

Lost World – Interior of the New Synagogue in Konigsberg (Credit: Herausgeber Landsmannschaft Ostpreusen)

Brutal Efficiency – The Horror Unfolds
Ironically it was not the Great War that brought Antisemitism and exclusionary tendencies to the fore in Konigsberg, instead it was the aftermath. The harsh peace terms imposed on Germany, followed a few years later by runaway inflation left many Germans looking for someone to blame. Rampant insecurities about the future of Germany and the threat from communism in the east offered fertile ground for radical right-wing fascism to take hold. Jews were a convenient scapegoat. They had risen as far as their countrymen would allow them. Following the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, Jews found themselves increasingly prohibited from civil society. Their rights dwindled, as did their proportion of the population. Those who had the means heeded the dark portents of Nazi rhetoric and decided to emigrate abroad. Such foresight was informed by a sense that the situation could only get worse. On the night of November 9, 1938 it certainly did. The storm of Antisemitism broke in the form of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). The Nazis used a pre-prepared list of Jewish owned businesses to unleash a wave of brutal attacks. Windows were smashed, stores looted and Jews sustained physical attacks The New Synagogue was burnt to the ground and other synagogues were vandalized.

A desecreation - The Konigsberg New Synagogue after Kristallnacht

A desecration – The Konigsberg New Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht increased the rate and pace of Jewish emigration abroad. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population of Konigsberg had dropped to a little over 1,500, its lowest level in a hundred years. Those left in the city group was now stranded in the city as emigration was banned. They were now at the mercy of a society that was undergoing creeping brutalization by the Nazis. Many prominent Konigsberg Jews either committed suicide or were deported to concentration camps. The overriding majority of them avoided being caught in the crossfire when the Red Army fought their way into the city because were already dead. Such was the catastrophe which beset the city, that there is still no accurate figure of the number of Konigsberg’s Jews killed from 1939 -1945. There was accurate testimony though of the horror that unfolded in the city as the Holocaust was carried out with brutal efficiency.

Click here for: Leaving Life Behind – Beneath Belarusian Soil: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part Two)


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