| Magazine Feature |

French Doors

The Alsace vineland — ping-ponged between France and Germany for hundreds of years — is proof that a Yid says l’chayim no matter what comes his way  

Photos: MB Goldstein

Although the Alsace region is part of France today, this strip on the country’s northeastern tip, with its world-famous wine growing villages, has been ping-ponged between France and Germany numerous times over the last few hundred years. Yet despite the persecution the Jews of Alsace faced over the thousand years of their sojourn in this province of both French and German influences, Judaism in Alsace took on its own distinct character.

As we’ll be driving through this picturesque, old-world countryside, we have more than a wine route in mind. Jewish history in Alsace reaches back across the centuries, to at least 1165, making the communities here some of the oldest still-functioning kehillos in Europe. After all the years of national transfers and geographic shakeups, we’re traveling through these parts to see if we can find local Jews still keeping the ancient customs and conversant in the old Judeo-Alsatian dialect.

On the train up from Basel, the closest Swiss city to the French border, we pass the village of Ensisheim, where the Maharam of Rothenburg was held captive from 1286 until his death in 1293. Nothing remains of the castle fortress where Rav Meir was jailed, so we decide not to stop there, but continue through rural northeastern France to our first destination, the history-rich medieval town of Colmar.


Still Holding On

The first thing we notice, as our local guide and driver Reb Yehoshua Klein swings his car out of the train station, is a square named Place du Capitaine Dreyfus. The anti-Semitic scandal in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Alsatian officer in the French army, was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans rocked Western Europe in 1894, though it seems strangely out of place in this beautiful town today. Dreyfus (which Mr. Klein says is a reference to the Shalosh Regalim — “three feet” in Yiddish), is a common Alsatian Jewish last name, along with Bloch, Blum, Weil, and Levi, to name a few others.

In modern times, Alsace was annexed to the German Empire in 1871 at the end of the Franco-German War, returned to France after World War I, reoccupied by the Germans in World War II, then again restored to France.

Colmar, whose Jewish roots date back to the 13th century, was a wealthy kehillah over the past hundred years or so. Houses are big and the town is beautifully kept. Like all of France’s Jewish communities, the original Ashkenazic Alsatian community was boosted by an influx of immigrants from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in the 1950s and 60s. The chief rabbi of the town today, Rabbi Yaacov Fhima, was born here, although his parents and grandparents arrived from Morocco.

The pretty and well-situated town is popular with tourists. There are playgrounds, cafés, and canals galore, as well as a 12-meter-high replica of the Statue of Liberty, in memory of Colmar’s famous son Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the 19th-century sculptor who created Lady Liberty, a gift of friendship from the people of France to the United States in 1886.

We ring a bell at a side door for entry to Colmar’s shul. Signs inside announce the weekly Talmud Torah classes as well as classes for adults, and the yard has a succah structure as well as play equipment for the Jewish kindergarten.

Although Colmar is a community in decline, in the big sanctuary, only used on Yom Tov these days, we find a few French Jewish children’s books and candy wrappers on one seat. Rabbi Fhima shows us the box he stands in to give the sermons — reminiscent of a cherry picker rising in the middle of the shul. The daily minyan for Shacharis is held in a side room, and a small group of kollel men from Strasbourg learn in the shul building for afternoon seder, which helps out with Minchah.

At the front of the sanctuary are five chairs, lined up for the rabbi, community president, and board members.

“There was a chief rabbi here in the 1850s, Rav Shlomo Zev Klein, who wanted to create a Jewish day school in the town, going against the grain of the times, when Jews wanted to be Jewish in shul and Alsace citizens outside,” says Rabbi Fhima. “The community members were so annoyed with Rav Klein that they cut the legs of the rabbi’s chair, just a little, so he would be seated lower than the board members.”

The nusach of tefillah, known as “Minhag Elzas” or “Minhag Colmar,” is similar to the minhag of Frankfurt, but with its own twist. The special piyutim and traditional local tunes even include a unique niggun sung in shul when a kallah had come for Shabbos to visit her chassan’s family.

Rabbi Fhima gently opens up the huge aron kodesh, and we look at scrolls donated over hundreds of years. The Nazis were here, of course, and treated French Jewry exactly as they treated other Jews, yet they didn’t destroy shuls and cemeteries in France, which means that we can view the original shuls here and feel the vibe of those ancient communities — while just across the border in Germany, nothing remains.

“The rabbanim here used to speak Yiddish. But when the area came back under French control in 1830, the Consistoire, the official Jewish representative body established by Napoleon, required that the sermons be given in French, so people would learn French,” Rabbi Fhima says. While no one is enforcing that today, the position of chief rabbi of each town in Alsace is still funded by that historical Consistoire.


Old-Time Brainwash

Wednesday is a half-holiday in France. Schools are off, which is why the weekly Talmud Torah class for the dozen or so children around meets on Wednesday. A child with tzitzis plays in the yard, supervised by a woman in a sheitel who comes to work at the Talmud Torah from the nearby town of Mulhouse, another historic Jewish community. Whereas Colmar is gentrified and touristy, Mulhouse is working class. It has a Muslim population above the national average, and known for its rigorous practice of Islam. Meanwhile, the woman explains, while Islam is on the rise, the Jewish community of Mulhouse has shrunk to only two small minyanim: Every Shabbos, ten men daven in the nusach Ashkenaz shul, and ten men in the Sephardi Beit Knesset, “but if we would get together to pray, we wouldn’t even have 20 men.”

We’re here on the right day: The Colmar shul has a pop-up kosher restaurant lunch every Wednesday, much appreciated since there is no kosher eatery in the town. The small, well-heeled and leisurely retired crowd at the luncheon contrasts with the kollel avreichim from Strasbourg who run past us and up the stairs to the beis medrash. I try to strike up conversation with one casually dressed middle-aged woman in Hebrew, but she says apologetically that she speaks only French.

Soon we are rescued. A tall, athletic-looking older gentleman in T-shirt, shorts, and sports cap, enquires about our visit in excellent Ivrit. “Journalists? You know, Colmar has already been listed by the New York Times in its list of 100 top places to visit. But of course, you want to know about the Jewish history here. I’m happy to help — I’m the former rabbi’s son.”

Claude Fuks, who turns out to be the son of Rabbi Simon Fuks (1911-2008), chief rabbi of Colmar and the Upper Rhine from 1947 until his retirement in 1986, is just the right person to tell us about the area.

Fuks, a retired engineer who worked with Israeli companies, was born while his father, at the time a chaplain in the French army, was taken prisoner of war at the Battle of Zuydcoote, near Dunkirk, in June 1940. He asks us how much time we have, and if we’d like to see something really interesting. Of course, it’s a yes, though he’s not saying what the “something” is, and we shrug at each other as we, together with Yehoshua Klein, spontaneously follow him out of the shul and into the town, along cobblestone streets lined with boutique stores and cafés, and a little sightseeing train trundling around.

Mr. Fuks chats about how the Jews were deported from here during the Nazi occupation, how President Jacques Chirac broke the taboo on acknowledging France’s role in the Holocaust, and about French Jewish politicians and the dedication of the square outside the Colmar shul to righteous French non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. A secular Israeli couple asks us directions in Hebrew to Petite Venice, which he provides, we pass the originally Jewish-owned bank, Banque Kolb (Kolb is an anagram of Bloch), and then we come into a square around the town’s biggest Catholic church, the Collegiale St. Martin, a huge Gothic structure built between 1235 and 1365.

Mr. Fuks walks right up next to the church and points upward. We crane our necks. In the corner of the cornice protrudes a revolting animal, a leering image of a pig, with a person clinging tightly to its back. “That’s a Jew. Look at the chapeau shpitz (pointed hat) which Jews were forced to wear.” We look up at the image, bewildered and sickened, and then we follow Mr. Fuks around the church to the front entrance, to see an even clearer sculpture under the eaves: A goat (a traditionally satanic Christian symbol, possibly derived from the “scapegoat” — the se’ir l’azazel carrying away the people’s sins on Yom Kippur) together with a caricatured satanic Jew.

“The anti-Semitic propaganda of the 13th century. Remember that the townspeople couldn’t read. The way to get ideas into their minds was through images — as well as the Sunday sermons. So here, they are being taught that the Jew is evil, satanic, disgusting.” To our shock, Mr. Fuks lets us know that this obscene icon, known as a Judensau (Jewish sow) is common in Germany and Alsace, predating Hitler and Goebbels by centuries, part of the Catholic church’s dehumanization and vilification of the Jews.

The brainwashing was successful. From medieval times and up until the French Revolution, Jews were not allowed to stay in the towns and cities of Alsace overnight. A church bell pealed out at ten p.m. to remind them to leave. Jewish trade and money were tolerated, but Jewish residents were not. “The bell still rings in Colmar today, at ten p.m.,” Mr. Fuks says. “It’s a unique ring, and nobody nowadays knows exactly why it peals out at that time, but Jewish history knows why.”’


Welcome to Wine Country

“One side of my family has been in Alsace since before the times of Rashi,” our guide, Yehoshua Klein, tells us. “They lived in Strasbourg — the region’s capital — but the area was under the German Empire at times, which meant that the community in Alsace was closely connected to the communities on the German side of the Rhine. The Elzas minhagim are very similar to Ashkenaz minhagim.”

Mr. Klein’s father spoke Alsatian to his parents when he didn’t want the children to understand, but today, the traditional dialect spoken in most of Alsace is dying out within the Jewish community, even as some Yiddish and Lashon Kodesh words filtered into Alsatian.

“A lot of the Jews here were beheimos-handlers,” Klein says, using the Alsatian slang referring to the common Jewish livelihood in the region. “The Jews couldn’t own property, so they dealt in shmattes, or beheimos, or were moneylenders. When the non-Jews owed them too much money, it was time to incite gentiles to kill Jews and get rid of the debt. For example, in 1349, there was a syndicate of butchers who owed money to Jewish lenders and plotted to kill them. Two of their members objected, so they murdered them first, then went after the Jews. During the time of the Black Death, Jews, who suffered less from the plague due to their hygiene practices, were blamed for poisoning the wells and murdered by the mobs.”

A grisly history, as we leave Colmar on a beautiful sunlit afternoon.

The Jewish communities of Alsace were often more traditional and stronger in keeping the mesorah than those in the more cosmopolitan cities like Paris. The communities, Mr. Klein explains, were small and tight-knit, so that “everyone knew you and what you were doing.”

We’re driving by vineyards and cornfields, past the industrial town that was the birthplace of French car company Peugeot, and then, as we reach the foothills of the Vosges mountains, we see the impressive medieval castle Chateau du Haut Koenigsburg looming over the hilly landscape. Alsace is a wine growing region, and Mr. Klein explains why: Grapes grow better in sloping vineyards, where the rain water runs downward and doesn’t all get absorbed. The sun, meanwhile, stimulates the production of sugar.

We’re now entering the Lower Rhine valley, known as Bas-Rhin. The villages, many with Germanic-sounding names, hosted small enclaves of Jews in the past. As Jews were forbidden to stay overnight in the towns and cities, they lived in these villages until the French Revolution and the Emancipation, when many moved into Strasbourg and Colmar. Some Jews remained in these picturesque Alsatian villages, but they were generally less knowledgeable and committed to tradition.


Alley of the Jews

Our pick for this day tour is Obernai, which was recorded to have had Jewish residents as far back as 1215. We’ve arranged to meet Mr. Denis Geissmann, president of its Jewish community, at the shul which was inaugurated in 1876. It replaced the previous structure, built in 1696, which had grown too small. Mr. Geissmann affably unlocks the doors, bringing us out of the hot sun into a beautiful sanctuary: arches and stained-glass windows, wooden pews and incredibly high ceilings. A traditional setup, with the women’s gallery on top, lulls us into a warm sense of familiarity — jarred by the old-fashioned organ perched up front, near the bimah (for when marriages and other ceremonies are held in the synagogue. It’s an Orthodox community here — there was never a Reform temple,” he stresses).

Resting on the organ is a sepia photograph of a group of children dressed up for Purim in 1905, and Mr. Geissmann proudly points out his grandmother. “My father’s mother’s family have been here for centuries, although when they were not allowed to live in the town, they lived in nearby Krautergersheim, where a third of the population was Jewish.”  

“When I was young,” he continues, “we had a Talmud Torah here. Rabbi Gershon Cahen from Strasbourg would drive up in his old Citroen every week — he drove to all the villages to teach the children. We had five or six classes, children on different levels of Hebrew studies. Twenty years ago, when there were not enough children, we had to close down the Talmud Torah. The older people have passed away, and the youngsters moved — or assimilated. There are people living here whose parents I knew from shul. But when I phone them up to come for minyan, they don’t want to know.”

The Shabbos minyan meets on alternate weeks here and in Lingolsheim, the next village over. High Holiday services are held here, but Denis says it’s too hard to get ten men together for a yahrtzeit. “It’s easier to go into Strasbourg. And my brother lives in Strasbourg.” When Pesach arrives, he rents a hotel next to the shul and hosts a Pesach program for 100 people, with services, Pesach meals, and socializing.

Two blocks away, above what looks like a car workshop, we notice the year 1696 and the Hebrew year Tav-Nun-Vav carved into stone, while the doorway is marked by a mezuzah indentation. This is the location of an ancient shul, the structure of the back of the aron kodesh protruding from an outside wall. Pieces of a stone-carved bimah remain from 330 years ago, and the non-Jewish residents who subsequently bought the next-door property were so enamored of its moldings that when one cracked, they replicated the moldings of the shul in the entrance of their apartment building.

Next, we walk to the medieval Ruelle De Juifs [Jew Street], or as is written in old German-Alsatian, Juddegassel, a narrow cobblestone alley which, apparently, was a canal in medieval times. Mr. Geissmann stops at a boarded-up door, explaining that this structure once housed a medieval mikveh, then points to a nearby low-arched doorway. “Here was a medieval yeshivah. And look.” Clearly engraved in the stone is the town’s oldest Hebrew inscription. The word “Shlomo” is clearly visible.

Walking through the cheery cobblestone streets of the old town, filled with ice-cream stores, jewelry sellers, and tourists eager for a taste of authentic Alsace flavor, we notice that the Stolpersteiner, stones that memorialize the names of individual murdered Jews embedded on the sidewalks of their native cities, are hammered into the streets of Obernai too. I find it chilling when Mr. Geissmann waves his hand down one road, saying, “My grandparents’ names are over there.” Around here, the long and storied histories of families and communities are just oh-so-briefly interrupted by the four years in between when they had to either run like fleeing mice or were deported and gassed.


Staying Separate

We get back onto the road, a highway this time, and move into traffic for our final stop, Strasbourg, the capital city of the region.

Mr. Klein is a board member of the Etz Chaim shul in the city, which was founded on Chanukah 1882, when a small group in the city wrote to the great leader of German Jewry in that period, Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch, about their concerns with the compromises to modernity in the general Jewish community of Strasbourg. Rav Hirsch replied with instructions to separate from the existing kehillah and to create an independent shul and cemetery. Although it remains an Ashkenaz community, in the post-World War II period, Etz Chaim’s rabbi was Rav Avraham Deutsch, who chose as the town’s dayan Rav Avrohom Dovid Horowitz, a chassidic posek from Grosswardein who later joined the Badatz Eidah Hachareidis in Jerusalem, but remained known throughout his life as “the Strasburger Ruv.” The Strasburger Ruv’s sons-in-law are prominent rabbanim in the chassidish world, including Rebbe Mendel Hager of Vizhnitz.

The current rav of Etz Chaim, for over 55 years, is Rav Shmuel Akiva Schlesinger (father of Rav Yisroel Dovid of Monsey), and the shul — which hosts a thriving Kollel — has recently been moved from the old area near the city’s train station to today’s Jewish hub. During World War II, its old premises were taken over by the Hitler Youth Movement, and the eagle insignia of the Nazi movement is still plainly visible on a few wooden chairs that are still in the shul. While the community is doing well, the original Ashkenazi families have declined in number, often making aliyah or moving to the UK, but Sephardic Jews have boosted the kehillah, filling its schools and kollelim.

We arrive in the Jewish area of Strasbourg in the late afternoon, as frum Yidden stop for coffee and pastries outside the area’s kosher cafés. The impressive building of the main shul abuts a leafy park, where kollel wives chat in French and Hebrew as children whizz by on scooters. The clatch on the park bench next to where I’m sitting includes one woman originally from Eretz Yisrael and another from Paris. Strasbourg, with housing prices far lower than Paris, attracts families with kollel options as well as a high percentage of Jewish students from all over France who come to study in its medical or dental schools and then settle here. The women answer my questions and tell me about the local frum schooling options, but my limited French prevents us from getting too friendly. Things seem casual here — the women share a box of grapes, and there’s no evidence of matching sibling outfits. The kosher grocery we stop into has plenty of local products as well as imports from all over Europe, Israel, and the US. Bottles of wine chill in the refrigerator next to the entrance — it’s France, after all.

Moving a little further into the city with our guide, we see the Neustadt area, where the German Empire who controlled the city from the mid-1800s through World War I, built a theater, opera house, and other beautiful buildings to show off their superiority to the native Frenchmen. German and Alsatian languages (Alsasish, to the locals) are still in use in local businesses, because the region maintains local character and pride, and French alone is not enough to get by. As we pass the outside wall of a municipal building, my eye catches billboards featuring shocking black-and-white pictures of a World War II concentration camp, including crematoria.

“This depicts Natzweiler-Struthof, the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil. It’s just 50 kilometers from Strasbourg,” Mr. Klein says, and again, the incongruity between today’s reality and what happened here just 80 years ago is like a rip in elegant fabric exposing rotting flesh. Yes, there was a flourishing Jewish presence here for centuries, and yes, it is still here today and actually thriving, but between 1940 and 1945, Strasbourg was Judenrein, its Yidden either having fled or murdered in Struthof.


Across the Bridge

To get back to the frum area, we cross the River Lille on a footbridge known as Passerelle de Juifs, or Judestej. Jews Bridge. The afternoon sun is shining, trams and trains are gliding by, and the river flows below, as we tread on the bridge that the Jews of Alsace were forced to cross at ten p.m. each evening, to what was then wooded plains. What did they feel like? Were there glances of loathing directed at their backs? Satisfied smirks from the gentiles as the Jews left the comfort of the town? Did they go out with heads held high, or bent? Was this norm accepted as part of Jewish life?

“Fifty years ago, the chief rabbi of Strasbourg asked the Catholic bishops to stop the ringing of the ten p.m. bell, which used to signify, ‘Jews. Get out.’ But he said no, no, they can’t do that, they can’t change the minhag of their fathers,” Mr. Klein says.

He explains that the early discrimination against Jews continued regardless of whether the area was under German or French control, until the French Revolution, when Napoleon generously — and shrewdly — granted the Jews all rights. “Napoleon was clever. He gave them everything so that they would assimilate. He established a ‘Sanhedrin,’ to which he invited 70 Jewish scholars. The Chasam Sofer was invited to head the Sanhedrin but declined. Then, Rav Zinsheim and others moved to Paris to be near Napoleon’s court, and he paid them to sit in a giant beis din.”

The freedom and rights caused a tragic decline in the spiritual levels of the community, as Jews were allowed to study and practice professions and move into literature and the arts. Religion was on a downhill trajectory, Torah scholarship uncommon.

Still, a core group held on to mesorah here in Alsace. In 1933, Rav Elchonon Wasserman sent his son, Rav Simcha, to head a yeshivah in Strasbourg, bringing Torah to a community that was somewhat out of the European yeshivah loop. Rav Simcha led Yeshivas Chachmei Tzorfas until 1938, when war loomed. Chachmei Tzorfas was reestablished for Holocaust survivors in 1945, this time in the town of Aix les Bains near the Swiss border, under the auspices of Rav Chaim Yitzchak Chaikin. Today, most French bochurim learn in the yeshivos of Aix les Bains or St. Louis for mesivta, and then continue on to Eretz Yisrael.


Timeless Waters

One thing I was especially curious to see was the medieval mikveh next to Strasbourg’s Rue des Juifs — the street that housed the shul, Jewish bakery, and butcher back in the 14th century. Mr. Klein produces a key, and we let ourselves in to 20 Rue de Charpentiers. (“Carpenter Street,” he says. “You know who ‘the carpenter’ was, right? The Christian deity.”) The municipality has provided explanatory billboards, but we are drawn quickly down a flight of steps, and here it is, unmistakable and unadorned: a square pool, emptied of water, but preserved and original and halachically sound. Recesses on the way down the staircase enabled users to pile their clothing, similar to mikvehs from the same period found in Speyer, Worms, and Cologne, in Germany.

More than anywhere else, walking down here feels like stepping into the lives of the ghosts of our people’s past. Local Jewish history over the centuries sounds something like this: The Jews were here, they were expelled, they were back, they were murdered, they were back, emancipated, they were hunted and murdered, yet somehow, survived and were back. And here, now still and silent, stands the mikveh, evidence of their presence and their essence. Its significance and meaning are both familiar and timeless.

Just 200 meters away from the center of the medieval Jewish community is Strasbourg’s modern mehudar mikveh. It may boast every 21st-century convenience, but at its core, it’s exactly the same pool, for exactly the same purpose. The mikveh is still here, same measurements, same mesorah, because the laws that preserve the Jewish family will somehow always endure, for the remnant of our nation that has somehow flourished again. —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 988)

Oops! We could not locate your form.