The Jewish population of Basel were massacred amidst accusations that they were responsible for causing the Black Death.
The Black Death, which is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people in the middle of the fourteenth century, arrived in central and western Europe in 1348. The pandemic spread through Savoy and soon began to kill people in the city of Basel.
Convinced that the Jews of the city were dying of the disease less frequently than the Christians, the local population soon began to accuse the Jews of poisoning the wells. Although accurate statistical evidence is lacking, numerous theories have been put forward to explain why Jews may have appeared to have suffered less from the disease. While one of these is based on the simple observation that Christians were less likely to see Jewish victims due to the fact they were buried in separate cemeteries, another suggests that strict Jewish dietary rituals meant that Jewish homes were much less appealing to the rats that are believed to have carried the plague.
Under pressure from the powerful guilds, many of whom had obtained confessions from local Jews under torture, the City Fathers responded with extraordinary ruthlessness. Having separated children from their parents, the adult Jews were a specially constructed wooden barn on an island in the Rhine. Here they were shackled together and the structure set on fire, leaving the victims to burn alive. The surviving children were forcefully converted to Christianity, while Jews were banned from the city for 200 years.
The Black Death itself continued to ravage Europe for around another four years, killing between 30 and 60 per cent of the entire population of the continent.
Relations between Catholicism and Judaism cover a long, complex and violent history in which Christians revered the Jewish scriptures yet held Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi Holocaust led to moves for reconciliation between the two religions in the second half of the 20th century.
A key milestone in relations came when the Second Vatican Council published Nostra aetate, (‘In Our Time’) in 1965. This document formally rejected the idea of collective Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion. Two decades later, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit a synagogue where he called Jews “our beloved elder brothers” and condemned anti-Semitism.
Despite these positive steps towards reconciliation, the diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Holy See in the 1990s were still enormously complex. Significantly the Vatican maintained its call for Jerusalem to have ‘international status’ due to its unique position as a holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Property rights and tax exemptions for the Church in Israel also featured heavily in the discussions.
The agreement was signed by Monsignor Claudio Celli, the Vatican Undersecretary of State, and Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. However, it has never been ratified by the Israeli Knesset due to ongoing economic disputes over the legal status of church properties in Israel. Despite this, the Vatican appointed an apostolic nuncio to Israel in 1994 while Israel appointed an ambassador to the Vatican.
The origin for the scandal lay in the discovery of a ripped-up letter in a waste basket at the German Embassy in Paris. Having been handed by the cleaner who found it to French counter-espionage, it was found to contain French military secrets and was determined to have been leaked by someone within the General Staff.
Alfred Dreyfus, who had been born into a Jewish family in the Alsace region before its annexation by Germany, had been promoted to the rank of captain by 1889. He joined the General Staff in 1893 but, following the discovery of the letter known as the bordereau, was arrested after his handwriting was compared to that in the letter.
Dreyfus’ trial began on 19 December, but was preceded by weeks of anti-Semitic articles in the right-wing press. The trial itself was conducted in a closed court, where the seven judges unanimously found him guilty of treason after being handed a secret dossier during their deliberations. They declared their verdict on 22 December, and sentenced him to life imprisonment preceded by military degradation. This involved the insignia being torn from his uniform and his sword broken, before being paraded in front of a crowd stirred up by the press shouting, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”
Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, but in France new evidence began to emerge that another officer was the real traitor. With support from the Dreyfusards including the novelist Emile Zola, a retrial in 1899 reduced the sentence while the President of the Republic granted a pardon. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally exonerated and readmitted to the army.
On the 15th September 1935, the German Reichstag passed the Nuremberg Laws that legally discriminated against Jews. The antisemitic legislation consisted of two laws – the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, and the Reich Citizenship Law.
Since coming to power in 1933, the Nazi Party had produced large amounts of propaganda that discriminated against minorities, and which gradually encouraged people in Germany to view Jews in particular as belonging to a separate race to other Germans. The Nuremberg Laws enshrined this discrimination in the legal framework of the country.
The first law focused on individual relationships by banning marriages and sexual relationships between Jews and Germans. Furthermore it strengthened the concept of ‘German’ racial superiority in law by banning German women under the age of 45 from working in Jewish households. Meanwhile the Reich Citizenship Law stripped Jews and many other minorities of their German citizenship as it stated that only people with German or related blood could be Reich citizens.
This second law relied on a clear definition of Jewishness, but this was not actually agreed upon until November. In the end, Hitler declared that anyone with three Jewish grandparents was to be classed as Jewish; anyone who had two Jewish grandparents would be considered Jewish under the law if they practised the faith or had a Jewish spouse. Proving racial heritage therefore became a vital part of life in Nazi Germany. However, due to concerns about how the international community might interpret the laws, prosecutions did not begin until after the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
On the 12th June 1942, Anne Frank received a diary as a thirteenth birthday present from her father. Barely three weeks later, Anne and her family went into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Her diary, which chronicled her experiences over the next two years, was published posthumously after the war under the title The Diary of a Young Girl and became one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated books.
The Frank family originated in Frankfurt, Germany, but moved away after the Nazi party won local elections in 1933. Anne’s father, Otto, was a businessman who chose to move the family to Amsterdam after receiving an offer to start a company there. However, when the German army invaded the Netherlands in 1940 the family found themselves trapped in a country subjected to anti-Semitic laws.
When, in July 1942, Anne’s older sister Margot was ordered by the Nazi authorities to go to a labour camp, their father instead arranged for the family to go into hiding in a so-called ‘Secret Annexe’ above his office building. It was here that Anne wrote her diary, which she addressed as Kitty. Over three volumes she recorded the relationships between the Frank family, the Van Pels family, and her father’s friend Fritz Pfeffer with whom they shared their confined hiding place.
An anonymous tip-off led to the discovery and arrest of the eight inhabitants on the 4th August 1944. They were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp a month later. Anne died of typhus in early 1945 after being transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She was fifteen years old.