Portrait of Mrs. Kurtzig. Artist unknown, Rakwitz, East Prussia (now Rakoniewice, Pol.), ca. 1830–1840. Oil on canvas. Mrs. Kurtzig was the wife of Hirsch Kurtzig, a prosperous wool merchant and cantor. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

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East Prussia

(Ger., Ostpreussen), former Prussian province on the Baltic Sea. With its capital at Königsberg (today Kaliningrad, Rus.), East Prussia was bordered to the east by Lithuania, to the south by Poland, and to the west by the province of West Prussia. Teutonic knights forbade the settlement of Jews in the territory in the fifteenth century. This ban, promoted by the province’s constitutionally strong estates, was circumvented in Königsberg from the seventeenth century on. In the province’s next-largest cities, Tilsit (Sovetsk, Rus.) and Memel (Klaipėda, Lith.), only certain “protected Jews” were admitted on the basis of the Generaljudenprivileg (general Jewish privilege) of 1750. A few cities (such as Lyck [Ełk, Pol.]) tolerated the founding of small Jewish communities; others permitted entry to Jewish merchants from Poland and Lithuania only during trade fairs.

Jewish community leaders at the dedication of a synagogue, Rastenburg, East Prussia (now Kętrzyn, Pol.), ca. 1903. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy George Fogelson)

Prior to the relaxation of settlement limitations (ushered in by the Toleranzpatent of 1812), the number of Jews in East Prussia was small. In 1808, some 1,000 Jews—mostly of East European origin—lived in East Prussia, the vast majority of them in Königsberg. In 1817, the cities of Memel, Tilsit, and Gumbinnen (Gusev, Rus.) each supported Jewish populations of up to two dozen individuals. Following the Toleranzpatent of 1812, the Jewish population rose to some 2,400 by 1817. Most of the Jews immigrating to cities in East Prussia, apart from Königsberg, came from other parts of Prussia, especially West Prussia.

Table: Jewish Population in the Prussian Province of East Prussia

The legal status of Jews in Prussia as a whole—and thus also in East Prussia—improved as a result of the Gesetz über die Verhältnisse der Juden (Law on the Situation of the Jews) of 23 July 1847, and of the draft constitution of 1848, though Jews were only finally emancipated by the Reich Constitution of 1871. This relieved the occupational restrictions suffered by the Jews. Throughout the nineteenth century, the situation of Jewish merchants from Congress Poland and Lithuania who remained in East Prussia in pursuit of business was precarious. The wide-ranging expulsions of foreigners introduced by Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1885–1886 affected these groups particularly harshly. While Jewish populations in the larger East Prussian cities continued to grow until World War I, the already modest number of Jews living in smaller towns (such as Guttstadt in the Ermland) diminished even further (from 243 Jews in 1871 to 149 in 1901). The significance of the province significantly declined after World War I and the October Revolution of 1917, due to sharp drops in trade between Western and Eastern Europe and the province’s increasingly peripheral location, leading among others to a decline in the Jewish population.

Jews in the university city of Königsberg played a significant role in developing modern German Jewish culture. The late eighteenth century saw the growth of a circle of maskilim, prominent among them Markus Herz (1747–1803) and Yitsḥak Euchel (1756–1804). The first three volumes of the Haskalah journal Me’asef were published there from 1784 to 1786. Apart from Königsberg, however, East Prussia did not play a significant role in the development of German Jewish culture, though the region’s proximity to Eastern Europe made it rather an important conduit for the movement of people and ideas between West and East.

One figure of great importance to the Jewish community was Eli‘ezer Lipman Silberman, the shoḥet (kosher slaughterer) of the small community of Lyck, who had earned his doctorate at the University of Leipzig. In 1856, Silberman founded the first Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Magid, which, though aimed at a Polish Jewish and Russian Jewish audience, was printed in East Prussia due to the milder censorship rules there. For the same reason, in this period Lyck became an important center of publishing for the Russian Jewish market. In 1862, Silberman also founded the Mekitse Nirdamim (Wakers of the Slumbering) publishing society, which issued scholarly editions of Hebrew works. This organization, with 1,200 subscribers throughout Europe, relocated to Berlin in 1885 (and Jerusalem in 1934).

David Gordon (1831–1886) became editor of Ha-Magid in 1858 and, as a supporter of Ḥibat Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion), used it as a platform to promote proto-Zionist positions. Also active in East Prussia was Yisra’el ben Ze’ev Wolf Salanter (Lipkin; 1810–1883), the founder of the Musar movement and publisher of the short-lived Orthodox periodical Tevunah. In Memel, the Hessen-born rabbi Isaak Rülf (1831–1902; in Memel from 1865–1899) pursued his multifaceted publishing activities and campaigned intensively for Russian Jewry among the German Jewish public. He was a pioneer of political Zionism and the teacher of David Wolffsohn (1856–1914), one of the leading figures in the Zionist movement.

Suggested Reading

Stefan Hartmann, “Die jüdische Bevölkerung in Ostpreussen von der Emanzipation bis zum Ausbruch des Ersten Weltkriegs,” in Juden in Ostmitteleuropa von der Emanzipation bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, ed. Gotthold Rhode, pp. 23–47 (Marburg, Ger., 1989); Ronny Kabus, Juden in Ostpreussen (Husum, Ger., 1998).



Translated from German by Deborah Cohen