Sandwiched between the persecutions and pogroms of the Middle Ages and the terrifying years of the Holocaust, there was a golden age of Jewish culture that flourished in Europe. From France to Russia, and especially in Central Europe, some of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time emerged during this period. The era produced brilliant Jewish philosophers, phenomenally successful businessmen, and some of the most talented writers, artists and musicians of the early modern age. Museums in their honor, their homes and their graves can be found in cities across Europe. Here is a selection of some of the most fascinating:
BARUCH SPINOZA HOUSE AND MUSEUM, Rijnsburg, Netherlands
Web: www.spinozahuis.nl (official website)
Baruch Spinoza is regarded as one of the great Jewish intellectuals of the modern era. His philosophical ideas and writings were among the most important of his day, and he is credited by both Jews and non-Jews as having been a key philosophical figure of the Enlightenment. His teachings challenged established Jewish dogma of the time, and as a result Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism. Today he is a national hero of the Netherlands, and while he is technically still in a state of excommunication, modern day Jews have come to see him in a much more positive light. His former home in Rijnsburg is now a museum.
Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew whose family fled to the Netherlands from the turmoil in Iberia in the early 16th century. Originally Marranos, the family moved to the Netherlands in 1615 where they openly reverted to Judaism. Baruch was born in Amsterdam in 1632. While he had a traditional Jewish upbringing and education, his intellectual and philosophical interests led him to pursue a career that lay outside of both the family business and traditional Jewish scholarship.
By his early twenties his writings were already well known in Amsterdam. Many of his ideas were provocative to both Jews and Christians. Despite warnings from Jewish and civic leaders, Spinoza continued with his work, and at the age of twenty-four he was issued a Writ of Cherem, the Jewish equivalent of excommunication. As well known as he was at the time of his death, it was not yet imagined how immense the impact his ideas would have as the Age of Enlightenment dawned. Spinoza’s work is considered an integral part of Enlightenment thinking, and he is highly regarded in the Netherlands.
The Spinoza House, where Baruch Spinoza spent several years in Rijnsburg, is still standing and has been preserved as an historic site. The house, which is now run as a museum, looks much the same as it did in the 17th century when the philosopher resided there. The rooms have been restored as best as possible to the way they were in Spinoza’s time. Of particular interest is the study where some of his personal library books and artifacts are on display.
SHOLEM ALEICHEM BIRTH HOUSE, Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine,
Web: www.sholomaleichemmuseum.com (official website)
The Sholem Aleichem Birth House was the childhood home of one of the titans of 19th century literature and arguably the greatest Yiddish writer of all time. Born in Ukraine during turbulent times for the Jews, Sholem Aleichem’s writings embraced the experience of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. He introduced both humor and cultural fiction to mainstream Jewish literature. At the time of his death he was an international celebrity. His life and works are celebrated at his home in Pereyaslav.
The man most responsible for popularizing modern Jewish humor is undoubtedly the writer Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem. Sometimes called the Jewish Mark Twain, he was born in 1859 in the small town of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi south of Kiev. He began writing in his teen years, and many of his early works drew on his experiences growing up in a small village. By the time he was in his thirties he was the most popular Jewish writer in the world.
Sholem Aleichem remained in Russia until 1905 when violence against the Jews became so severe that he was forced to leave. He and his family emigrated to Switzerland, and eventually to New York City, where he spent the remaining years of his life. His writings became as popular in the New World as in the Old, and by the time of his death in 1916 he was famous in both the United States and Europe. He is commemorated in several museums, including the one at his birthplace.
The Sholem Aleichem Birth House is a nearly two centuries old residence that looks almost exactly the same now as it did in the author’s day. While small, it was a substantial middle class home by 19th century standards. A small plaque outside explains the building’s historical connection to Sholem Aleichem. For those interested in a more comprehensive experience, there is also a Sholem Aleichem Museum in Kiev filled with artifacts from his life, including writings, letters and photos.
MARC CHAGALL NATIONAL MUSEUM, Nice, France
Web: https://musees-nationaux-alpesmaritimes.fr/chagall (official website)
The Marc Chagall National Museum in Nice is home to the largest collection of artwork by one of the world’s most celebrated Jewish artists. A giant of European Modernism, Chagall was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His work spanned the better part of eight decades and was inspired by the experience of Jews in Czarist Russia, Communist Russia, Nazi Germany and modern Israel. His artwork can be found in museums, public buildings and houses of worship around the world.
Born in Russia during the final years of the tsars, Chagall lived through nearly a century of upheavals. His artistic career was influenced by his early life in Eastern Europe. He studied for years in St. Petersburg and then later in Paris. He was actively involved in the Russian Revolution, though he turned his back on communism and moved to Paris where he spent the interwar years. After World War II he traveled around the United States, Europe and Israel, leaving a trail of artistic masterpieces in his wake. He ultimately settled in Nice where he lived until his death.
Marc Chagall was respected by his contemporaries from his earliest days as an artist. He was accomplished both as a painter and as a designer of stained glass windows. Chagall’s art is indelibly tied to the architecture of the 20th century, and is prominently displayed in such places as the United Nations General Assembly Building, the Metropolitan Opera in New York House, the Paris Opera House, St. Stephens Cathedral in Mainz, the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem and the State Hall of the Knesset. The largest collection of his work can be found at the Marc Chagall National Museum in Nice.
The Marc Chagall National Museum, also known as the Chagall Biblical Message, is one of several major art museums in art rich Nice. In addition to the numerous works of Chagall on display, the museum has exhibits on the history of the artist’s life. The most famous exhibit at the museum is a cycle of seventeen paintings collectively titled the Biblical Message for which the museum is named. These paintings depict a series of scenes from the Hebrew Bible and collectively are considered one of his greatest masterpieces. Marc Chagall is buried in the St. Paul Town Cemetery in nearby St-Paul de Vence outside of Nice.
MENDELSSOHN GRAVESITES, Berlin, Germany
Web: www.visitberlin.de/en/alter-judischer-friedhof-old-jewish-cemetery (municipal tourism website)
The Mendelssohn family of Germany was one of the most famous Jewish families of the Enlightenment. Over the course of three generations, the Mendelssohns produced one of the greatest philosophers, one of the greatest bankers and one of the greatest musicians in Europe. The family rose to such prominence that they were considered part of European high society, a difficult achievement for Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries. All three of the famous Mendelssohns are buried in Berlin, and miraculously all three gravesites survived the Nazi era.
The Mendelssohns rose from very humble origins, beginning in Dessau in 1729 with the birth of Moses Mendelsohn. In his earlier years he was given a religious education. At the age of fourteen his family moved to Berlin where he studied foreign languages, philosophy and mathematics. His career as a writer was a successful one, and he became the most prominent Jewish intellectual in Europe since Spinoza. He died in 1786.
Moses Mendelssohn had six children, the most famous being his oldest son Joseph. Born in 1770, Joseph’s childhood was a far cry from the poverty of his father’s young years. Raised in a house that was always filled with important visitors, Joseph grew up both intelligent and ambitious. In 1795 he founded his own bank in Berlin. Mendelssohn banking interests funded major development projects around Europe during the colonial era. Joseph Mendelssohn was an important fixture of the Berlin financial district until his death in 1848.
Joseph’s nephew Felix was born in 1809. Felix was a musical child prodigy, and he grew up to become one of Europe’s greatest composers. However his legacy was tainted by the growing anti-Semitism of the age, and he was notoriously disliked by his rival Richard Wagner. Nevertheless when he died in 1847 at the young age of 38, he left behind a legacy of some of the greatest music ever created by a Jewish composer.
The fact that all three of the Mendelssohn gravesites survived World War II is nothing short of a miracle. Moses Mendelssohn was interred in the Old Jewish Cemetery of Berlin, which was destroyed during the Nazi era. His old, faded restored tombstone is the only surviving remnant of the graveyard. The grave of Joseph Mendelssohn is located in the Judischer Friedhof Prenzlauer Berg Cemetery. Felix Mendelssohn is buried in the Dreifaltigkeits Friedhof Cemetery under the name Bartholdy. The use of his father’s last name, and the fact that the gravestone is in the shape of a cross, suggests that his descendents made an effort to obscure his Jewish heritage. The Mendelssohn House at 51 Jagerstrasse, which was home to the Mendelssohn & Co. Bank until the 1930, is still in active use as an office building.
ROTHSCHILD PALACE & JEWISH MUSEUM, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Web: www.juedischesmuseum.de (official website)
The Rothschild Palace in Frankfurt is a former residence of one of the most influential Jewish families in modern history. From their ancestral home in Frankfurt, the Rothschilds later expanded into England, France, Austria and Italy, amassing a collection of palatial homes that rivaled those of Europe’s great aristocratic families. While their oldest and largest home in Frankfurt was destroyed during World War II, one of their other homes now houses the city’s Jewish Museum.
The rise of the Rothschild dynasty was one of the great Jewish success stories of the 18th and 19th centuries. The family’s financial empire was founded by Mayer Amschel Rothschild. A resident of the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, Mayer Rothschild began with a small banking concern. Recognizing early on the growing importance of international financial firms, he envisioned a family owned company that would eventually spread throughout Europe. Among his innovations was the establishment of new branches in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples, each of which were run directly by one of his sons.
The entire business remained private and within control of the family. By the end of the Napoleanic wars the Rothschilds were among the richest familes in Europe. During the 19th their banks were involved in some of the world’s most important development projects, such as the Suez Canal. As the age of the European empires came to a close, the wealth and influence of the Rothschilds waned. Most of the Austrian Rothschild’s fortune was turned over to the Nazis in order to buy their escape. The Rothschild businesses are now run out of London. Their legacy in Germany survives at the Frankfurt Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Museum of Frankfurt is home to an assortment of collections related to the history of the Jewish community of the city as well as to he Rothschild family. This includes artwork by a number of great artists including Moritz Oppenheimer. At the time of this writing the museum was undergoing a major renovation, with new and updated exhibits planned. Of related interest is the nearby Jewish ghetto museum, which houses exhibits on Frankfurt’s medieval Jewish quarter.