This Week in History: The Jews of Basel are burnt

On January 9, 1349, nearly the entire Jewish population of Basel was massacred by townspeople as Jews were blamed for the Black Plague.

Destroyed torah scrolls (photo credit: Beit Hatfusot)
Destroyed torah scrolls
(photo credit: Beit Hatfusot)
At the end of the 14th century in Europe, scores were dying from the Black Plague and nobody knew why. That is, until a scapegoat was found. On January 9, 1349, nearly the entire Jewish population of Basel was massacred by the townspeople. Ignorant to the causes of the plague, the people and local leaders of modern Switzerland, France and Germany accused Jews of poisoning wells. Most were burnt alive.
There were many factors that converged to turn the Jews into the perfect scapegoat for a plague now believed to have spread from China. Anti-Semitism had been a problem for Jews in Europe long before the plague worsened their fate. In the centuries leading up to the Basel massacre, the Church enforced laws similar to the Nuremberg laws seen over half-a-millennium later. Jews were barred from working as weavers, shoemakers, carpenters, miners and bakers, among other professions. As a result of these racist laws, Jews often worked as money lenders, a practice that lead to public resentment against them and may have contributed to the events of 1349. Another law, passed in 1215 by Pope Innocent III was particularly similar to those passed by Nazi Germany in the 20th century – Jews were required to wear a yellow badge at all times.
Despite the general anti-Semitism present at the time, the massacre in Basel can be more accurately ascribed to specific accusations against the Jews in relation to the plague; it was alleged that Jews were suffering and dying from the Black Plague at a much lower rate than Christians. It is not clear if this was actually true, but there are several theories explaining the apparent phenomenon. One theory suggests that Jews buried their dead much more quickly than Christians and in separate cemeteries, thus making their deaths less visible. Another theory speculates that Passover was responsible for saving a great portion of the Jewish population. According to Dr. Martin Blaser, as reported by The New York Times, the clearing of hametz (leavened bread) from homes ahead of Passover deprived rats of food and shelter, helping to stymie the disease’s spread. He adds that the plague peaked in the spring, around the time that Passover would have fallen.
When the plague struck Europe, panic got the better of the population and its religious, civil and economic leaders. Considering that upwards of 40 percent of Europe’s population was wiped out by the mystery pandemic known only at the time as the “Black Plague,” it is no wonder that a scapegoat was sought and made to pay. Considering the prejudice and persecution that Europe’s Jews were already suffering, it's no wonder that they became the scapegoat for the Black Plague.
Despite a papal bull by Pope Clement VI in the second half of 1348 clearing the Jews of responsibility for the plague, the blaming, burning and banishing of the Jews did not stop.
In the beginning of 1349 in Basel, the Jewish community was rounded up. The children were separated from their parents and forcefully baptized. The 600 remaining adults were brought to a specially-built wooden structure on an island in the Rhine river and locked inside. The building was set ablaze, burning the Jews alive. Following the mass murder, the city of Basel resolved that no Jews were to be allowed in the city for 200 years, although this was revoked some decades later.
One month later in Strasbourg, on St. Valentine’s Day, a much larger Jewish community met a similar fate. Although the bishop of Strasbourg initially protected the Jews of his city from the mob demanding their death, public pressure eventually got the better of him and agreed to their demands of extermination. The town council too wanted to protect the Jews, but the people would not have it. The council was dissolved and a new council, like the bishop, gave their approval to the mob’s cries for blood. On St. Valentine’s Day of 1349, Strasbourg’s 2,000 Jews were arrested and brought to the city’s cemetery. Those who were willing to be baptized were spared the gruesome fate that awaited the rest of their community. Some 2,000 Jews were placed on a wooden platform in the cemetery and burnt. Like Basel, Strausbourg banished Jews from entering the city for 100 years, although the order was rescinded 20 years later.
Similar events took place in nearly every town along the Rhine in 1348 and 1349. In some cities and towns, confessions of conspiring to poison wells were extracted from Jews through torture. In others, peasants simply attacked and killed Jews with no trial at all. In some of the worst cases, in Basel and Strasbourg, entire Jewish populations were given an opportunity to convert to Christianity or be burnt alive. The entire continent’s Jewry was devastated by being scapegoated for the Black Plague.
Among the less-known massacres experienced by the Jewish people in the last millennium, the mass burning of Basel and Strasbourg’s Jews is nonetheless an important part of Jewish history.