On time in Switzerland

A trip to this beautiful country reveals a Jewish past unseen by many tourists.

Switzerland (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Switzerland. The name brings to mind majestic Alps, tranquility, efficiency, passiveness and a small but comfortable Jewish community, not a place devoid of Jews for hundreds of years in the recent past.
Indeed, a recent visit revealed all of the stereotypes to be accurate: The trains and trams are efficient and on time, the streets are clean, water fountains that continually gush forth drinking water are liberally scattered throughout villages and cities, and the 17,000-strong Jewish community is comfortable. Zurich and Basel have reasonably sized communities with many synagogues and educational institutions; Lucerne is struggling for a minyan, but its world-famous yeshiva is still thriving; and even small cities like Baden have regular minyanim. Although shechita (ritual slaughter) has been outlawed in all of Switzerland for over a century, there are deli meats locally produced from imported meat, and there is plenty of kosher Swiss chocolate.
But it was not always this way. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, two small towns were home to the entirety of the Swiss Jewish population.
In Zurich on a typical tourist day, we took a boat ride around Lake Zurich and stopped in at a watch museum, where one can see old sundials that actually measure time in sha’ot zmaniyot – the hours used to determine times in Jewish law – and a magnificent 150-year-old pocket watch with a Star of David that was owned by the Rothschilds. We also glanced at the dozens of screens in the windows of famous Swiss banks that show continuous stock updates.
The oldest synagogue in the city, the Loewenstrasse Synagogue, is located in the downtown business area. A large Moorish structure, it is relatively easy to find, and although it was several hours before sunset, we made our way over and took some pictures of the building’s exterior. Fortuitously an Israeli working as a guard welcomed us in and told us that the Minha prayer was scheduled for five minutes after our arrival. The shul, built in 1884, has been fixed up, but has retained its original design. The sanctuary, in which the weekday Minha was held, has been modernized with an ark designed by the famous Israeli/French artist Yaacov Agam, who lived in Zurich for two years.
The freedom and openness that we associate with Switzerland and the comfort with which the Jews seem to live there prompts the question of why the oldest synagogue in Zurich is only 130 years old. Indeed, Jews lived in Switzerland over 1,000 years ago and suffered the typical European Jewish experience of expulsions, massacres, and accusations of well-poisonings (one such well is on the Zurich tourist route). They also produced scholarly works such as The Semak of Zurich, a gloss on the Semak (Sefer Mitzvot Hakatan, or “Small Book of Mitzvot”) that contains important Ashkenazi material not found elsewhere. It was written by Rabbi Moshe of Zurich in the early 14th century. A Moses ben Sussman of Zurich mentioned in the city’s archives is most probably he.
All of that came to an end with the Jews’ expulsion from Switzerland in the early 17th century. In the late 17th century, Jews were allowed to live only in a small region of the Surb valley, in the country’s north – specifically in the towns of Endingen and Lengnau. That region, or canton (comparable to a state in the US), named Aargau, is still called the “Kulturkanton” because it was the only canton in Switzerland to display culture by allowing Jews to live there.
Of course, even with all their culture, things were never perfect. In 1712, for example, the Jews of Lengnau were pillaged by the local country people, were heavily taxed in general, and had to renew their charter every 16 years. There were also the Zwetschgenkrieg or “Plum War” riots of 1802, a local pogrom in which the Jews of Endingen and Lengnau were attacked. It was only in the mid-19th century, following the French Revolution and its influence in Switzerland, that the Jews were allowed to live in the rest of the country.
AS ZURICH is a mere half-hour drive from Endingen and Lengnau, we took the opportunity to visit and see what was left. However, before going to the villages themselves, we set out on what proved to be a difficult search and a partially unfulfilled mission.
Even in the years that Jews were permitted to live in the two towns, they were initially forbidden to bury their dead in Switzerland. Instead they had to bury them on an island in the Rhine, in noman’s- land between Germany and Switzerland, near Koblenz – about 10 minutes’ drive from their villages by car, much longer by horse and buggy.
We had read about this unusual final resting place, but it seems that even among local Jews it is not well-known. We were determined to find the island, but compounding the difficulty was that the remaining graves and tombstones had been transferred many years ago to the current cemetery. Furthermore, every few decades, the Rhine rises above the level of the island, and it seems to have washed away much of what was there.
We consulted with one of the last remaining native Jews of Lengnau, and he said he had visited the island. He said it was easier to get there from the German rather than the Swiss side, and that at some point a memorial plaque had even been erected.
Our Zurich hostess was extremely kind and gracious and agreed to drive us. As we approached the bridge over the Rhine that serves as the border with Germany, she realized that although we had our passports with us, she did not have any documentation. This actually proved to be no problem, and the German guard just waved us in. We all reflected on what the German-Swiss border had meant just three generations ago, and what Jews on the German side of the border would have given to be able to cross, while we could simply drive over without even showing identification.
We were not certain we had identified the correct island, so we stopped at a camping site where a friendly young German woman showed us a 1920 photo of the “Judeninsel” (Jew Island) from a book that her father, a local history buff, had collected. She remembered that when she had been a child, kids would try to swim there, but she said it was now dangerous to go there, as it was overgrown, a “jungle.” We drove to where we thought was closest to the island, from both the German and the Swiss sides, but could not see a way to access it from either shore. We had to be satisfied with seeing the island from the shore, a few meters away.
OUR HOSTESS drove us back to Endingen and left us to explore the area. This was made much easier by the impressive “Discover our Heritage: Endingen/Lengnau Walking Tour” brochure that the Aargovin Heritage Society had prepared.
It seems that the non-Jewish locals are familiar with Jewish history and culture.For example, when we met with the local Jew, he told us that once on the second day of one of the festivals, he had been walking from his home in Endingen to Lengnau, and some of his non-Jewish neighbors had pointed up in the sky, where an El Al plane was flying overhead. They’d asked him why they were flying and he was walking.
A friend, Chaim Guggenheim, originally hails from the Surb Valley. When his parents returned to Endingen to get married in 1967, it had already been decades since the last Jewish wedding had taken place there. The local (non-Jewish) brass band dug through its old archives to find Jewish tunes, and then surprised the new couple by playing them outside the yihud room.
Guggenheim also related that during the Plum War, his great-great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Mausche Guggenheim from Endingen, had been learning Talmud when a local farmer-soldier attacked him. He held up his book to protect himself, and the farmer, who mistook the Talmud for records of money that the non-Jews owed the Jews, stabbed it with his sword – but the rabbi was unhurt. The stabbed Talmud is still in the family’s possession.
One aspect that made these towns unique throughout the centuries was not what they had, but what they lacked. Every city, town and hamlet in Switzerland has at least one church. We spent half a day getting to the top of Mount Pilatus (by cogwheel railway and cable cars, not on foot) and there, over 2,000 meters above sea level, was a tiny church serving the few individuals scattered near the peak of the mountain. And yet, Endingen and Lengnau, for most of their history, had only a synagogue each and no church – though in recent years, Lengnau has finally constructed one.
The Endingen synagogue, built in 1852, sits on the same location as the original shul built in 1764. Because the town is churchless, the synagogue has a clock, which still chimes hourly. In the late 20th century, the synagogue was restored, but preserved its original Moorish architecture. In the shul’s backyard is a small building that houses the community archives, though we were unable to access it.
In the mid-19th century, there were over 1,000 Jews in the town – more than half of the population – and like any Jewish community that size, they had their own slaughterhouse and mikve (ritual bath). Kosher shechita was banned in the late 19th century, and the community sold the tiny slaughterhouse in 1929, but it is still used today by a local (non-kosher) butcher. Looking in, we could see that it contained all the paraphernalia necessary for meat production.
The building that housed the mikve always included an apartment on the first floor, presumably for the woman running it; today it is a private non-Jewish residence, but the mikve still exists in the basement. It is built right on the Brunnenwiese River, which runs through the town and presumably was the source of the mayim hayim (living waters) that the mikve required.
A number of houses in both towns have an interesting architectural feature: two doors side by side, one for the Jewish and one for the non-Jewish residents of the building. Mezuza marks can be seen on many of the Jewish doorposts. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the Jewish population grew in these towns, but Jews were still not allowed to own property. Thus, Jews would arrange to finance Christian builders to build new residences and then rent half of the house. Because Jews and Christians could not “live together” by law, the houses were built with two entrances.
In addition to Hebrew and German, the Jews of these towns spoke “Surbtaler Yiddish,” a language combining German, French and Hebrew. This dialect was spoken only in these two communities and by a few Jews who emigrated to Amsterdam. As many of the Surbtaler Jews were cattle dealers (“beheme haendler”) there are many expressions that they coined among themselves for use in their trade. For example, “Isch ahb zvee susem in cheder” means “I have two horses in the stable.”
There are still a few living Jews in Switzerland who speak this language, among them one Mr. Wyler in Uster, today in his 90s, the last remaining beheme haendler in the country. The language has been extensively recorded and documented by Dr. Florence Guggenheim.
These Surbtaler Jews were a breed of “Landjuden” – country Jews. Most of them were not learned and were either peddlers or beheme haendler. However, despite their lack of Torah knowledge, they were committed Jews who proudly passed on the Jewish tradition and their customs through the generations.
WHILE SUCH scenarios have been the butt of many jokes, it was the sad reality that for much of the 19th century, the Jews of these two towns did not get along. However, one shared aspect of their communal lives was the cemetery, located midway between the two towns.
In 1750, the Jews were finally permitted to buy land and dedicate a cemetery, as they were no longer required to bury their dead on the Judeninsel. This oldest Jewish cemetery in Switzerland now contains over 2,700 graves, including those moved from the island. There is a large book available for sale in the synagogue that contains photos of the headstones, along with the names and available information on every one of the deceased.
Our stroll from Endingen to Lengnau, an hour’s walk along well-laid-out bike paths slightly removed from the main road, took us through the cemetery, which, in typical Swiss fashion, contains row upon orderly row of graves. On many of the older headstones, the writing is no longer legible, but overall the cemetery is well kept. We noted the transition in the style and language of the memorials on the headstones – older ones were primarily in Hebrew or Yiddish, and later ones often included more German.
In the Lengnau side of the cemetery, there are signs pointing to the grave of Rabbi Raphael Ris. Having studied in France, he moved to Aargau and served as rabbi of the two communities from 1788 until his death in 1813. He was succeeded by his son Avraham. A few years later, when a fight erupted between the two communities, the government settled it by appointing Rabbi Abraham Ris as rabbi for Endingen and Rabbi Wolf Dreifus for Lengnau.Supposedly the Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer) got involved and wrote a letter addressed to “Rabbi Treifus,” with a tet instead of a dalet, meaning impurity. There are those who think it was intentional.
The signs in the cemetery are new and are there, we were told, because recently a person looking for a shidduch (match) had been instructed to pray at his grave. After her prayers were speedily answered, other supplicants followed, and signs were erected to assist them.
IN LENGNAU, the shul is an imposing structure, dominating the village square. It was dedicated in 1847, replacing the original synagogue a few blocks away, which had been constructed in 1755 – the first Jewish sacred building on Swiss soil since the general expulsion. The new synagogue was restored in the late 20th century and is well kept, with a sign in front announcing open hours for tours in the summer months. The delicate artwork in the women’s gallery shows the care and honor invested in this central structure of Jewish communal life. Although it is no longer used for women’s prayer, it is a museum of “Jewish heritage,” used to teach local children about the former residents of the village.
Walking through what felt like a ghost town, we next arrived at the Jewish home for the aged, Margoa. Upon walking in, we were struck by the heimish feeling – Shabbat candles set up, a pile of bentchers (booklets with the Grace After Meals), mezuzot on all the doorposts, and kosher for Passover “Jump” soft drink, imported from Israel for the recent holiday. We were greeted by the manager, an Endingen/Lengnau native sporting a head covering.
The home was constructed in 1903 with the goal of serving the aged of these communities. As the Jewish population has dwindled, there are now only a few Jewish residents, most of them not locals, and many non-Jewish residents.The institution is strictly kosher, and attached to it is a relatively new kosher hotel, which is well-known to its Swiss and Israeli clientele. This may explain why, walking in the center of town, we saw a hassidic-looking fellow and were able to hitch a ride back to Zurich with a visiting Orthodox couple.
Several famous families originate in these towns. Probably the most famous is the US copper magnates, the Guggenheim family, who donated the worldfamous Guggenheim museums in several cities. They emigrated from Lengnau to the US in the 18th century.
Changes in Jewish demographics are not unique to north-central Switzerland, but it is always bittersweet to see the results. The Lengnau shul has several Torah scrolls, none of which are kosher or repairable and are slated for a public burial next Tisha Be’av. The scrolls in the Endingen shul are kosher and are used in minyanim held on Rosh Hodesh, when descendants from Endingen families come to their old hometown to daven. A minyan is held once a year in the Lengnau synagogue – on Yom Kippur eve – by the guests of the hotel located just up the hill in the old age home. It is unlikely these shuls will ever again be filled with the sounds of prayer on a regular basis, but many of the descendents of those who prayed there continue to do so in Zurich, New York and Israel. ■