“On the lower reaches of the Rhine, where the banks of the great river start to lose their smiling countenance, where hills and cliffs with their audacious ruined castles rise defiantly exuding a wilder and sterner dignity, there lies, like an eerie legend from a bygone era, the gloomy and ancient town of Bacharach.”
So begins the unfinished novel The Rabbi of Bacharach by the nineteenth century German writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
“But the walls of Bacharach were not always so decayed and crumbling, with their toothless battlements and blind turrets in whose cracks the wind blows and the sparrows nest. In these poverty-stricken, repulsive muddy lanes which one sees through the ruined tower, there did not always reign that dreary silence which is only now and then broken by crying children, scolding women and bellowing cows. These walls were once proud and strong, and these lanes were alive with a fresh, free life, power and pomp, joy and sorrow, much love and much hatred.” (My translation.)
Bacharch, according to Heinrich Heine, was originally one of the municipalities that were founded by the Romans during their rule on the Rhine.
“Although the times that came after were very stormy, and although they had to submit first to the Hohenstaufen and then to the Wittelsbach dynasties, the inhabitants nonetheless managed, following the example of other cities on the Rhine, to maintain a rather free community.”
This rather free community consisted of an alliance of different social elements, particularly the patricians and the various guilds of skilled artisans. These groups were unified when to came to warding off the raids of the robber-knights from nearby castles, but were constantly feuding internally, with each group trying to get the upper hand.
High above Bacharach in Stahleck Castle lived a feudal official known as the Lord Reeve (German: Vogt) who was the local representative of the ruling nobleman, whoever that happened to be at the time. In The Rabbi of Bacharach Heinrich Heine wrote that the Lord Reeve sat in the high tower of the castle and “swooped down like his falcon” when he was called, and often also when he was not called.
Then comes a sentence that is really elegant in German but hard to translate into English: Die Geistlichkeit herrschte im Dunkeln durch die Verdunkelung des Geistes.
This means something like: ‘The clergy ruled in darkness by darkening the spirit (of the people).’
The first documentary evidence of Jews living in Bacharach is from the year 1019. At times the Jewish residents seem to have been quite secure in Bacharach, but there is evidence of persecution and pogroms in the years 1146, 1283 and 1287.
Heine mentions the pogrom of 1287, because in that year a sixteen year old boy named Werner, later known locally as “Saint” Werner, was murdered and the crime was blamed on the Jews, who supposedly wanted to use his blood for their Passover rituals. Twenty-six Jews were lynched in Bacharach alone, accused of murdering Werner.
These legends of Jewish blood crimes circulated in various forms throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, along with a related legend which claimed the Jews stole consecrated wafers from Christian churches and stabbed them with knives until the blood came out. Blood? In wafers? Yes, the faithful believed that the consecrated wafers contained the blood of Christ, which they thought the Jews wanted for their gruesome rituals.
Around 1300 these two legends were combined. The story went that young Werner was about to swallow a consecrated wafer when some Jews grabbed him, hung him by his feet, took the wafer for its blood and then killed the boy for his blood. People believed this for centuries, not only in Germany.
Werner was never officially canonized as a saint, but he was regarded as a sort of regional saint in the diocese of Trier, where his Saint’s Day was celebrated each year on April 19th. This went on until 1963, when his name was finally removed from the diocese calendar (perhaps under pressure from the Vatican).
Modern research suggests that Werner’s murder might have been a sex-crime, but for centuries the legend of his murder by the Jews was reenacted every year at the “Werner Chapel” in Bacharach, to keep anti-Jewish sentiment alive in the Christian population.
Now the Chapel is maintained as an appeal for tolerance among religions. In 1996 a plaque was attached to the chapel with the text of a prayer by Pope John XXIII (who was Pope from 1958 to 1963) praying for forgiveness for centuries of persecution of the Jews.
Heine says that for the next two centuries after the pogrom following the murder of “Saint” Werner in 1287, the Jews in Bacharach were “spared any further attacks of popular rage, though they were continually subject to enmity and threatening.”
Actually there were also pogroms in Bacharach in 1365 and 1349, but Heine seems not to have known about these. The one in 1349 came at the height of the Black Death, a pandemic which killed a third to a half or more of the European population in just a few years and also led to widespread persecution of the Jews and other minorities.
Starting in 1365 a number foreign Jews were allowed to settle in Bacharach, under the protection of the ruling counts palatine.
The story of Heine’s Rabbi of Bacharach takes place in 1489, when Rabbi Abraham is celebrating the rites of Passover in Bacharach with his lovely wife Sara and their relatives and neighbors. Two unknown men come in, claiming to be fellow Jews who would like to celebrate Passover with them. The Rabbi welcomes them and goes on reading but Sara notices a brief look of horror on her husband’s face. After an instant he regains his composure and goes on with the ritual, but at the first opportunity he takes his wife’s hand and flees with her through the dark streets of Bacharach. The two unknown men had brought a dead baby into the Rabbi’s house, so they could again accuse the Jews of murder and start another massacre.
The Rabbi knows a boatman who can take them upstream to the safety of the Jewish quarter in Frankfurt am Main. The boatman and the rabbi row all night against the current while Sara sleeps.
In his narrative Heine pulls all the stops of German Romanticism, but also describes the Passover rites in loving detail from an insider-outsider perspective. At one point he hints at his own standpoint by saying that “even those Jews who have long since turned away from the faith of their fathers” cannot help being “shaken to the depths of their hearts when the old familiar Passover sounds happen to reach their ears.”
While I certainly cannot claim to have read all of Heine’s books — he was a very prolific writer and today would probably be one of those guys who talk all night on the radio — my impression is that The Rabbi of Bacharach is one of his outstanding works, serious, exciting, detailed, horrifying, vivid, but without any of the flippant sarcasm that mars some of his earlier writings.
My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2017.
(More details in German: www.alemannia-judaica.de)
My next post: The Sorceress of Bacharach