From the time of the First Crusade, the Jews of Germany were continuously persecuted, humiliated, and murdered by their Gentile neighbors. As a consequence, there was a constant emigration of Jews from Germany to Eastern Europe. These refugees constituted a large percentage of Eastern European Jewry. It was they who provided Eastern European Jewry with its distinctive language Juedisch-Deutsch (Yiddish) and ethnic appellation -- Ashkenazim. Unfortunately, the traditions of Germany did not always survive the move to Eastern Europe.
The constant emigration from Germany throughout the centuries thinned the ranks of the remaining communities. By the 1930s there were only five hundred thousand Jews living in Germany, compared to three and a half million living in Poland alone.
But their relatively small numbers did not prevent the German Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries from nurturing a flourishing Torah life and maintaining Yeshivos in many communities. The famous Yeshivos of Germany attracted young scholars from all over Europe, and did so until the tides of the Enlightenment swept all away.
The Frankfort ghetto in its decline
The influence of the Enlightenment was first felt by the Jews of Western Europe. With political emancipation and the opening of the ghettos, the Jews of Western Europe were exposed for the first time to a non-Jewish culture not without its own allure. Assimilation and Reform were the result.
With the mushrooming of Western European culture, Germany and France became the world centers of the 'Enlightenment'. Philosophers, composers, poets, and scientists abounded, and with them grew the universities. Freed from the ghettos, granted civil rights at last, and suddenly confronted with a dazzling Gentile world, the Jews of the west reeled in shock. Many succumbed to the blow and took the course of assimilation, whether all at once or gradually, along Reform lines.
The entrance to the synagogue of the Orthodox community in Frankfort on Main
In Eastern Europe, however, the dangers of Gentile culture were scarcely noticeable, seeing as the ambient Gentile culture in that part of the world was too primitive as to be worth assimilating into. It was only much later that the Enlightenment and the Socialist movements penetrated there.
But the Sages of Germany, led by the Chatham Sofer, and after him by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, were already waging open war against Reform and assimilation, each one in his unique way. Many year later, when the Sages of Russia and Poland were fighting all - out to save the new generation from these same inimical forces, they turned to their battle-wise colleagues in Germany for help and advice.
Though German Orthodoxy did consolidate and strengthen itself in the face of Reform, it was now to the yeshivos of Eastern Europe that German Jewish boys went to seek advanced Torah learning. In fact, between the two world wars the German Yeshivos began to flower once again, but soon afterwards they were swept away entirely by the Holocaust.
In those final generations, however, German Orthodoxy was still characterized by heroes of the spirit who guarded their ancestral tradition zealously and with joy. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of the spiritual giants of our age, recalls German Jewry of his youth:
The natural association that people make when German Jewry is mentioned is: 'Torah with Derech Eretz', that is: Rabbis with a University diploma, Torah-observant doctors, and the like. Of course we cannot deny that that philosophy, with its attendant life-styles, was part of daily German Jewish life from the days of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, of blessed memory, until the Second World War. But it is a great mistake to think that this was the essence of German Jewry.
What words are there to tell of the perfect faith that held sway among the German Jews; of the self-sacrifice that went into each mitzvah, painstakingly done; of the simplicity of spirit and unquestioning faith that was theirs! Who today could paint the picture of their pious, self-disciplined communities, that were the pride of their land, and had nothing to do with Derech Eretz'! True enough, Reform and assimilation had ravaged the jews of Ashkenaz, - two hundred years ago the land had been full of great Torah scholars - but the communities and individuals who had stood fast against the current, emerged from their trial stronger than ever. In the end good came of it: faith was strengthened, mitzvos scrupulously observed, education brought to an exemplary level, and communities that were a jewel. All this was German Jewry, until its destruction.
The ruins of a synagogue in Nuremberg
This came to an end with the Holocaust. A third of German Jews were slaughtered. While two-thirds of German Jewry escaped with their lives, the communities nurtured over millennia were destroyed forever. A few communities were re-established on foreign soil after the War, foremost among them K'hal Adath Jeschurun in Washington Heights, New York, under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, o.b.m. In these communities the traditions of German Jewry were lovingly preserved. But the younger generation, by and large, have not maintained their parents' traditions, in large part from a lack of awareness of the depth of spirit which formed Minhag Ashkenaz.