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The making of a Jewish villain

Joseph Oppenheimer was many things to many people,
but he was largely a victim of his own success By Tibor Krausz
YOUR PLACE in history is secure if nearly usurious Jew, who enriched himself at the four different contemporary perspectives:
three centuries after your death you remain expense of others. His notoriety reached its the chief inquisitor, a Jewish proselyte, a
a byword for an entire category of people. climax with the virulently anti-Semitic Nazi Jewish court Jew, and a Lutheran writer. In
Unfortunately for Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, film “Jud Süß” (Jew Süss), which portrayed other words, Mintzker shuns the usual ploy
that category has been the vile, depraved and him as a venal and lecherous Iago who, of the historian as a near-omniscient narrator
conniving Jew. through his machinations, brings ruin to and retells the tale four times through four
It matters little that, as far as we can tell, Württemberg and ravishes a gentle German points of view with four unique viewpoints.
he was neither vile nor depraved and he con- noblewoman out of priapic perversity. Inevitably, the result is a bit of a mish-
nived but little. It’s his Jewishness, not his “‘Jew Süss’ is to the German collective mash. Having different observers describe
deeds, that has always mattered in the eyes imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is the same event from different angles is a
of Jew-haters. Oppenheimer came to be de- to the English-speaking world,” Yair Mintz- common gimmick in fiction: it can heighten
spised less for what he did than for who he ker, an Israeli historian who teaches at Princ- drama, reveal unexpected turns of events and
was: an uppity Jew who rose above his sta- eton University, writes in “The Many Deaths provide valuable psychological insights into
tion in a highly stratified society where Jews of Jew Süss,” a creative retelling of Oppen- the characters. In writing history, Mintzker’s
were mostly at the bottom and expected to heimer’s trials and tribulations. “His steep approach has that same advantage: it helps
stay there. rise to power and his sudden downfall are delineate rival contemporary views on the
That society was in the German duchy of the stuff from which great legends are made, historic trial and its varied meanings to those
Württemberg in the early 18th century. The complete with inquisitors, lengthy interro- who lived through it.
son of a humble tax collector in Heidelberg gations, torture sessions, a courtroom drama Rather than impose his own interpretation
who was born circa 1698, Oppenheimer be- and a horrific verdict.” from on high with the benefit of hindsight,
came, still in his twenties, a “court Jew” for And a no less horrific execution saw Op- Mintzker wants to allow the historical record
several princes and princelings in the south- penheimer taken to the gallows in front of to speak for itself from multiple perspectives.
west of the Holy Roman Empire. That is to some 15,000 spectators. His remains, rather This approach enables him to flesh out the
say, he was a trusted moneyman whose fi- than being accorded a proper Jewish burial biographies of his select protagonists, as can
nancial wizardry benefited cash-strapped no- as per Oppenheimer’s wishes, were placed be gleaned from the archives. His aim is to
bles and was rewarded with riches and status on a red gibbet and left there to decompose in portray them as complex human beings with
accordingly. full view as a warning to other Jews to know their own motivations rather than as token
By 1732, the ambitious German Jew was their place. figures in a morality play about an innocent
the confidante and personal adviser of Duke Oppenheimer’s trial captivated the duchy’s Jew and his Judeophobic persecutors.
Carl Alexander in Stuttgart, where he would populace at the time and contemporary doc- At times, though, extraneous details get in
run the local mint and manage the state’s uments (transcripts, reports, eyewitness ac- the way. Thus, for instance, we learn rather
finances. Within a few short years, howev- counts, literary treatments) abound. The trou- more about the day-to-day doings of Philipp
er, the duke died suddenly of a stroke. That ble for historians, Mintzker explains, is that Friedrich Jäger, the chief judge-inquisitor,
very night, on the orders of the new regent, most such sources are unreliable, burying as during the trial than some of us would care
the Jewish factotum was hauled away to jail they do nuggets of truth in reams of innuen- to know. “All the trial documents afford us
where he would languish for months. Oppen- do, prejudice, personal bias and flights of now is a receipt by the coachman who drove
heimer stood accused of “atrocious crimes”: fancy. Was the court Jew a crooked schemer Jäger [and two other commissars] to the ex-
treason, usury, corruption, embezzlement, who got his just desserts? Or was he a victim ecution site [outside Stuttgart],” Mintzker
usurpation of princely powers, and, to top it of pervasive anti-Jewish sentiments? Cher- laments apropos some gaps in the volumi-
all off, lechery. He was interrogated, humil- ry-picking your sources could support either nous mounds of extant archival material on
iated and tortured by his inquisitors before conclusion, which is what many historians Oppenheim’s trial. “How [they] came back
he was sentenced to death and executed on have tended to do. to the city afterward we simply cannot tell.”
February 4, 1738. He was only 40. Bayes’s theorem can help in a case like It’s good to know that Jäger was a pious
But that wasn’t the end. The luckless this to ascertain evidential probabilities. In- Christian, a learned jurist and a meticulous
Jewish courtier would be tried and retried stead, Mintzker has devised his own method. investigator. He didn’t appear to be partic-
posthumously down through the decades. In By the help of his “polyphonic history” he ularly antisemitic, either. Yet these quali-
German anti-Semitic folklore, Oppenheimer seeks to establish what can be divined about ties didn’t stop the judge from impugning
would remain an embodiment of the crafty, Oppenheimer’s trial by examining it through Oppenheimer’s character on the flimsiest


of evidence. After months of painstaking er libels, but the point is taken: the judge his own skin, most likely.
investigations that yielded little tangible evi- took issue not so much with Oppenheimer’s Shortly after Oppenheimer’s execution,
dence against Oppenheimer beyond hearsay, religious beliefs as with his courtly intrigues. Schloss published “The Story of the Passing
the judge found him guilty as charged on We’ll never really know what Oppen- of Joseph Süss,” a brief pamphlet in Yiddish
all counts. He declared the Jew to be a man heimer himself thought of his persecution that sought to rehabilitate the dead man’s im-
“without religion, without conscience, with- and the reasons behind it. No first-person age by depicting him as a “saintly righteous
out honor, without culture, without loyalty, accounts by him survive. The closest we can man” who had come to see the errors of his
without faith.” come to adjudging his state of mind in the ways. Oppenheimer went to his death by re-
Warming to his theme, Jäger went on: final days is through the self-aggrandizing citing the Shema, the text’s anonymous au-
“[Oppenheimer] nourished himself only on reports of one Christoph David Bernard, thor reported. “[T]he world,” he added, “has
robbery and treachery … he lived almost who penned them for the benefit of the in- not seen such a righteous man as Süss for a
like a prince, engaging in prostitution, forni- quisition committee. A cantankerous fellow very long time.”
cation, and possibly also incest, all extremely who converted from Judaism to Christian- Through its stylized vocabulary, Mintzker
insolently, and sometimes even with Chris- ity and hailed from Lemberg (today Lviv speculates, the pamphlet offered Joseph Op-
tian women.” Nor did the judge balk at forc- in Ukraine), Bernard taught Hebrew at the penheimer up as a latter-day incarnation of
ing a young Christian woman to “confess” University of Tübingen, distilled schnapps his famous biblical namesake who, in Pha-
that she had been sexually abused by the in his kitchen to supplement his income, and raoh’s service, was history’s first court Jew.
court Jew. “Instead of drawing conclusions moonlighted as an anti-Jewish polemicist. Just as Joseph forgave his brothers for selling
from evidence,” Mintzker surmises apropos During Oppenheimer’s trial, Bernard was him into slavery in Egypt, so Oppenheimer
Jäger’s modus operandi, “he was drawing tasked with translating the condemned man’s forgave his Jewish brethren like Schloss for
‘facts’ from a predetermined conclusion.” correspondence in Hebrew and Yiddish into betraying him. If Mintzker is correct, it was a
German and he paid Oppenheimer several sort of posthumous mea culpa by fair-weath-
OPPENHEIMER PLEADED innocent to visits in his cell. er friends.
all the charges and attested to be, according Bernard claimed to have been a rabbi Oppenheimer has been followed by a long
to court transcripts, “a Jew by birth [with] once, and he was fairly well versed in pil- line of moneyed Jewish bogeymen, from the
the religion of an honest man” whose job pul, a form of rabbinical disputation. He tried Rothschilds to George Soros, whose unre-
was “to negotiate with powerful men and showing Oppenheimer “the absurdity of the lenting demonization has likewise served to
to handle them.” His dealings on behalf of Talmud and all other rabbinical literature” vilify Jews. He has never been allowed to
the duke had made for a lucrative career but to convince the Jewish prisoner to repent, rest in peace.  
Oppenheimer remained tightlipped about the convert and die as a Christian in the hope of
nature, extent and source of his wealth even a heavenly reward. Oppenheimer was ema-
under repeated questioning. He was similar- ciated, distraught and clutching at straws in
ly cagey about his relationships with women. the hope of an earthly reprieve, yet he would
He was sentenced to death just the same. have none of it. He hadn’t been particularly
Jäger’s vituperative denunciation of Op- devout before but now in adversity he em-
penheimer in his “summary of Süss’s treach- braced his Judaism. His resolve earned him
erous machinations,” as he put it, helped turn only scorn and ridicule from Bernard – de-
a talented but luckless Jew into a paragon of spite the lecturer’s admission that “he always
evil in German folklore. A mainstay of an- behaved toward me in a friendly and pleasant
tisemitism has always been a tendency to way.” Oppenheimer even decided to include
ascribe the sins, real or imagined, of a single Bernard in his will.
Jew to all Jews everywhere and at all times. Mordechai Schloss, who is Mintzker’s
And so the alleged crimes of the fallen court third witness, saw Oppenheimer in a differ-
Jew would come to be portrayed as the fruits ent light. Schloss, too, was a prominent court
of Jews’ inherent moral failings and biolog- Jew who grew up in the storied “Jews’ Al-
ical traits. ley” in Frankfurt’s historic ghetto before ris-
Yet that’s probably not what the judge him- ing to prominence in Württemberg’s prince-
self intended, Mintzker postulates. “Jäger’s ly courts. Whereas Bernard, a self-styled
Jew Süss is no Christ-killer or host dese- “proselyte,” portrayed the Jewish prisoner
crator,” he notes. “He is rather a libertine, a as a pathetic creature who refused to see the
foreigner and the good administrator’s worst light about the one true faith, Schloss viewed
nightmare. He ‘sucked the money out of the Oppenheimer as a “martyr” who sanctified The Many Deaths of Jew Süss:
prince, the country and the people,’ rather God’s name (kiddush Hashem) with his re- The Notorious Trial and Execution
than sucking the blood of defenseless Chris- fusal to abandon his spiritual patrimony. But of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew
tian children.” It’s not immediately obvious that was only after Schloss himself had tes- Yair Mintzker
why Jäger’s labels should be seen as prefera- tified against Oppenheimer, branding him a Princeton University Press
ble to the old ritual murderer and Christ-kill- perfidious wheeler-dealer. He did it to save 344 pages; $24.23