- Assimilation and Community Reconsidered: The Jewish Community in Königsberg, 1871–1914
In recent German-Jewish historiography, local perspectives seem to be in vogue. A look at the annual bibliographies in the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book confirms this assumption, and a brief study of projects announced in the Arbeitsinformationen published by the Germania Judaica Library in Cologne shows that there are many more to come. In the beginning of this new enthusiasm for local Jewish history, the majority of the authors—many of them no experts in Jewish history—focused on the destruction of Jewish life in Germany. 1 The past few years, however, have witnessed a growing scholarly interest accompanied by a shift to the historical periods before the Nazis’ rise to power, mainly back to the nineteenth century. Here, some comprehensive monographies have been published and more are on their way. 2 Their authors can often demonstrate convincingly how much German-Jewish historiography could profit from some of the theoretical concepts that have been developed by research on the bourgeoisie over the years. Although this approach certainly promises to broaden our knowledge about the mechanisms of embourgeoisement and integration of German Jewry, its frame of reference is likely to be German history—that is, the history of the German Bürgertum. Yet studies on “Jewish” aspects of German-Jewish history, like associational life, welfare, or Zionism, tend to take precisely those phenomena—embourgeoisement and integration—more or less for granted. Reinhard Rürup, Michael A. Meyer, and others have stressed the importance of taking both contexts of German-Jewish history into consideration, and David Sorkin has asked us to look [End Page 104] “beyond representative figures and representative institutions” in order to avoid a simplified view on “assimilation”: “The key question,” he says, “is whether such embourgeoisement/secularisation distanced German Jews from Judaism and/or Jewish identification.” 3
A local perspective, in my eyes, offers one of many possible approaches to continue Sorkin’s “agenda for research”: the “thick description” of one given community might offer some insights into the interrelation of internal and external aspects of German-Jewish life, and it might shed some light on how the perception of social realities is shaped by the particular local experience. Furthermore, it is likely to contribute to our understanding of the notion of “dissimilation,” as proposed by Shulamit Volkov, to describe the complex process that drew “assimilated” Jews back to Judaism “despite themselves.” 4 But whereas Volkov has stressed the importance of antisemitism and continued immigration of East European Jews as main factors of that process, the local example I discuss in this article might point in quite the opposite direction. I will focus on the internal history of the Jewish community of Königsberg against the background of the integration reached in the East Prussian capital during the Second Empire. In the first section below, therefore, I will outline the specific characteristics of integration in Königsberg, and in the second section I will discuss different aspects of the internal development of the community, focusing on its various religious and political conflicts and on its associational life. Of course, the analysis of one local—and to the author all-too-familiar—world always implies the danger of overestimating one’s own results. The real value of a single local example will become apparent only when more studies enable us to put things into—maybe an eventually new—perspective. 5
An Almost Perfect World: Jews and Gentiles in Königsberg
When trying to approach Jewish life in Königsberg before World War I by way of memoirs or articles in the German-Jewish press, the image of an almost perfect world emerges, where the provincial capital in the far German East appears to have been a remote island of tolerance and liberalism, hardly ever touched by the dark waves of reaction or antisemitism surging through other parts of the Empire. Examples of this picture are plentiful, but no one expressed the local self-perception better than the city’s mayor, speaking on the occasion of the inauguration of the new synagogue in 1896: [End Page 105]
It is a savage time we...