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The Konitz Family


"Are the Jews guilty, punish them. Are they vicious, correct them. Are they innocent, protect them." --Sayings of Gregory, Bishop of Blois.

"The succession of the social situations is a legitimate and providential fact, a consequence of the superiority of human nature, a condition of its development. By the side of this succession should be placed the free concurrence of the individual with his situation, by his free will over his destiny. If this choice is forbidden to him, if his free will is absolutely suppressed or abolished by a hereditary situation, there is tyranny. It is on the just balancing of these two principles that the equilibrium and the happiness of society depends."--Guizot's Course of History.

Political fanaticism has never brought happiness to any state; and if we extract the contents of the pages of history of those nations that allowed themselves to be led by it, there will issue therefrom with the blood of the victims, the tears of regret of the executioners even.

Ask Spain, she will tell you that the Inquisition has deprived her of her commerce; summon France, she will show the wounds her industry received by the slaughter of St. Bartholomew and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes; hear Italy, she groans to see the genius of arts slumbering on her fruitful soil, until the day when religious liberty will restore the mental strength of its inhabitants; and Germany! this great and beautiful country, where domestic life has so many charms; where the judgment is so accurate and science so profound, why has she not yet taken that noble flight, which the energy of her children would lead us to expect? Is it that she lacks an atmosphere in which her two-headed eagle can unfold its wings? No, it is because the great principles of universal religion have yet to struggle there against the rear-guard of fanatical intolerance, the enemy of all enlightened religion; it is that the geography will tell us how many are its inhabitants, but that no one can give us the number of its citizens. For can you number among the citizens of Hamburg the Israelites who reside there, who cannot acquire property in this city, so proud of its freedom? Are the Jews of Vienna citizens who are obliged to submit to an exclusive poll-tax? or are those of Saxony citizens who are forbidden to sojourn in its large towns? Are those Berlin citizens who are obliged to be baptized before they are permitted to enter the liberal professions? And lastly, are the Jews of Frankfort citizens who can hold no public office in the administration of this free city? And, nevertheless, the greatest aptness for the cultivation of the sciences, and the brightest flame of that sacred fire, by which the lamp of the arts is kindled, are found in the ranks of the Israelites of Germany. To them is due the glory of having furnished the first musicians of the age; to them is due the honour of having excelled by the number of their great lawyers, of their learned doctors, and of their eminent scholars; to them above all is due the praise of having naturalized commerce in a country which nature had rendered purely agricultural.* If then justice has not yet been rendered to them, it is not only as the Chancellor L'Hôpital said, with so much naïveté, because "the devil throws himself in the midst of religious contests," but also because they are jealous in Germany of the nascent grandeur and the rapid progress of the Israelites; for, as an Oriental poet has said, "The setting sun is jealous of the rising moon."

* The names of a crowd of eminent German Israelites present themselves to our mind; and for the sake of avoiding long biographical details, we would content ourselves with citing but two illustrations, Messrs. Rothschild and Meyerbeer, if the great works of the one and the commercial importance of the other did not at present belong to the whole world.

It is from the history of France that we are going to borrow the recital of an episode, a mournful instance of the evils engendered by jealousy between children of the same country, and of the fatal consequences which religious fanaticism can produce in the destinies of a whole nation.

In the fourteenth century, King Charles the Fifth having sold to the Jews, (for a considerable sum,) the right of dwelling in France, they devoted themselves to commercial speculations, which produced them great benefits, and to money-lending, which brought them heavy interest. But it cannot be too strongly impressed on the mind, that the scarcity of specie and the power of their debtors, who were piously of bad faith, made the Jewish money-lenders incur such a risk of losing, that usury became almost a matter of necessity for them. When a country is tranquil it is easy to assign a fixed value to money, but in the middle ages, when arbitrary power, faction, and disorder prevailed, what wise man had faith in the next day? And since kings and princes altered the coin, the nobles clipped the money; what is this but compelling people to resort to usury?

Lastly, we must not forget that there was then eight times less specie in circulation than at present, and that consequently money necessarily had a much higher value. In the reign of Saint Louis a pound of white bread cost about two centimes. We may also say that usury was at that time a very common thing and universally permitted. Saint Bernard has observed in one of his letters, that in places where no Jews resided the Christian usurers caused their absence to be severely felt. When in 1394 the Jews were exiled from France, the Lombards (who were their successors) raised the interest on money to forty per cent.; and lastly, if it is true that more than four hundred decrees were made to diminish the usury of the Jews in France, there still exists great numbers of royal edicts, which authorizes them to take a very high rate of interest. Henry the Third of England legalized their lending at forty per cent. per annum, and there are some years, as, for instance, 1814, at the time of the invasion of the allies, that the French government authorized each one to lend at the rate that suited him the best. As for the commercial privileges of the Jews then established in France, no one could contest their legitimacy; for if they enjoyed the monopoly of affairs, they owed it to that union with which the common danger inspired them, and which caused them to form a vast chain, of which the first link was in Judea, and the others encircled the entire globe. In consequence of this fraternal spirit, they infused into their relations with their co-religionists, a scrupulous honesty, and a rigorous exactness; by which means they were able to become the bankers of kings, and commissioners of the nations, in those days of disorder and bad faith. And lastly, their financial genius, excited by fear, led them to the admirable invention of bills of exchange; this powerful vehicle which, in rendering the word of the merchant of equal value as the amount represented by the bill, and causing it to circulate from pole to pole, has given a new life to the commercial world, at the same time that it has increased the wealth of nations tenfold by being the parent of public credit.

But how many fears and humiliations were the Jews obliged to pay for that fortune, for which they were envied? Shut up in lonely quarters, and distinguished by the costume which was imposed on them, they could not easily avoid the blows of their adversaries; and even in their miserable dwellings every thing bore the impression of the tyrannical laws which oppressed them. They were prohibited from having more than twelve at table; forbidden to use for their garments any other than worsted stuff; forbidden to wear any other peltry than the skins of lambs; forbidden to keep arms; forbidden to exercise any trade; their women forbidden to have gloves; their doctors interdicted to attend sick Christians; and above all Christian nurses were forbidden to nurse Jewish children.*

* Decrees of the Council of 1368.

King Charles the Fifth, surnamed the Wise, having knowledge of the financial capacity of the Israelites, had appointed several of them receivers of the state revenues. His son Charles the Sixth, being yet a minor when he was called to succeed him on the throne, the regency was confided to his uncle the Duke of Anjou, who, in consideration of a large sum of money which they paid him, authorized the Jews to continue their sojourn in France for a long term of years, left them their acquired rights and privileges, and promised them all the protection of the government.

Confiding in these promises, Reuben Konitz, one of the richest Jews in Paris, was quietly seated at table, one winter evening in the year 1380, occupied with the accounts which he had to render, as receiver of the state taxes. He was a venerable-looking old man, weakened by age, but he still retained an uncommon vigour of mind. His reputation for honesty and wisdom had acquired for him the public esteem, at the same time that his piety was cited as an example amongst his co-religionists. His daughter Deborah was seated on a little stool near him, occupied with sewing. Though she was only twelve years of age, her face did not show those infantile graces, the companions of youth, but the impress of grave thoughts, that dimmed the brightness of her eye, in which shone resolution and courage, the first virtues that the Jews taught their children in those days of strife and persecution.

Profound quiet reigned in the house of Reuben Konitz, and the young girl cast her eyes by stealth from time to time on her father, to see if he required any thing; for filial respect was in that age a kind of worship, and a child, no matter what might be his age, was not permitted to speak before his father without having received permission to do so. Suddenly the silence was broken by distant sounds, and the door being quickly opened, Samson the son of Konitz threw himself into the room exclaiming, "Father, the people of Paris are in a state of insurrection; they are coming to force an entrance into the Jewish quarter, and they boldly announce their intention of pillaging the coffers of the receivers of the revenues of the crown." Samson, although young, possessed great muscular strength, no less than an uncommon degree of prudence, and his father knew him to be incapable of repeating rumours which were without foundation; they quickly therefore took every precaution to hide the receipts of the day. It was well that they hurried, for at the expiration of a few minutes a troop of truands and men of the lowest dregs of the people came before the house of Konitz vociferating the cries of "Death to the Jews! no more contributions!"

In that age, when public affairs were very badly administered, the numerous imposts overwhelmed the people of Paris; and being one day tired of paying, they rebelled against the feeble power of the king, and as is generally the case, the first overflow of popular anger fell on the collectors of the imposts.

The Jews who filled these offices became naturally the first victims, for they thereby could seize a pretext to rob them, and to take from them the pledges deposited by the common people, and the obligations and contracts signed in their favour by the citizens and nobles.

In an instant the house of Reuben was overrun with fierce-looking men, who searched every corner, and who gave vent to their rage in abuse and imprecations, when they discovered that their search was in vain. Samson and Deborah kept near their old father, as if to make a rampart for him with their bodies; and the old man, without fearing for himself, but trembling for his children, restrained them with force, and calmed their violent indignation. The chief of the plunderers, Jehan le Rouge, renowned for his audacity, at length advanced to this frightened group, and insolently cried: "Jews! where are your treasures!"

"My good sir," replied Reuben with a subdued air, "we are poor traders, having nothing to depend on but our daily profits."

"By the true God! Thou hast said that handsomely!" quickly interrupted the wild chief of the band; "we know that thou hast heaps of gold, which thou hast hidden, but as it is the money of the state that we wish more than any thing else, make haste and give up to us the whole of the contributions which thou hast gathered."

"This is impossible," replied Reuben with energy; "this money belongs to the king, it is in his name that I have received it; and it is to him that I am bound to deliver it."

This answer increased the exasperation of the crowd; but neither outrages not threats could shake the firmness of Reuben and of his children.

"If it is so," cried Jehan le Rouge, with a satanic laugh, "we will see if this fine courage will be proof against suffering!"--the populace understood him, and sent forth a cry of joy; Deborah became pale; Samson clenched his hands in rage, and his father lifted his eyes to heaven with an air of courageous resignation.

At a signal from Jehan, Samson and Deborah were seized and bound with cords, and Reuben was placed in a large chair, when the few teeth which he had left were one after the other pulled out with violence. The old man preserved his courage, and refused to disclose the place where he had hidden the public revenues which he had received; and every cry that escaped him was answered by Deborah with a groan, and by Samson with a furious shaking of his body. This scene of horror was happily interrupted by the arrival of the Inquisitor-General, who came to execute an order of arrest decreed against Reuben and his daughter, by the tribunal of the Inquisition; and the crowd, though they murmured to see their prey snatched from them, allowed them peaceably to follow the Inquisitor, who lodged them in the prison of the Chatelet, under the charge of an insult to religion.

The plunderers, disappointed in their hope, spoke of firing the house of Reuben, when an armed force interposed in the name of the king, to re-establish order, and the crowd dispersed slowly, declaring that they postponed their murderous designs, but would not renounce them.

When Samson saw himself free, he tried to follow the steps of his father, but he could learn nothing that day, and he returned home, his soul filled with despair. The next day, he hastened to place in the public treasury the money which he had so courageously defended; the public officers received it; and loaded this faithful depositary with high-sounding praise, but they gave him no intelligence of his father, so much did they fear the power of the Inquisition. The day after was Saturday, a day on which the Jews never left that part of the city in which they resided; the day after that was Sunday, and on this holiday the Jews were forbidden to show themselves abroad; it was therefore not until Monday, that poor Samson could present himself before the Provost of Paris, and he was compelled to take a by-path in order to arrive at the Hotel de Ville; for the Jews were prohibited under the severest penalties, to pass before the palace of the archbishop.

Hugues Aubriot at this time filled the office of Provost of Paris with the greatest distinction, and he had done much for the safety, cleanliness, and health, of the city. Despising idle clamours, he had declared a relentless war against the beggars, bad boys, and cutpurses by which Paris was infested; he had curbed the insolent excesses of the pupils of the University, and he had not even feared to contend against the encroachments of the inquisitorial power. In consequence of this, he had numerous and powerful enemies, but he nevertheless continued to occupy himself in the administration of the affairs of the French capital with zeal and courage.

When Samson was at last admitted to the presence of the Provost of Paris, and when he had related to him the horrible outrage committed by the populace: Hugues Aubriot was so indignant that he instantly gave an order, for the imprisonment of Jehan le Rouge and for the liberation of Reuben and his daughter; and a proclamation was drawn up, and cried out in the streets, forbidding the people of Paris to insult the Jews, and commanding them to restore all the goods which had been stolen from them.*

*Historically true

So much firmness and justice, on the part of the Provost frightened his adversaries, who feeling the necessity of ridding themselves of him in order to accomplish their frightful designs against the Jews, brought calumny to their assistance. The beggars, the pupils of the University, the debtors of the Jews, and the Inquisition, all united their efforts against Hugues Aubriot; whom they accused of protecting the Jews; of being himself a Jew, and a heretic, of having released a prisoner of the Inquisition, and giving liberty to a young Jewess, who had been arrested in order to be baptized.

(To be continued.)