While Joseph Süss Oppenheimer lived in the 18th century, his tragic life story is timeless, according to Princeton professor Yair Mintzker, author of the recently published “The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” (Princeton University Press, 2017).
“He stands for the entire story of what happened to Jews in the past three centuries,” Mintzker said in an interview with NJJN. Seeking to assimilate into the broader society, “this German Jew is very successful for a while, makes money,” is integrated into his Christian environs, “and then there is the fall.”
Born in 1698, Oppenheimer rose to become an extraordinarily powerful German financier, and he parlayed that influence to benefit his fellow Jews, much to the resentment of the local gentiles. After the death of Prince Karl Alexander, his patron and the duke of a small German state, Oppenheimer was arrested, put on trial, and even though not all of his financial dealings were on the up-and-up, he was executed “for all kinds of made-up charges” in 1738, according to Mintzker. Before he was hanged, Oppenheimer was given several opportunities to convert to Christianity. Had he accepted, his life may have been spared. Still, he refused.
While relatively unknown in the United States, Oppenheimer is a “household name” in Europe and Israel, according to Mintzker, perhaps because of a Nazi propaganda film commissioned by Josef Goebbels in 1940, “Jew Süss,” “A Court Jew.”
“It was one of the most notorious movies the Nazis produced. It had a certain sophistication about its viciousness. Someone said, ‘It is an excellent abomination,’” he noted. “Millions of people watched it during the war: people throughout occupied Europe, including SS guards in concentration camps, to give them motivation to treat Jews badly.”
A Princeton University professor of European history, Mintzker tied Oppenheimer’s story to that of biblical Joseph and his brothers. “[Joseph] becomes the main court Jew to Pharaoh in Egypt, but it is also a horrible story of betrayal and attempted murder,” he said.
Despite Oppenheimer’s partiality to his landsmen, his fellow Jews did not always feel the same about the financier, so much so that some even served as witnesses during the trial. This was similar to the account of Joseph and his brothers, Mintzker said, even though, for them, the competition eventually gave way to reconciliation and forgiveness. “Jews are not always nice to each other,” Mintzker said, “but there is also something that connects Jews to one another, and it is amazing to see a reflection of this story in the trial and execution of the Jew Süss.”
Oppenheimer’s story appealed to Mintzker because, he said, “this story that is very concrete allows you to speak about really big themes [like anti-Semitism and emancipation], but stay really grounded in a specific case.”
One liberty in Mintzker’s historical account of Oppenheimer’s story: In the style of rabbis in the Talmud who would talk and argue about important public issues without necessarily telling the reader what to think, Mintzker also “included some imaginary dialogues with the reader where we discuss and sometimes disagree about what I present in the book in terms of the evidence about the life of this Jew.”
“On the one hand, this is a very radical move for a historian, because historians like to lecture and tell you what happened without anyone contradicting them,” he said. “On the other hand, it is extremely old fashioned in the sense that in Jewish tradition we have these dialogues.”
Mintzker prefers dialogue with his students over lectures to glean multiple perspectives, and he structured his book as a dialogue with the book’s sources. This method resonated with him because it allowed him to portray some real and distinct voices about Oppenheimer’s life, ranging from the judge in his trial to members of the Jewish community to his biographer.
One testimony, written by two fellow court Jews, is Mintzker’s favorite. He finds it “an extremely moving” account that is “profound” and “full of surprises,” such as the Jews choosing to testify against Oppenheimer. “Jews were involved in ending this guy’s life,” he said.
Mintzker dedicated this book to his family’s Holocaust victims. “Since I wrote a book about Jews, I thought I should definitely dedicate it to those people of my mother’s family who died in the Holocaust or were affected by it in a profound way,” he said.
His mother’s parents left Poland for Palestine, where she was born, and Mintzker was raised in Jerusalem. He left “like most secular Jerusalemites” to study at Tel Aviv University. While working on his master’s degree in German history, he spent a year doing research in Munich. He said that “in order to understand the history of the Jews and European history in general, you have to go to Germany.”
After graduating college, he lived for a few years in Chicago, then moved to California after being accepted into a doctoral program in modern German history at Stanford University. His dissertation was about the demolition of walls in the 18th and 19th centuries around great European cities, including Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, and the experience of living in open spaces afterward.
“The relationship to Jerusalem is obvious,” Mintzker said. “I lived in a walled city that lost its whole character in the late 19th century when Jews started to leave that walled city behind and move to open neighborhoods outside.
“Both the image of a walled city and the experience of living in a place that was not walled were both part of my childhood and migrated into my dissertation about German cities.” n