After the withdrawal of the Prussians from Prague on November 20, 1744, a rumor spread that Empress Maria Theresa wanted to punish the Jews of Prague and of all of Bohemia for alleged acts of betrayal. On December 18 there issued forth a decree for the expulsion of all the Jews. The announced measures caused great consternation.
In Holland, England, Poland, and Turkey voices were raised in defense of the Jews. The Papal Nuncio and the Archbishop of Mainz, and the merchants of Leipzig and Nürnberg condemned the decree out of economic and humanitarian considerations. It was in the middle of winter. The diplomatic representative of the Netherlands, Barthold Dove Burmania, said to the empress, “Rulers bear before God the responsibility for their deeds.”
At the end of February the mass exodus took place. The rector of the University of Prague wrote, “Horrible is the sight of these people with children and the sick, moving out in bitter cold.” The roads were clogged. The ill and the dead lay on the sides.
In May the empress altered the decree. The Jews could remain until further notice. Had she thought better of her deeds, or did she give in to the pleadings of the representative from Holland? The Jews believed they had him to thank, and the Amsterdam community stamped a memorial coin for him. After three years the decree was finally cancelled. The empress saw “that the exodus of the Jews would bring a million skulls to the land.” Moreover, the highest war council established after examination that the rumors of betrayal contained not a single word of truth.
The Jews remained in Bohemia. However, it was self-understood that the old restrictions were not lessened. The Jews could not reproduce themselves too rapidly, so only the eldest sons received permission to marry. The number of families was set at 3,583 – 1,144 for Prague and 2,439 for the province. Under Joseph II [Translator’s note: Maria Theresa’s son and successor], it was raised to 8,600. That was the state of the matter until 1848. Then came the revolution. [1848 was a year of sweeping revolution through much of Europe. Tens of thousands died. It was also the year of the appearance of The Communist Manifesto.]
Lucien Wolf was born in a tiny hamlet in the Bohemian Erzgebirge mountains and shortly thereafter went to England as a political refugee with his father after 1848. His father told him how the Jews lived in old Austria without legal rights under that government, and how in the days of March in 1848 all paid attention when someone read a letter from his uncle in Vienna which described the street battles going on there. These were memorable moments. The kaiser had driven through a crowd of people who were pressing in on his carriage. While sobbing he reminded them, “Be at ease, children; you shall have your constitution.”
Several days later the kaiser’s official proclamation came from Vienna. Farmers asked Lucien’s grandfather to read it, so he placed himself in the market square on top of a barrel under a statue of the holy Johann Nepomuk and did so. Upon hearing the official proclamation, the farmers cried, “Long live His Majesty.” The Jews did not cry out. They wept silently. They kissed each other and regretted that their parents had not lived to see this day.
The joyful [mood] didn’t last long. In 1848 there followed the reaction, which for the Jews meant a return [for a while] to the old conditions. But the year 1867 brought equal rights. Actually there was already a definite moderation even before 1848; industrialization was on the rise, and as a result of the kaiser’s pleasure, Jews could count on elevation into the ranks of the nobility.
The number of Bohemian and Moravian Jews in industry was quite meaningful, mainly in the textile industry. They built factories in Prague, Brünn [today Brno], Weisskirchen, Iglau, Bielitz, Reichenberg, Böhmisch-Leipa and Prossnitz. The Jewish cloth factories supplied the Austrian army in the Napoleonic Wars. Prossnitz was the central point of cotton fabric production.
[Translator’s Postscript: Why was Maria Theresa so quick to persecute “her” Jews? She was one of history’s most genuinely devout Catholic monarchs; did this motivate her anti-Semitism? Why would she believe “her” Jews had betrayed her in favor of the Prussians? She actually may not have been entirely wrong; some Jews may well have supported Prussia in the War of the Austrian Succession of the 1740s, the war referred to above.
[Her great enemy, Frederick the Great of Prussia, was widely loved and well regarded since he seemed to embody the new benevolent spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. So it may be that her own empire’s traditional oppression of its Jews – for example, its expulsion of its Viennese Jews in 1670 – caused Jews to look to Frederick for relief, and, detecting a whiff of this, she decided to get even.]