Aaron Zhang
Lover of history and Torah.

Forgotten Kiddush Hashem of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, ‘Yosef Hatzadik’

Silver medal of 1738 on the execution of Joseph Oppenheimer (public domain)

286 years ago on February 4, 1738, a dramatic execution unfolded at the gates of Stuttgart, the capital of Württemberg. Following an extensive state trial, Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the Cabinet Fiscal Officer and Financial advisor for the Duke of Württemberg, the only one to achieve a position of official political power prior to the Emancipation, was publicly hanged on the gallows, witnessed by a crowd of thousands. Adorned in fine attire but confined in an iron cage, he was pulled aloft and left hanging to expose his body to scavenging birds. After his death, the court Jew Oppenheimer was transformed into a figure called “Jud Süß” in German culture featured on stage and in novels, with his image continually reshaped and exploited through various interpretations, a phenomenon that endures to the present day. 

Last Wednesday (Jan 24, 2024) was Oppenheimer’s Yahrzeit, 286 years after the judicial murder (Tuesday, February 4, 1738 = Shevat 14, 5498, Parshat Yitro), and last week’s Parshat Beshalach, was the Parsha of the week right before his hanging. Despite his importance in German cultural memory, I am wondering if anyone in the world, the Jewish world in particular, still remembers him, his repentance and martyrdom, on his Yahrzeit: Does Oppenheimer have a place in the Jewish, instead of  German, cultural memory?

Mocking leaflet about the hanging of Joseph Oppenheimer in 1738, Stuttgart (public domain)

   Oppenheimer is one of the earliest prominent examples of the problematic of German Jewish identity and occupies a complex and controversial place in German collective cultural memory. His unique and controversial life has been the direct source and subject of numerous literary, historical, and cinematic interpretations. In the last 300 years since the death of Oppenheimer, the image of Jud Süß was changed repeatedly and became a mirror of the worldview  as well as the German-Jewish relationships of German society. 

I first learned the story of Oppenheimer in an article by Naama Sheffi on Jud Süß in German cultural memory a few years ago. What caught my eye was not only the process of instrumentalization that the figure Joseph Süß Oppenheimer went through in the last few hundred years, but also the unique and stunning Jewish awareness Oppenheimer displayed at the last stage of his life toward death. After spending some time in Israel and Jewish communities, I noticed that “Jud Süß” is much less received in the Jewish collective awareness compared to his significance in German cultural memory. In contrast, e.g. the 18th century Polish convert Graf Potoczki (Abraham ben Abraham), a Ger Tzedek, still lives in numerous Jewish writings about “kiddush hashem” (martyrdom). There is even a fascinating tradition in the Orthodox world that after the Graf chose to die by fire in the hands of Christians, the Vilna Gaon claimed that the impure spirit lost some of its strength, therefore, one can be lenient regarding the ritual hand washing directly after waking up. It is impossible to skip the perplexing contrast: the Polish Graf (c. 1700–1749), despite the problematic historicity, continues to live in the Jewish cultural memory and is sometimes mentioned to justify the leniency on washing hand after waking up, while Jud Süß (1692–1738), from the same period and with plenty of historical evidence, is neglected in the Jewish cultural memory, especially outside of Germany.

It is noteworthy that when the early 19th century novel of Jud Süß by Wilhelm Hauff was translated into Hebrew at the beginning of the 20th century, the translation contains no reference to a special adaptation for the Hebrew reader. Sheffi believes that it is likely that the editors and publishers wanted to point out the hopelessness of emancipation and assimilation at this time. This means that Hauff’s novel, which when it appeared represented the reaction to current events in Germany, also reflected the Jews’ opinion of later events in Germany. Like Hauff’s novel, Feuchtwanger’s “Jud Süß” was translated into Hebrew and even adapted into a play that premiered in Hebrew in 1933 in Eretz Yisrael. The premiere of the Hebrew version in 1933 and the emphasis on the martyrdom of Süß therefore enabled a close connection between the historical narrative and the present. After the Nazis came to power, Oppenheimer’s story was used for Nazi propaganda purposes to depict Jud Süß as a fraudulent merchant who tried in a reprehensible way to penetrate German society and was punished mercilessly for it, while Jud Süß as a martyr was eliminated in Germany. The Jewish collective memory of Jud Süß was not revived ever since. Jewish historian Selma Stern, the first scholarly biographer of Jud Süß, expressed her regret for failing to represent Jud Süß with more Jewish consciousness in 1973 when her work on Jud Süß from 1929 during the Weimar Republic was reprinted.

Stern mentioned, if she had penned the book a few years later—following the experience of unprecedented political upheavals, totalitarian conflicts, wars, and revolutions, as well as the horrors of the holocaust and its aftermath, the emphasis would have shifted from the emancipated and assimilated Jew to the captive and executed one as a martyr, a Jew through whom the essence of Jewish consciousness emerges profoundly. If Stern lived today, after witnessing and the changes of political realities, the conflict between tradition and modernity, the split of Jewish identities as well as the wars and the continuing struggles for survival of the modern State of Israel, would she further shift the emphasis of the portrayal of Jud Süß and depict Jud Süß with an altered Jewish consciousness? 

Poster of the notorious 1940 Nazi propaganda film “Jud Süß” directed by Veit Harlan (public domain)    

In German anti-Semitic narratives, Oppenheimer remains an embodiment of the crafty, usurious Jew, or a “political vampire” who enriched himself at the expense of others. For emancipated Jews, he is also an icon of the self-emancipation and identity struggle of early modern German Jews before the Haskalah. For Oppenheimer’s contemporary Jews, his life is also about repentance (teshuvah) and martyrdom (kiddush hashem). According to the more recent research of Yair Mintzker, Joseph Oppenheimer is called “Joseph the righteous” (Yosef Hatzadik) in an early Jewish tradition. If the Biblical Joseph is the proto “court Jew” of ancient Egypt, Oppenheimer could be viewed as the proto court Jew of early modern Germany. The bridging of Jewish experience of Biblical times and modern times opens many interpretative avenues regarding the commemoration of Oppenheimer by his contemporaries as well as today. 

Modern Jewish Identity Problem on Oppenheimer

    “The duality of German and Jew—two souls within a single body—would preoccupy and torment German Jews throughout the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.” This is how the Israeli journalist and author Amos Elon described the tension of being Jewish and German of German Jewry in his 2003 book The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743–1933. However, the challenge and torment did not really start with Moses Mendelson’s coming to Berlin in 1743, as the title of the book indicates. Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a generation earlier, already suffered this torment in a most tragic way.

    Oppenheimer was born to a wealthy Jewish merchant family and raised religiously. As an adolescent, however, he gave up the traditional way of life, became a merchant with great success and acquired great power and prestige unprecedented for a Jew. He studied autodidactically by observation, imitation and through books languages, law, economics, politics and baroque lifestyle in the broadest sense, which made him an emancipated free thinker and enabled him to adapt quickly to the courtly environment. He freed himself from the norms and bonds of Judaism without leaving it and became a religiously neutral individualist. As an enlightened Jew he went his own way, between indifference of religion and orthodoxy. He presented himself as the noble excellency in front of the Christian landlords, and as the caring and charitable ghetto Jew in front of his coreligionists, traveling between the exchange booth and the castle, between the Judengasse and the court. 

    However, Oppenheimer’s time is too early for an emancipated Jew. His lifetime lies between a decline of the medieval oppression of the Jews and the Jewish Enlightenment. He emancipated himself and therefore was faced with this issue almost a century before the majority of German Jewry were empowered with civil rights through legislation. The tragic paradox of the assimilation of German Jews makes Jud Süß appear in retrospect as the ancestor of the modern Jewish identity problem.   

Repentance (Teshuvah) and Martyrdom (Kiddush Hashem) of Oppenheimer

    The practical enlightened Oppenheimer led a largely non-Orthodox life in most of his lifetime, neglecting the detailed rituals and comparing them to “fool’s antics”. He was accused of breaking fundamental Jewish laws and not attending the synagogue on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). However, Oppenheimer always showed his loyalty to his people through deeds and gave generously to the poor, cared for communal needs, sponsored Torah studies and printing of holy books. He repeatedly helped out those Jews in trouble without expecting any reward. If he had no longer felt like a Jew in his heart, he could have converted to Christianity long ago, which could bring him great material and political gain and make his career in the court much smoother. Holding on to his Jewish identity was a non-economic factor and drove him into isolation and the dilemma of dual identity: he was not Jewish enough for his religious coreligionists while not German enough for the Christian nobles.

    During the first interrogation of his trial, Oppenheimer was asked whether he wanted to stick to his religion and if he wanted to accept conversion. He answered that he was born a Jew, but had the religion of an honest man. Nevertheless, he insisted that he still adheres to the Jewish religion without reservation and that he has no prejudice against any religion and is therefore neither inclined nor averse to one. His liberal view and tolerance about all religions, according to Haasis, came at least a century too early for Württemberg, the stronghold of a pietistic-tinged Lutheran orthodoxy. His identification with “religion of an honest man” on the one hand reduced his Orthodoxy but did not deny it, while on the other hand built a bridge to connect his Jewish identity with self-emancipation and enlightenment. When the latter was no longer possible, the balance of the scale started to tip in favor of the former.   

    Oppenheimer’s attitude towards the Jewish religion changed during his arrest in prison together with his appearance. The formerly elegant Christian-looking courtier became a neglected-looking Jewish man, with a black beard and threadbare clothes that shook around his emaciated body because of religious asceticism. He used to violate the Jewish dietary laws unhesitatingly, but now only ate ritually safe foods such as eggs and bread, began to pray in Hebrew again and read the holy Jewish texts. At a later stage he had demonstrated his faith and resistance in a long political-religious hunger strike. Under the most extreme conditions and suffering, Oppenheimer did “teshuvah” (repentance) and returned to Orthodoxy. 

    Oppenheimer’s fate is tragic and instructive: his attempt to emancipate himself ended with his return to his Jewish faith. He is said to have steadfastly resisted the many conversion attempts of several Christian clergymen including Christoph David Bernard from his trial till the very moment of execution. He maintained that he is a Jew and will remain a Jew and that he would not become a Christian even if he could immediately become a Roman Emperor. He also expressed the wish that if he were to be executed he would want to die as a Jew and be buried according to Judaism. 

Execution of Oppenheimer on February 4th, 1738 in front of the Stuttgart city gates (public domain)

    According to his will, Oppenheimer was dragged up to the gallows as a believing Orthodox Jew. He testified to his Jewish identity through the ancient Hebrew creed “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad”. His confession of faith was downplayed by the Christian clergymen, who tried to convert him, arguing that “[w]hen a thief cannot steal any longer he turns devout”. At this point, however, his religious feeling is the primal feeling of his being, the last and only bond that holds together the contradictory forces within him and ultimately determines his ethos and his greatness. Over ten thousand people followed his last journey from the Stuttgart market square to the place of execution and saw him die on the gallows. It is worth noting that in Feuchtwanger in his famous novel “Jud Süß” tried to highlight the Jewish consciousness of Süß and his willingness to die as a Jew by dramatizing the tension and altering historical facts: in the novel Süß becomes the illegitimate son of a respected Christian nobleman and he chose to devote to God and die as a Jew with pride instead of revealing his noble origins or converting to Christianity, which could save himself from death. In this novel, ultimately the Jewish identity of  Süß triumphed against all odds.

    About one week after the execution of Oppenheimer, Mordechai Schloss, a court Jew from Frankfurt, helped print a short account of his life in a Hebrew-Yiddish pamphlet with the title “The Story of the Passing of Joseph Süss, ZT”L. It tells the life story of Oppenheimer’s rise to power, his arrest, trial, and execution as a kadosh, a martyr, from an sympathetic perspective. It called Jews to designate Oppenheimer as “righteous and holy”, to add the line “may the memory of this righteous man be a blessing” to his name, and to remember that he had died for kiddush hashem as a martyr.  

Joseph the Righteous (Yosef Ha-tzadik)

For the most part of the last 300 years Oppenheimer has been referred to as the vile, depraved and conniving Jud Süss by the Germans. The Jewish community made little effort to revive the memory of Oppenheimer as “Yosef Ha-tzadik” until Yair Mintzker’s publication of his book “The many deaths of Jew Süss: the notorious trial and execution of an eighteenth-century court Jew”, even though he achieved this largely unintentionally. He adopted the Rashomonic approach, which he called “polyphonic history”, to examine the case of Oppenheimer through four different contemporary perspectives: the chief inquisitor, a Jewish proselyte, a Jewish court Jew, and a Lutheran writer.

    The Jewish proselyte Bernard accused “The Story” of being an arrogant work of a few ignorant Jews, “who wholeheartedly rejoiced at the opportunity to declare a new saint” for their religion. The narrative of “The Story” reflects the personal request of Oppenheimer himself that “the holy communities […] not recall his pure soul reproachfully or refer to it in an evil connotation”. Mintzker believed that there might be hidden messages (remazim) with the hint “anyone of intelligence can understand it”, as it was a common practice among Jews in the early modern period as a way of evading censors and keeping the less educated in the dark. One of the four contemporary German translators of “The Story” of the time, echoing a widespread contemporary leitmotif, raised one possibility. “Joseph the Righteous” (Yosef ha-Tsadik) was the common Jewish appellation for the biblical Joseph, the famous interpreter of dreams who was sold by his jealous brothers. “The Story” mentioned Parshat Beshalach (the parsha right before Oppenheimer’s death) in the text, and the translator wrote in a footnote that when he looked up Parshat Beshalach, he immediately noticed that it contained a reference right at the beginning to the fulfillment of the Israelites’ promise to bring the bones of Joseph the Righteous with them when they left Egypt for the Promised Land. We do know that Oppenheimer pleaded to bury his bones according to Jewish ritual. The Inquisition Committee feared the Jews might try to do just that and consequently placed a guard next to the gibbet containing Oppenheimer’s corpse kept in an iron cage and displayed there for six years.

    “The Story” admits that Oppenheimer committed numerous transgressions against God and humanity, while also claiming that he fasted and repented wholeheartedly, passed away in possession of a full belief in God. Therefore, after his death, an act of sanctifying God’s name (“kiddush hashem”) — he was assured a place among the righteous in paradise. Mintzker did a fantastic reading into the term “Joseph the Righteous”. He noted that the pamphlet refers to their coreligionists as Israelites (beney yisraʾel) rather than, simply, Jews. According to legends from the midrashic text Genesis Rabbah about the weekly Torah portion Beshalach, as the Israelites were about to leave Egypt, they were preoccupied with their silver and gold, caring for their own property above all else. Only Moses remembered the Israelites’ promise to Joseph to take his bones to the Promised Land. If “The Story” was used as a parable in Joseph Oppenheimer’s case, it seems to criticize some members of the Jewish communities for their greedy and selfish care and neglect of their obligation to their (dead) brother. Such a reading would emphasize the negative role, the envy and betrayal of many Jews in Oppenheimer’s story (222).

    Some contemporary Yiddish accounts of the Biblical Joseph’s story portray him as a victim of false allegations (by Potiphar’s wife). Rather than Oppenheimer being a rapist, “The Story” tries to represent him as an innocent victim of rape allegations (221). In other places of his book Mintzker mentioned more parallels like “Joseph” leaving home and serving as advisor and “court Jew” of the mighty ruler (Pharaoh and Duke of Württemberg) (220), Frankfurt ghetto—the famous Judengasse as “New Egypt” by some of Frankfurt’s Jews (178), rise of a new king over Egypt (194), who knew not Joseph and the unexpected death of Duke Karl Alexander and the coming to power of the new regent in Württemberg.

    The repeated allusions to Joseph the Righteous, the Israelites, and even the scene in which Oppenheimer falls on Schloss’s neck and “cries and shouts a great deal” indicate that is about leaving the factual accuracy of Oppenheimer’s past aside and final forgiveness for the betrayal and the many testimonies of Jews against him willingly or unwillingly, wrongly or not. Interpreted this way, “The Story” becomes an account about Joseph and his brothers, complete with a land of Egypt, a prince and his Israelite advisor, brotherly competition and betrayal, imprisonment, and eventual forgiveness and reconciliation (223). Thanks to “The Story”, the only document composed by Jews in the immediate aftermath of the execution, we learned a valuable part of Jewish memory about Oppenheimer: a sinner who sincerely repented and a tzadik whose soul was transformed and departed in sanctification of the Lord’s name.


    The 40 years of Joseph Oppenheimer’s lifetime was about self-emancipation, enlightenment, but also about profound and heartfelt repentance and personal transformation. According to the Jewish narrative of his time, his former ego had already perished days before his physical body perished on the gallows. In this process he attained a transformed new life as “Yosef Ha-tzadik”.

    When discussing his personal attitude toward a text, Mintzker mentioned, “The dead are among us, […] they direct their gaze at us, and we gaze back at them in return. The clear separation between the living and the dead is consequently both real and fictional. The dead are present in the land of the living, which is another way of saying that we, the living, always and everywhere, inevitably also inhabit the land of the dead.” (228) With his work, in my view, Mintzker is also reviving a long lost or neglected Jewish memory and participating in the construction of a Jewish cultural memory instead of a German one about Joseph Oppenheimer, to make the dead “present in the land of living”.

    Oppenheimer, the first emancipated and prominent Jew on the eve of the era of Jewish Enlightenment to enter the horizon of the German public, was placed in an era in which a synthesis of Judaism and the spirit of the times was not yet possible. His adventurous life and earlier choice to live outside Frankfurt’s renowned ghetto, along with his skepticism and criticism toward traditions and assertive attitude toward non-Jewish world, could give inspiration for modern Jews. Oppenheimer’s refusal to renounce Judaism and his death as a repented and transformed Jew led his contemporaries to perceive him as a martyr and could continue to inspire Jews of today.      

If we continue Mintzker’s game of searching for parallels of Joseph Oppenheimer and the Biblical Joseph, in retrospect, we may find that roughly 200 years after the execution of Oppenheimer (1738) and long period Jewish Enlightenment and emancipation, came the infamous pogrom against German Jews, the “Kristallnacht” (1938), the prelude to the Holocaust in Europe, as well as the massive waves of Jewish emigration from Europe and the establishment of State of Israel, which is equivalent to the time of the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt until the exodus from Egypt after the massive assimilation and genocide in Egypt according to rabbinic counting (210 years). Whether it is memory or history, it has become part of the Jewish national experience.  

And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” (Exodus 13:19)

Illustration of Joseph Oppenheimer before the execution (public domain)

If the bones of Joseph symbolizes the memory of the Biblical Joseph and Joseph is remembered as a Jew by the Jews instead of an Egyptian by the Egyptians, the memory of Joseph Oppenheimer should also be transferred to Jewish collective memory, not as an evil or unfortunate German of Jewish background but as “Yosef Ha-tzadik”. Even though we may not be able to bring his actual bones to Israel like we relocated Herzl’s bones from Vienna to Jerusalem, at least it is possible to revive the memory of Joseph Ben Issachar Süßkind Oppenheimer in the Jewish cultural memory. As the national experience of Jews constantly repeats itself, the Jews today of the 21st century might need to come back to the past to “the land of the dead” to understand their new realities and their identities, while Joseph Oppenheimer, a figure that is open to so many different interpretations, could be “present in the land of living” and live again.

About the Author
Gained M.A. in German studies. Licensed tour guide. Interested in China-Israel topics. Lover of history and Torah.
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