An interview with Yair Mintzker author of The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew
You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?
Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.
Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?
Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.
Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?
We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.
What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?
I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.
What do we learn from these stories?
What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.
Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?
No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.
And the result?
A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.