The Early Years
There is evidence of Jewish residents in Luxembourg off and on beginning in the 1300s and a significant Jewish population in Luxembourg City by the early 1800s. However, the first documented evidence of Jewish families settling in Esch-sur-Alzette does not appear until 1837 in the form of a birth announcement for Salomon Cerff (later, after the second ‘f’ disappeared from the family name, Salomon Cerf). By 1842, we see two Jewish proprietors on an official record of landowners in the area – Simon Cerf (Salomon’s father) and Marcel Cahn. At this time, Esch was a large village of around 2,000 people, largely agricultural, and struggling. It was not, apparently, much of a draw for Jewish families living in more populous and affluent towns, like Metz and Trier.
But just a short time later, following the discovery of the Minett (a major source of iron ore in the south of Luxembourg), Esch went through a boomtime, experiencing a prosperity never before seen in the region. This economic transformation, coupled with the chaos that followed the Franco-German war in 1870 and the generous laws governing Luxembourgish citizenship, lead growing numbers of Jewish families to settle in Esch in the late 1800s. These families were diverse in origin, coming from Lorraine, the Rhine-Westphalia region, Trier and nearby villages, and found a home in Esch, which had already become a melting pot (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999). By 1880, there were nine Jewish families living in Esch and the community only kept expanding (Archives of the CIL 1880).
Interestingly, these first families were relatively pious, strict adherents to the prescriptions of Judaism, even as a reform movement was sweeping across the Jewish communities of Europe and the United States (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999). In fact, during much of this period, from 1843 to 1866 the Grand Rabbi of Luxembourg, the official spiritual leader of Jewish community life for the entire state, was himself a great proponent of the reform movement. This rabbi, Samuel Hirsch, pushed for significant change not only in terms of theology and religious practice, but also for further integration, and, importantly, for the fair and equal treatment of Jews within Luxembourgish society. While his fervor for religious reform did not entirely catch on, he laid the foundations for both the internal organization and state-level recognition of the Jewish community of Luxembourg (Moyse 2011).
And so, in the late 1800s, as observant practitioners of Judaism and seeking to construct a symbol of their presence in Esch, the Jewish community of Esch began to think about building their own synagogue. Thus far, they had been gathering in two private homes – one on the Grande Rue and one on the Rue du Commerce – for regular religious services and holiday celebrations. But as the Jewish community grew and people settled into life in the city, they wanted a more permanent site, something that would be a physical manifestation of the roots the community was putting down in Esch. A works commission was established and architect Charles Arendt (who also helped design the synagogue in Luxembourg City in 1894) was hired to draw up plans for the building. The entire project was financed by donations from community members and some funding from the local commune.
By this point, the community had grown to 25 families, or about 100 individuals, and was expected to continue expanding. The synagogue was therefore built to comfortably accommodate 150 people. It featured two seating areas – benches on the main floor for men and a raised gallery for women – as well as an ornate ark to house the congregation’s Torah scrolls, and lovely colored glass windows. The first stone of the new synagogue was laid at Place Saint Vincent on July 21, 1898. Inaugurated barely a year later, on July 28, 1899 by the Grand Rabbi of Luxembourg Dr. Isaac Blumenstein, this building would be the center of Jewish community life until its destruction during World War II.
Around the same time, one more important change occurred. Up to this point in time, the community of Esch-sur-Alzette did not have its own cemetery and instead interred its dead in the Jewish cemetery in Luxembourg City. Finally, shortly after the completion of the synagogue, the community received permission from commune authorities to establish its own cemetery closer to the city of Esch. This new site was used for burials beginning in 1905. If cemeteries act as symbols of belonging, creating links between people or peoples and the land, and as sites for the construction of history and memory, the Jewish community of Esch-sur-Alzette was making strong claims to its own belonging in this city with the establishment of this new cemetery (Verdery 1999).
Now that they had a synagogue and a cemetery, the community needed a religious leader and educator. They sought out a chazzan (the congregation in Esch would not have its own rabbi until many decades later). The chazzan, a minister-officiant, would act as a community leader, guide the congregation in prayer, educate young boys and girls in preparation for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah (a coming-of-age ceremony performed for boys at 13 years old and for girls at 12 years old), and teach older children Jewish ethics. In 1900, the Jewish community of Esch hired its first chazzan – Mr. Feldmann. In 1909, Mr. Bass took over as chazzan and held the position until 1915, followed by Mr. Katz who served as chazzan for two short years until 1917. Unfortunately not much is known about these first three community leaders, but it seems that they laid the foundations for Jewish education and religious life in Esch. More detailed records exist about later chazzanim. For example, we know that the next chazzan, Moritz Rosenbaum who held this role from 1915 to 1923, established a formal Talmud Torah (Torah studies) class for children and worked tirelessly to bring together the well-established Jews of Esch and the first wave of Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe. Rosenbaum’s successor, Julius Levy, left a particularly powerful mark on the Jewish community of Esch-sur-Alzette. Levy served as the chazzan from 1923 to 1937. He was well-respected, knowledgeable, and patient, and would later be recalled for instilling in his students a strong and active spirit that helped prepare them to confront rising antisemitism and Nazism. The last chazzan in the pre-war period, Mr. Hertz, served only briefly, from 1937 to 1940; but in that short time, he established a boys choir that enlivened services and introduced modern teaching methods that would be remembered positively (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999:36).
Building a Thriving Community
Throughout this period, from the late 1890s to the 1930s, the Jewish community of Esch flourished. Of course, these years were not without their difficulties – World War I shook the region and its inhabitants and the global economic crisis of the 1930s did not leave Esch untouched. And yet, this was also a golden era for Esch-sur-Alzette, no less for its Jewish residents (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999). During this period, Esch grew from a town into a city, the Jewish community continued to expand, and Jewish families and individuals increasingly contributed to the economic, social, and, occasionally, political life of this newly-minted city. There were Jewish butchers, cattle dealers, and horse traders, and Jewish-owned shops of all sorts. The prevalence of Jewish cattle and horse traders can be traced back to medieval origins – during the Middle Ages, when much of the economy was based on agriculture, Jews in the region were not allowed to own land and were prohibited from joining many common professions of the time. Horse and cattle trading was one of the few options available to them and over time many Jewish families in the area took up this trade, a trend that continued even into the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Beyond horse and cattle trading and butchery, Jewish families were well-represented in the businesses of textiles, shoes, and leather goods; their storefronts lined the streets of Rue de l’Alzette and Rue du Brill. On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and one of the holiest days of the Jewish year, most Jewish shopkeepers took the day off from work to fast and go to services with their families. Their presence was such that nearly half the shops on Rue de l’Alzette and Rue du Brill were closed – over time, the people of Esch adjusted and began to avoid shopping on this day (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999:27). However, while Jews participated in a range of economic areas during this period, it is worth noting that there were two fields from which they were noticeably absent. First, there were very few Jewish steelworkers, a sector that employed upwards of 15,000 workers in and around Esch-sur-Alzette. And second, there were few, if any, Jewish residents of Esch in professional fields, such as medicine or law.
Despite their overall robust economic participation, the Jews of Esch were not particularly politically organized or vocal, nor involved in local political activity. There was not a Jewish lobby or union setting conditions for business sectors with a strong Jewish presence. More generally, there were few Jews involved in representative organizations for workers or merchants. Cerf and Finkelstein (1999) propose several possible reasons for this notable absence of Jewish workers and business owners from trade organizations. Perhaps these merchants were rather traditional in their outlook, not daring to enter into new domains. Perhaps they were reluctant to join or were excluded from trade organizations because of antisemitism; as Cerf and Finkelstein (1999) note, Jewish merchants during this time faced criticism and even antisemitic remarks from their non-Jewish colleagues, who sometimes went so far as to accuse Jewish merchants of unfair or dishonest competition. Looking at political activity more broadly, while Esch had long been politically engaged and left-leaning, it seems that Jewish families in the area largely abstained from politics – we do not see, for example, any Jewish candidates running for local elections during this time period. With the exception of Lucien Cahen, a gregarious man who was deeply engaged in issues such as campaigning for workers’ rights and fighting social inequity, there was little known Jewish public political engagement (though it is clear the Jewish residents of Esch mostly voted left and center, unsurprising given the blatant antisemitism of the right-wing press at the time).
Signs of Turmoil
Towards the end of this era of expansion and success, we begin to see signs that all was not well. By the late 1910s and 1920s, the first waves of Eastern European Jewish migrants, fleeing pogroms, political persecution, and rampant antisemitism in their home countries, began to arrive in Luxembourg and some of them settled in Esch. The well-established Jewish families of Esch looked at these new arrivals with suspicion – they worried that these migrants, who dressed differently, spoke other languages, and generally stood out, would disrupt their hard-earned and precarious good standing and deep integration in Luxembourgish society (Moyse 2011). (Over time, however, these new families were accepted, becoming fixtures in the Jewish community and the city of Esch.). Into the 1930s, Jewish Luxembourgers became increasingly aware not only of the situation further east, but also the rising antisemitism in nearby Germany and Austria and the expanding power of National Socialism. They listened to reports on the radio, read the news, and even heard stories directly from migrants arriving from Germany and Austria following the institution of the Nuremberg Laws and just before the outbreak of World War II.
Even the Luxembourgish press carried some hints of what was to come. For example, in the 1930s the Luxemburger Wort at once decried the violence of the Nazi party yet continued to publish a series of articles denouncing the power held by Jews around the world (Moyse 2011). Similarly, other publications, such as Jung Luxemburg and De Wecker rabbelt, regularly wrote about the danger posed by Jews, especially foreign Jews, to the nation of Luxembourg (Moyse 2011). Equally sinister, antisemitic pamphlets began to appear in the public sphere. Distributed by far-right groups, these tracts were published with increasing frequency from the mid to late 1930s. In 1938, a series of antisemitic pamphlets were fixed to the front of Jewish-owned shops in Esch-sur-Alzette. Later that year, similar instances of vandalism occurred in Luxembourg City. And yet, many Luxembourgish Jews remained where they were, ‘cocooned’ in Luxembourg, hoping that this was only a brief phase and that the worst would pass them by (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999:27).
World War II and the Shoah
When World War II broke out in 1939, there were an estimated 380 Jews living in Esch-sur-Alzette, approximately half of them local Luxembourgers and the other half primarily migrants from Eastern Europe. More would arrive over the next year, fleeing Germany and Austria. Then, in 1940 disaster struck. On Friday May 10th 1940, Germany invaded Luxembourg. As tanks and armored cars rolled down the streets of Esch that morning, the local council made the immediate decision to evacuate. That night the people of Esch, nearly 25,000 individuals including most of the Jewish community, fled over the border into France, where French troops stood ready to face the Germans. Unfortunately, the Germans were the clear victors in this moment and the Jewish community of Esch was faced with a choice: to move further into France, to seek refuge further afield, or to return to Esch. For most, there was no question – they could not return to Esch and risk facing the same fate as so many of their fellow Jews in Germany. And so, the majority remained in France through the winter of 1940 and into 1941.
During that period, the Jews of Esch made their way as best they could, seeking help from the Red Cross and the American Joint Distribution Committee. Some tried to emigrate, to the United States, to wherever they could, wherever would take them. Others began preparing for more clandestine lives, obtaining false identities and documents and moving to smaller towns further afield with few, if any, Jewish residents. For example, Julien Cerf, a descendent of the Cerf family who first settled in Esch, took on the name Julien Cernier, while Leo Finkelstein, became Léon Favier. Still others remained where they were in France and looked on as their German, Austrian, and Polish co-religionists were interred in refugee camps with horrendous conditions. Meanwhile, Germany pushed into France and the Vichy government was established.
Up to this point, Jewish Luxembourgers living in France remained relatively free. But in early 1942, the deportations of Jews living in France began, including ‘ex-Luxembourgers’ (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999). These deportations, which started in Drancy, France and headed east, would continue until the summer of 1944, by which time most of France had been liberated. Many of these gruesome journeys ended in Auschwitz, where most deportees were immediately murdered in the gas chambers. Others ended at various concentration camps, where horrific conditions and daily violence meant that most deportees would survive only a few months before falling victim to hunger, illness, injury, or murder. Entire families disappeared. For example, the Nathan brothers, prominent members of the Jewish community in Esch, along with seven of their relatives were stopped in Charente, France by French gendarmes. They were forced to join a convoy heading east and just a week after their arrest, all nine members of the Nathan family were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Ultimately, of all the Jews of Esch who were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz, only one survived – Simon Cerf. Deported with his father in March of 1943, he was sent first to Majdanek and then to Auschwitz, where he was forced to join the Sonderkommando. So traumatized by his time in the camps, Cerf never testified about his experience (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999).
Of those Jewish families who remained behind in Esch – approximately 60 individuals after the German invasion in May 1940 – many met similar fates. Beginning in August 1940, a German civil administration was installed in Luxembourg whose goal was to ‘Germanize’ the country and to remove all remaining Jews. To this end, the new administration instituted the Nuremberg Laws and began seizing Jewish shops, homes, and goods. Most of these shops were given over to be managed by Germans or German-friendly Luxembourgers. Very occasionally, a Luxembourgish manager who was sympathetic to the original Jewish owners gained hold of the shop and even returned it after the war. That year, Jewish children were barred from returning to school and Jewish employees of all sectors were fired en masse and without compensation. The synagogue in Esch, which had stood as the center of community life for more than 40 years, was razed in June of 1941. As the year went on, the German administration took increasingly drastic measures against the Jews of Luxembourg. In July, a curfew was instituted which mandated that Jewish residents could not leave their homes between 7pm and 7am. They were banned from restaurants and cafes, cinemas and swimming pools, public transport and barbershops. Jews were barred from owning telephones, and their electronics, radios, and even clothing were confiscated. They had access to only the barest rations and could visit only a select few shops during specific hours in the afternoon. Any time they went out in public, they were forced to wear a yellow star inscribed with the word ‘JUDE’ on the exterior of their clothing.
Finally, in August 1941, the Germans began moving all remaining Jewish families in Luxembourg to the internment camp at Cinqfontaines to await deportation. The conditions were appalling, families crammed into tiny dirty rooms, forbidden from leaving or even opening windows for fresh air, and having little to eat. Many of the residents were elderly, sick, or disabled, and therefore particularly susceptible to the precarious environment of the ghetto-like structure. The move to Cinqfontaines was still in process when deportations began just two months later. 670 Jews from across Luxembourg were deported in seven convoys over two years; only 42 survived. Of these individuals, 113 were from or living in Esch when deportations began; only 3 would survive.
Much more could be said about this tragic period and the horrors endured by Jews from Esch-sur-Alzette, from Luxembourg, from across Europe. This short chapter cannot do justice to the destruction, the violence, the loss of life, the grief experienced during this time. Several thorough and thoughtful texts have emerged recently that delve into greater detail, recalling individual stories and specific events, paying tribute to the suffering, trauma, and loss experienced by the Jews of Luxembourg during World War II. In particular, the following texts stand out: Les Juifs d’Esch: Chroniques de la Communauté Juives de 1837 à 1999 by Paul Cerf and Isi Finkelstein; Du rejet à l’intégration: Histoire des Juifs du Luxembourg des origines à nos jours by Laurent Moyse; Luxemburg im Schatten der Shoah by Mil Lorang; and La “Question Juive” Au Luxembourg (1933 – 1941): L’Etat Luxembourgeois Face aux Persécutions Antisémites Nazies by Vincent Artuso. These texts offer invaluable insight into the years of World War II and the Shoah in and around Luxembourg. That said, this chapter will now turn to the post-war years.
Reviving Jewish Life in Esch
Towards the end of 1944, much of Europe was in the process of being liberated. In Luxembourg, the Germans made a final stand in December, crossing through Ösling in an attempt to seize Antwerp and hold off the British. By May of 1945, Luxembourg was free. As the nation began to count its dead and piece itself back together, the Jews of Luxembourg began to return. At first, only a few made their way back – so many had died and so many others had emigrated abroad and would not return. They faced the challenge not only of bearing the pain of the war and the Shoah, but of reinserting themselves into the social and economic life of a nation that had not protected them, and of fighting with the Office of War Damages to get back or at least receive reimbursement for their lost homes and damages they had suffered. Jews without Luxembourgish citizenship, who had emigrated to Luxembourg from elsewhere prior to the war, faced a particular challenge as they were excluded from making claims at the Office of War Damages, regardless of how long they had previously lived in Luxembourg.
Little by little, the Jewish community began to rebuild. Esch-sur-Alzette and Luxembourg were ultimately the only communities able to revive themselves after the war. In the autumn of 1945, the first Jewish-owned shop in Esch reopened. As economic and social life resumed, the Jews who has returned to Esch sought to resume their spiritual and community life, as well. They held their first religious service in a building on the Grande Rue and elected Lazard Cerf as their new president. The community organized a charity fund for the needy and the Society of Jewish Women was revived. The youth created a small club whose main focus was the organization of an annual ball held with Jewish communities from as far away as Brussels. Eventually, the community contacted the Office of War Damages to discuss the building of a new synagogue in Esch.
The congregation was able to obtain a piece of land on a small corner of the Rue du Canal from the local commune. A committee, led by new community president René Herrmann (Lazard Cerf had stepped down for health reasons by this time), began to work on plans for the new synagogue. They commissioned Christian Scholl, an architect working in Esch who had previously designed Esch’s Sacré Coeur church, and hired a local construction company. On April 30th 1953, the first stone of the new synagogue was laid. Construction was completed a year and a half later and on October 17th 1954 the new synagogue in Esch was inaugurated by Grand Rabbi Dr. Charles Lerhmann.
In those first years after the war, the community struggled to find someone to lead its religious services, let alone resume Talmud Torah classes for children or other activities. Initially, two members – Max Brust and Mr. Weil – stepped in to organize and help lead services until the community was able to find an official leader. During this time, Luxembourg’s first post-war Grand Rabbi, Dr. Joseph Kratzenstein, was also in contact with the community in Esch, providing help and support where possible, especially for children orphaned during the war. Brust and Weil were followed briefly by chazzan Simon Meisner and officiant Isak Porozniewsky. Then, for a short time, the Grand Rabbi of Luxembourg, Dr. Charles Lehrmann, helped guide the community of Esch. Finally, in 1953, with plans already underway for the new synagogue, the community of Esch brought on Moïse Hoffmann as its new chazzan. Hoffmann, who came to Esch from Hebron, truly helped the community rebuild – he resumed Jewish education for children and his energy and enthusiasm inspired the congregation (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999). Hoffmann lead the Jewish community of Esch for nearly 20 years, only stepping down in 1971.
The next chazzan, David Rothschild, had big shoes to fill and left after a very brief tenure from 1972 to 1973. For some time, the community relied on the Grand Rabbi, Dr. Emmanuel Bulz, and the minister-officiant of Luxembourg City’s congregation, Eugène Fettmann. Together, they lent a hand to the community of Esch, stepping in to lead services, and including the children of Esch in their Bar and Bat Mitzvah preparation courses. When they were needed at the synagogue in Luxembourg City, as for the High Holidays, there were plenty of people willing to lead services in Esch, including Mr. Jean-Pierre Fettmann, Mr. Stern from Brussels, and one of the sons of Bernard Wolf, then the chazzan in Thionville. Over the next several years, various other individuals, some chazzanim, some minister-officiants, some congregants with a particular competence, supported Jewish life in Esch, leading services, educating the youth, and reviving the congregation’s sense of community. During this time, too, the community of Esch collaborated with that in Luxembourg City, accepting support from its religious leaders and sending its children there for Talmud Torah class. Members in Esch joined in as new groups and activities emerged in Luxembourg City, like the Union des Jeunes Gens (Union of Young People). It was not until 1992, under the presidency of Robert Wolf, that the community of Esch hired a new full-time chazzan, Victor Portal.
During this period, Jewish life in Esch was renewed. The Jewish families who returned to Luxembourg and resettled there had little problem integrating back into society. Jewish businesses reopened, Jewish students reentered school, and the first Jewish professionals entered the workforce. Jews resumed their participation in local social life and even began to enter new fields, including politics. Of course, this reintegration was not entirely smooth. For example, as the Jewish community grew, so too did the city of Esch and in 1953, the commune requested the Jewish cemetery of Esch be moved outside the city to make way for further urbanization. After much negotiation, the Jewish community of Esch agreed and the cemetery was moved to a new space just north of the city. Years later, in 1992 and again in 1994, this cemetery was vandalized and several tombstones were damaged. In 1994, the vandalism in the cemetery coincided with similar events in the city of Esch itself, including threatening and racist graffiti at two sites, as well as swastikas painted on highway signs leading out of Esch. The local police, it seems, took little interest and nothing was done following either incident. More insidiously, it seems that new forms of antisemitism couched in anti-Zionist or anti-Israel rhetoric became increasingly prevalent during the post-war years and into the 1990s and today (Cerf & Finkelstein 1999).
There were also internal issues brewing in the Jewish community of Esch during this period. Even as the community worked to revive itself, its numbers grew relatively slowly – by 1970, the last official census to count people by religious identification, the Jewish population in the whole of Luxembourg was 710, or 0.2% of the total population (up from 643 in 1960) (STATEC 1990). Esch in particular sometimes struggled to retain members as young people were less interested in taking over the family business and began to seek out new professions and greater opportunities in Luxembourg City or even beyond Luxembourg. Further, the collapse of the steel industry in the area led many families to search for work elsewhere. In 1956, there were 26 Jewish-owned shops; by 1999 there were only 10; in 2010, there were next to none (Moyse 2011).
A Changing Community
By the late 2000s, the future was not looking particularly positive for the Jewish community of Esch-sur-Alzette. Membership had dwindled to a few elderly members, the congregation struggled to form a minyan, and chazzan Victor Portal was planning to retire soon – it was not clear how the community of Esch could sustain itself. And so, then president Robert Wolf conferred with other key community members who together made the bold decision to transform Esch, a historically traditional Orthodox congregation, into a Liberal one. By this point, it was clear that the population of Luxembourg was shifting – there were more and more ex-pats living in Luxembourg, some of them Jewish, and many of those from progressive American or British communities.
There was even a small self-organized liberal community called ‘Or Chadash‘already present made up mostly of American and British ex-pats who had moved to Luxembourg for work. Affiliated with Liberal Judaism in the UK, the informal group met regularly for holidays and events and occasionally received support from visiting rabbis from London. They had even been allowed to use the synagogue in Esch for a Liberal Bar Mitzvah led by visiting UK rabbi Aaron Goldstein in 2006; however, they did not have a synagogue or regular religious leader of their own.
After reaching out to this group, enduring tense negotiations with the Consistoire Israélite de Luxembourg (the administrative body of the Jewish community for all of Luxembourg), and undertaking a prolonged search for a suitable rabbi, the Jewish community of Esch became a Liberal congregation in 2009. Led by Rabbi Nathan Alfred from England, the community embarked on a new path. Men and women were allowed to sit together. Services were conducted in multiple languages as needed, including English, French, and German. Talmud Torah classes for children resumed. New members joined from a range of backgrounds – ex-pats from the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Israel, and Russia, former members of Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations overseas, families from Belgium, Germany, and France looking for a different approach to Jewish life. With the support of Rabbi Nathan Alfred and the tireless efforts of president Robert Wolf, the community of Esch blossomed.
In 2015, Rabbi Alfred moved on to a new position in Singapore and was replaced by the current rabbi, Alexander Grodensky. Having recently completed his schooling at Abraham Geiger College, a liberal rabbinic seminary in Potsdam, Germany, Rabbi Grodensky brought a new enthusiasm and an impressive amount of knowledge of Jewish history, theology, and liberal Jewish issues to the community of Esch. He continued to lead religious services, run Talmud Torah classes for children, prepare young boys and girls for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, offer education to adults, and guide the community through trying times, including the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. More recently, in the spring of 2020, longstanding president Robert Wolf resigned and was replaced by David Weis, himself a product of this new progressive Jewish congregation. Today, the community of Esch prides itself on its openness and inclusivity, its respect for tradition and creative innovation, and looks forward to a bright future as it continues to grow.
Text by Anastasia Badder.