Endingen and Lengnau are villages in the Swiss canton of Aargau, in the Surbtal near the German border roughly 18 miles from Zurich. A few Jewish families are known to have lived there during the Middle Ages, when the villages were in the county of Baden, but organized communities were not formed until early in the 17th century. Between the 17th and 19th centuries these two villages were the only places where Jews were allowed to settle in Switzerland.
Around 1650, Marharam (Meir) Guggenheim was their leader. The legal status of the Jews was based on letters of protection, which had to be renewed (and paid for) periodically. From 1696 these letters were renewed every 16 years, the last dating from 1792. The letters authorized them to trade in the whole Baden region, though not in real estate, but for the most part they engaged in the sale of livestock. They were authorized to grant loans against movable property only. The number of Jewish houses was limited and a Jew and non-Jew were forbidden to live under the same roof. The Jews were subject to the bailiff, but they had recourse to their rabbis in civil and religious affairs. The 1776 letter of protection limited Jewish residence in the county of Baden to Endingen and Lengnau only. From 20 households in the entire county in 1634, the number grew to 35 in 1702, 94 in 1761, 108 in 1774, and 240 in 1890.
Jews were barred from most professions and were not allowed to own property or farm the land. Some made a living peddling and cattle trading and were required to pay special taxes.
A cemetery was leased to the Jews in 1603 on a small island in the Rhine, called the Judenaeule or Judeninsel. In 1750, after the island flooded, they were allowed to acquire another cemetery (Waldfriedhof), halfway between the two villages. This is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Switzerland and final resting place for roughly 2,700 people. In the same year a permanent synagogue was dedicated in Lengnau (which had no church!), and in Endingen in 1764; both communities shared the services of a rabbi from around the same date. The synagogues were rebuilt in 1848 and 1852 respectively.
In 1798, Napoleon invaded Switzerland and the French attempted to emancipate the Jews. This contributed to an uprising against the French known as the Plum War because it took place during plum picking season. In 1802, Jews were attacked in both villages. When the French left in 1803, the Christian population rioted, plundering Jewish homes, as had already happened in 1729 and recurred in 1861. The Jews’ Law of 1809 was a retrograde move, and like the laws of 1824 (Organisationsgesetz) and 1835 (Schulgesetz) led to increased interference in the autonomy of the communities, which by then had achieved the legal status of public corporations.
One way the Christians limited the Jewish population was to levy a significant tax on their marriage licenses, which led many to emigrate. One of those who left was Simon Guggenheim, who moved to the United States in 1847. His son Meyer would later be the patriarch of the Guggenheim dynasty of mining tycoons and art philanthropists. Later émigrés included Hollywood director William Wyler, composer Ernest Bloch and painter Varlin.
The struggle for full equality continued and was successful only in 1878. The Reform movement led to sharp controversies within the communities, but the majority remained loyal to tradition. The Jewish scholars Julius Fuerst and Meyer Kayserling served as rabbis of the communities from 1854 to 1858 and 1861 to 1870 respectively. The Jewish population of Endingen and Lengnau, around 1,500 in 1850, had decreased to less than 100 by 1950, and in 1962 the combined community had only 17 members. The Swiss-Jewish Home for the Aged was established in Lengnau in 1903.
Today, only about 20 Jews, most elderly, remain in the two villages. Two large synagogues are extant, but services are only held occasionally at the one in Endingen.
In 2009, a Jewish Cultural Path was set up connecting the two villages. Visitors can take guided tours to the synagogues, cemeteries, old double-doored houses, Jewish schools, mikvehs, and the formerly kosher butcher. There is also a planned visitor center and educational program on Jewish history.
A. Weldler-Steinberg, Geschichte der Juden in der Schweiz (1966), index; F. Guggenheim-Gruenberg, Die Sprache der Schweizer Juden von Endingen und Lengnau (1950); idem, Aus einem alten Endingen Gemeindebuch (1952); idem, Die aeltesten juedischen Familien in Lengnau und Endingen (1954); idem, Der Friedhof auf der Judeninselim Rhein … (1956).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Ariel David, “Oldest Jewish Community in Switzerland Is Disappearing, but Not Without a Fight,” Haaretz, (October 14, 2018).