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350px-Black_DeathThe entire Jewish population of Basel, Switzerland, six hundred or more — with the exception of a few children who were forcibly converted — were herded into a building on an island on the Rhine and burned to death on this date in 1349. Jews were held responsible for the Black Death — the plague — that was devastating parts of Europe, ultimately killing an estimated third of the population. They were accused by local church leaders of poisoning village and city water wells, and were tortured to confess. Over sixty large and 150 small Jewish communities were destroyed in pogroms stirred by these accusations, including in Cologne, Strasbourg, Worms, and Zurich. In Basel, a decree of expulsion followed the mass execution, but within twelve years, once the plague abated, Jews once again were living there.

“[I]t was alleged that Jews were suffering and dying from the Black Plague at a much lower rate than Christians. It is not clear if this was actually true, but there are several theories explaining the apparent phenomenon. One theory suggests that Jews buried their dead much more quickly than Christians and in separate cemeteries, thus making their deaths less visible. Another theory speculates that Passover was responsible for saving a great portion of the Jewish population. According to Dr. Martin Blaser, as reported by the New York Times, the clearing of hametz (leavened bread) from homes ahead of Passover deprived rats of food and shelter, helping to stymie the disease’s spread. He adds that the plague peaked in the spring, around the time that Passover would have fallen.” —Jerusalem Post