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The Uncivil Servant: The Mystery of Jew Süss

Mitchell Abidor
July 7, 2017

Discussed in this essay: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker. Princeton University Press, 2017, 330 pages.

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer’s name, as the court Jew of the Duke of Wurttemberg Carl Alexander who was executed in 1738, achieved immortality in 1940 as the subject for the Nazi anti-Semitic film Jud Süss. The fabulously wealthy and influential financier became, in the hands of director and screenwriter Veit Harlan, the Everyjew of Nazi fantasy: a rapacious money-grubber, a libertine and rapist, dedicated to lining his own pockets, bedding non-Jewish women, and filling Stuttgart with his Jewish brethren.

Jud Süss, a film far more talked about than seen (though it can be found on YouTube in mediocre prints), is very much like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation -- not for its cinematic qualities, which are vastly inferior to the Griffith masterpiece, but in its use of actual, verifiable historical facts that it pushes to a point at which they leave the realm of reality to enter that of racist fantasy. It is not surprising that in both cases, the ultimate fantasy and crime revolve around the Other’s unbridled sexuality.

In the Harlan film, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, is a lubricious monster. He is reproached throughout the film for his excessive influence over the duke he serves, his financial peculations, and his enriching himself at the public expense. Interestingly enough, as we learn in Yair Mintzker’s thoroughly researched, enlightening, and compulsively readable The Many Deaths of Jew Süss, Oppenheimer was, indeed, accused of these offenses and considered to have committed treason because of “false council and his attacks against the laws of the land.” Harlan, following Goebbels’ command upon commissioning the film, did ground it to some extent in reality: Oppenheimer was truly accused of embezzlement, private usury, adultery, and the debasement of the coins in the mint.

But to what extent was this the real Jew Süss? And can we even know who Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was?

Mintzker insists that despite the abundance of documentation on Süss, over a hundred boxes of them in archives in Stuttgart, “few had reason to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his case.” Going further, he says that “[t]he inquisition committee assigned to the case lacked direct evidence against its Jewish prisoner, but wishing to make an example of him anyway, it left no stone unturned, no person unquestioned, and no fact in its right place in pursuit of its purpose.” Oppenheimer, thus, was largely unknown; what we know of him a reflection of what others said about him, not what he himself had to say about himself.

MINTZKER’S SOLUTION to this problem is an attempt at what he calls historical polyphony. Saying that “none of the available sources can be trusted,” he sets himself a goal: “Who were the people who wrote about the events of Oppenheimer’s case? Why did they write, when, and for whom? What did these writers include in their stories, what did they exclude, and what cultural code guided them in making these decisions?” So he closely examines the lives and productions of four players in the tale: Philipp Friedrich Jäger, the judge sitting on the inquisition committee that would establish the case against Oppenheimer; the converted Jew Christoph David Bernard, who visited Oppenheimer in prison; Mordechai Schloss, a Jew who memorialized Oppenheimer as a righteous man; and David Fassmann, a specialist in the genre of dialogues of the dead, who produced two skillful fictional accounts of Oppenheimer in the land of the dead. The result is a fascinating portrait of elements of early modern German society, but one in which the main player, Jew Süss is, as the author says, “bracketed.”

There are many lacunae in the abundant records of the case. Though Oppenheimer was arrested on the same day that his duke died (though not at the very minute, as occurs in the film), why he was arrested, what factions at court opposed him, remain unknown, and the investigation stumbled along for its first few days, as even the investigators were unaware of the charges against the court Jew. As Mintzberg points out, the most salacious elements of the case against the court Jew, his “assisting in bringing other Jews to settle in Wurttemberg . . . and his sexual relations with women,” those that Harlan would seize on, came up very late in the investigation of his crimes. And Mintzker adds, “Very tellingly, [the investigators] never used classical blood-libel accusations against Oppenheimer, such as ritual killing or host desecration.”

This would not prevent Fassmann, in the second of the two dialogues of the dead he wrote about Oppenheimer, from stressing the Jewish angle of the case. As Mintzker tells us, “Oppenheimer’s story is no longer just another instance of a courtly rise-and-fall drama . . . Oppenheimer possesses inherent and unshakeable Jewish traits. He has a particularly ‘Jewish physiognomy’; like all Jews he was taught from early childhood ‘to lie, cheat, and steal’; and ‘a Jew, even if he is ennobled, remains always and everywhere a Jew.’”

Oppenheimer’s Jewishness was itself a subject of contention. The converted Jew Christoph David Bernard was sent to visit the prisoner in an effort to convert him. Oppenheimer, upon seeing the apostate enter his cell, immediately told him, “The gentleman should know that I have resolved to die as a Jew.” And then he cried out with a shrieking voice: ‘Shema Yisroel, Odonoi Elohenu, Odonoi Echod, Odonoi Hu Elohim, Odonoi Hu Elohim, Odonoi Hu Elohim.’ These last words he repeated seven times with such a loud voice that I feared I would faint.” Oppenheimer did not live a particularly Jewish life; he was not tried for being a Jew; but in his final months decided he would die as a Jew, assuming the role society had assigned him.

WHAT IS CLEAR from The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is actually quite shocking: that the archetypal tale of the Jew who flies too high, long accepted as a metaphor for German Jewry, does not really meet the facts with Oppenheimer, who was an early, martyred avatar of the thousands who would meet his fate two centuries later.

Mintzker tells us at length of the case of Christina Wilhelmina von Gräbenitz, a non-Jewish woman of Stuttgart accused of much of the same financial chicanery and influence peddling as Oppenheimer. She escaped with her life, so it was possible to escape with your life from such accusations. Even so, it’s a leap to conclude that Oppenheimer was executed for being a Jew. It was not Oppenheimer as Jew who was hung and whose remains were left to rot in a cage in a public square; it was Oppenheimer the financier.

I wrote to Professor Mintzker to find out if there were any cases similar to those of Jew Süss, and he wrote back that “[i]n the early modern period, there were close to 2,000 court Jews in Germany alone. In only one other case I know of, an accusation against one of them ended too in an execution (Lippold ben Chluchim, died 1573). The fall of a prince’s top advisor, on the other hand, is a very old story. Think of Haman the Agagite, Thomas Becket, or even Michael Flynn for that matter.” So the fact of a Jew holding the purse strings was neither all that rare or dangerous.

Jews played a role in Oppenheimer’s trial, providing testimony in support of the prosecution case. Though this contributed to his downfall, Mintzker is likely correct in downplaying it: intra-Jewish backstabbing is nothing new, and among the wealthy Jews, as among the wealthy of any background, one can assume jealousy played no small part in this betrayal of a fellow Jew. Even more, if antisemitism was the dominant mode and mood, it would have been suicidal for even the most selfish of wealthy Jews to add to the poisoned mix. That these Jews did so also shows that, for the Jews involved in the case, there was nothing necessarily Jewish about it: these were capitalists looking to hamstring and harm another capitalist, not necessarily Jews looking to harm another Jew.

Unlike Harlan’s film, in which there is a literal dead body that can be attributed to Jew Süss’s actions -- that of the “Aryan” woman he raped and who has drowned herself -- there is no such corpus delecti in The Many Deaths of Jew Süss to help decide one way or another (let it be said that Oppenheimer did have a non-Jewish mistress, with whom he had a child).

Mintzker is too scrupulous a historian to come down on one side or the other of the case, but reading the various accounts, and given Oppenheimer’s rapid rise from poverty to a fabulous home and a prominent role, there is reason to at least suspect that Oppenheimer was less than honest in his financial dealings.

As Mintzker writes in his afterword, in his critique of historical method: “Between the Scylla of false omniscience and the Charybdis of ‘post-truth’ relativism lies a whole world of possibilities.” If there are no definitive answers in The Many Deaths of Jew Süss, it’s because even 100 boxes of documents could not contain the man and his life. Joseph Süss Oppenheimer remains a mystery, one into whom many have read what best suits their case. It is all to Yair Mintzker’s credit that he accepts that mystery can lie unresolved even in massive case records.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.