On a Friday afternoon, November 22, 1619, a seemingly trivial event occurred. A messenger carrying fifty-four letters from the Ghetto of Prague to the Ghetto of Vienna was detained on the Austrian border and his consignment confiscated. The letters were held back by the Austrian censor and then dispatched to the Archives of the Imperial Court where they have remained ever since.
The detained letters have become a historical treasure and reveal remarkable insights into the lives of the Jews in the ghettoes of early seventeenth century Prague and Vienna. Thus, the seemingly trivial event that occurred three hundred eighty-three years ago turned into an extraordinary historical episode.
What is the story behind the bundle of letters? The two prominent Jewish centers in Europe, one in Prague in the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the other in Vienna in the Austrian Empire, maintained close contact – a number of Prague Jews had businesses in Vienna and Jews from Vienna as a rule sent their sons to study at the Yeshiva of Prague, generating an intensive correspondence.
The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 disrupted official correspondence. Communication between the two ghettoes, however, continued through the clever device of a Prague Jew with business in Vienna, Lob Sarel Gutmans, who hired a messenger to carry the letters of Viennese Jews to his wife in Prague who distributed them and then collected their replies.
As the war was raging on that fateful Friday in 1619, the suspicious Austrian border police held up the package of return mail. Worried Jewish parents, wives, business associates had no way of relieving their anxiety because the replies to their letters never came: they arrived instead into the hands of twenty-first century Jewish historians doing research at the Imperial Archives.
Most of the letters are written by women, revealing the incredible tale of their lives in the Ghetto of Prague. Centuries melt away as one reads mothers’ bits of advice to their daughters married to Viennese businessmen, wives inquiring about the health of their husbands engaged in commerce in Vienna, friends chatting about their daily joys and worries, sisters exchanging little confidences. One can hear echoes of concern about daily fears for life and liberty, the danger of war and fear of an epidemic that had broken out in Vienna, riots against Jews in Prague and imprisonment of innocent Jews for ransom. And yet, in the midst of it all, the Jewish women of Prague managed to retain a mundane yet vital interest in their physical appearance.
The following was written by Freidel Hammerschlag of Prague to Mirel Auerbach of Vienna: “My dear relative and good friend, I let you know that I discharged your commission well, and ordered the coat to be made for you in the best and finest fashion possible in the world. Lining 10 ells double damask, 2 ½ scores for laces, 2 scores for linen cloth, 2 for velvet, 1 score for silk, wages for the tailor 2 scores. Therefore, do not forget to send more money so that I can give it to Abner son of Henoch Schik of blessed memory, that he may buy a beautiful smooth otter fur in Poland; I think if you send me forty gulden more, I will have money for everything. I will buy everything as economically as it were my own. I could buy otter fur here but it is dyed. And I want to have it made from the finest fur. Write me through whom should I send it to you. And so, blessing of the Almighty to you, from your good friend Freidel, daughter of the excellent and learned Israel Hammerschlag.”Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson