This lion decorates the most beautiful headstone of the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. Not one lion, but two, at both ends of the sarcophagus, which involves four tails all in all. They protect the tomb from both sides, or rather show in both direction the coat of arms indicating the rank of the deceased.
This pose of the lions and their double tail is absolutely unusual in a Jewish cemetery. We have already mentioned, that the lion on the Jewish tombstones mostly refers to the tribe of Judah or the Davidic descent, or the name Judah, Aryeh, Leb or Löw of the deceased. Sometimes it holds, together with a fellow lion, the crown of the Torah, which symbolizes the protection of the faith. But it never holds a nobleman’s coat of arms – as a Jew could never have anything like this –, nor is it ever double-tailed, which has been the heraldic animal of Czech kings, since Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1558 bestowed it, together with the king’s title, upon the Czech prince II. Wladislaw, for having supported his Milan campaign. And indeed, this tomb is so unusual, and so extremely rich, that already in the 18th century the legend went about it, that a Jewish king from Poland (!) was buried here. However, the tomb does not belong to any king, neither of any man, but – as we read in the moving epitaphs in verse, translated by Rachel Greenblatt – to a woman. To Hendl Bassevi, the wife of Jacob Bassevi, who died in 1628.
“Jacob erected a monument in bitterness [Gen 35:20]: / And all the people wailed a lament: / For the respected gentlewoman: / Who is buried and concealed here: / Gone is her splendour, gone is her glory: / The voice of the multitudes in the faithful city [saying]: / Let us search and examine our ways.
Where is the pious one, where is she who typified humility: / In piety, in modesty, in holiness, and in purity: / Her exit [from this world] did not differ from her entry: / She ran to [perform] a lesser commandment as to a weighty one: / And she became the foundation stone: / To the afternoon service as to the morning she hastened: / And her heart was [directed] faithfully to God: / In fear, in awe, in clear language: / Following the order and the law according to Rabbi Hamnuna: / To the candle of commandment and the Torah of light: / She stretched out her arm and held tightly with her right [hand]”
Jacob Bassevi – Yaʻakov Bat-Sheba, Jakob Schmiles (1570-1634) –, born in Verona, was a young men when he came to Prague, where in 1601 he became the Hofjude, court Jew of Emperor Rudolf II. This position began to be institutionalized in the princely courts of Europe more or less around that time. Due to the boom of international trade in the wake of the great geographical discoveries, and the army which, on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, became increasingly costly, requiring more and more mecenaries and equipment, the rulers were more and more in need of cash. And one could legally turn for cash only to the Jews, who were not subject to the church ban on loaning at interest. Therefore, in many royal courts they gave a standing order to an influential Jewish banker for finance management, producing cash, and acquisition of various goods, which was then recompensed by a wide range of privileges and business opportunities. In the court of Prague, the first Jew to obtain this title from Emperor Rudolph was Mordechai Maisel (1528-1601), the charismatic superior of the local Jewish community. After his death, he was succeeded by Jacob Bassevi in his office, which he held for the satisfaction of three consecutive emperors – Rudolph (1576-1612), Matthias (1612-1619) and Ferdinand II (1619-1637) – for more than thirty years. The latter appreciated his services so much, that he elevated him at the rank of nobility, for the first time among all Jews in the Hapsburg Empire. He received the title “von Trautenberg”, with a coat of arms decorated by three eight-pointed (!) stars, as we see in the 19th-c. chalk drawing above. This explains why, at the peak of his glory and riches, he decorated the tomb of his wife, the most prestigious tombstone in the cemetery of Prague, with double-tailed Czech royal lions, holding a nobleman’s coat of arms.
Jacob Bassevi von Trautenberg’s coat of arms from his former palace in Prague (photo, 1896). The palace was demolished at the turn of the century, together with most of the old Jewish quarter, and the coat of arms was transferred to the museum of Prague, from where it disappeared. Note the interesting constellation: the nobleman’s coat of arms is held by two typical lions of Judah, like the crown of the Torah on Jewish tombstones.
But glory and riches are fleeting, and man is like grass. Jacob Bassevi is subsequently remembered by history as the greatest financial adventurer of the Hapsburg empire, the perpetrator of the first “global financial crisis” of the early modern age, in which eventually he himself fell.
After the Battle of White Mountain subduing Bohemia, Ferdinand II urgently needed even more cash than usual, to pay his soldiers and to continue the war, which was proved to last thirty years. Therefore, in 1622, he rented out the imperial coinage monopoly for yearly six million guilders of cash to a consortium formed for this purpose. The two financial expert members of the consortium were Jacob Bassevi, and the Dutch banker Hans de Witte living in Prague, and the thre dignities, who provided the undertaking with the appearance of integrity and political protection, were the Bohemian viceroy, Karl von Liechtenstein, the Moravian archbishop and imperial commisary Franz von Dietrichstein – the builder of the castle of Nikolsburg –, and the imperial commander-in-chief Albrecht von Wallenstein. The consortium also involved ten further silent partners, all impeccable gentlemen, who provided the capital, and who were not officially included in the contract. The formula was simple: the difference between the price of raw silver – which was kept low by virtue of the consortium’s monopoly of buying silver – and the value of the silver coins issued was the consortium’s benefit. The greater benefit, the more silver was bought and then issued. Therefore, Jacob Bassevi organized an extremely effective acquirer network of Jewish small traders around the empire, who were also provided with state-certified scales. The name of these tilting sales – Wipperwaagen – gave name to the great financial crisis of the time: Kipper- und Wipperzeit – and the German nickname for the counterfeiter: Kipper und Wipper.
In fact, the consortium, in an effort to maximize profits, so effectively siphoned silver from the whole empire, from Bohemia through Lower Austria to Hungary, that the price of silver began to sharply rise, which threatened the profitability of the undertaking. They could have reduced the price of silver by slowing down the acquisition, but then the benefit would have flown also slower. Therefore, Bassevi and Witte proposed a third way of reducing the silver content of the coins. The idea found favor, and as the price of silver increased, so decreased its proportion in the coins – all the way down to 13% of the original content.
The consortium members gained incredible amounts – Bassevi 2 million 300 thousand guilders, Witte 18 million 500 thousand –, while inflation and dissatisfaction grew throughout the empire. The following flyer issued against “the Jewish counterfeiters” is almost a true likeness of Jacob Bassevi, vacillating between Justice and Avarice, while the revenging divine justice is already hanging over his head. The flyer entitled “The epitaph of the good money” also represents the Christian accomplice with the Jewish money-changer. And the page “The laughing and crying money” soberly lists the rate of inflation from month to month, leaving to the reader to fill the empty rubrics after June 1623.
As long as Karl von Liechtenstein, the plenipotentiary Czech viceroy lived, no one dared to mess with the consortium, not even the emperor, for whom the fixed cash income was all-important in wartime. However, after the death of Prince Liechtenstein, when even his own soldiers did not accept the worthless money, he issued arrest warrant against the intellectual authors. In 1631, Bassevi and de Witte fled to the Jičín castle of Albrecht von Wallenstein, where they found protection for a while. But in February 1634, when Ferdinand II caused to assassinate Wallenstein, a suspected traitor, the road ended for them as well. De Witte committed suicid, and Bassevi died in Jungbunzlau / Mladá Boleslav while trying to escape. His grave still stands there, in the local Jewish cemetery.
The court Jews were usually superiors of their communities, who also used their influence to bring prosperity in the Jewish quarter. Mordechai Maisel managed to obtain many privileges for them, and his constructions basically defined the Jewish quarter for the centuries to come. He built the Jewish council house, the High Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue in the street named after him, he paved all the roads of the quarter, built a hospital for the poor, and designated the present boundaries of the cemetery. And although the majority of the Jewish quarter became a victim of demolitions in the early 20th century, his foundations still stand today.
Jacob Bassevi was also a generous patron of the arts. The buildings erected by him, however, all came to a fate as tragic as his personal one.
His most important foundation was the extension of the Jewish quarter. In Prague, Jews were forbidden to live outside the ghetto, but space within it became increasingly scarce. After the Battle of White Mountain, Bassevi bought from the Treasury the plots to the north of the walls of the Jewish quarter, which had been seized from the rebels, and attached them to the ghetto. Here, in the Great Yard flanked by Rabbi Street and Gypsy Street – which in the following map bears the name Masařská, Butcher Street – he built the largest synagogue of Prague.
This map is part of the urban plan of 1896, which marks in yellow the medieval blocks to be destroyed, and in red the line of the streets to be newly created. The full map shows, that almost all the Jewish quarter, with its centuries-old crooked streets, houses, synagogues and all its history fell victim to the renovation fever. Today the palace quarter around the Parížská-Široká axis stands in its place. The small island, which is today used to illude the tourists as “the Jewish heritage” – the old cemetery and the few buildings standing next to it – are only the tip of the iceberg, or rather of a submerged continent.
The map below shows, that the eclectic block of flats number XIV was built exactly in the place of the Great Yard, created with the extension of the ghetto, and of the Great Yard – Großhöfische/Velkodvorská – Synagogue. The synagogue was pulled down after the other houses, on 20 May 1906. I have put on the map with little black arrows, indicating the points of view, the photos which I was able to collect on the conditions before and after the demolition. As the news of the demolition – just like in other cities – attracted a lot of curious photographers to the quarter, a large photographic material survived, on the basis of which I soon want to present the entire disappeared Jewish quarter of Prague in the same way.
The second map shows today’s state of the block and the surrounding area. The eclectic block of flat was destroyed during the Prague uprising, senselessly unleashed three days before the end of the Second World War. A number of plans have been proposed to its building up, but none of them were realized. Now an anonymous square is in its place, with parking lots, and with the underground garage of the Brutalist-style Hotel Intercontinental.
The pre-war block of flats, destroyed in the May 1945 uprising, in the place of the Great Yard Synagogue. Today its northern part is occupied by Hotel Intercontinental.
The name of Jacob Bassevi was linked for centuries also to another magnificent building: the Renaissance Bassevi Palace, the most splendid palace in the Jewish quarter, which, according to the literature, was just as important, as the Wallenstein Palace on the Small Side of Prague. It stood roughly at the intersection of today’s Parížská and Kostečná streets, in the southernmost block of the Jewish quarter, whose southern façade looks at the Old Town Square. In the following map, the double palace bears the cadastral numbers 73 and 74.
Bassevi’s debts compelled his sons to sell the palace in 1685, which passed through many hands over the next three hundred years, until it was also dismantled at the turn of the century. Only the above shown Bassevi coat of arms was transferred to the museum of Prague, but as we have seen, this has since also disappeared.
However, the demolished palace did not disappear without a trace. Besides the few photos above, something else too recalls it in the old town. If we go a few streets away from the river, to the maze of the small medieval streets beyond Koží Street, which urban planning – as the map above shows – also wanted to destroy, but the First World War left no time and money for it, we unexpectedly find a little Renaissance palace at Dlouhá Street 37 (cadastral number 729). The palace to the Green Tree was built roughly at the same time as the Bassevi Palace, in 1608, and the interventions of 1648 and 1927 did not changed much over it. Time has stopped under the Renaissance arcades of the little courtyard. If you go through the deep entrance arch, and stop in the middle of the courtyard, you can vividly imagine, how was the disappeared palace of Jacob Bassevi like, the most powerful Jew who ever lived in Prague.