A Jew of three emperors

This lion has been already cited twice by us, when writing about double-tailed animals. First, many years ago, when we were looking for the pedigree of the double-tailed dogs discovered in Mallorca, and then recently, when we measured the lands of the double-tailed lion. Now the time has come to speak about it in its own right.

This lion decorates the most beautiful headstone of the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. Not one lion, but two, one at each end of the sarcophagus, which includes four tails all in all. They protect the tomb from both sides, or rather display in both direction the coat of arms indicating the rank of the deceased.

This pose of the lions and their double tail is really quite unusual in a Jewish cemetery. We have already mentioned that the lion on Jewish tombstones mostly refers to the tribe of Judah or those of Davidic descent, or the name of the deceased as Judah, Aryeh, Leb or Löw. Sometimes it supports, 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 such a thing –, nor is it ever double-tailed, which has served as the heraldic device of Czech kings, ever since Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1158 bestowed it, together with the title of king, upon the Czech prince Wladislaw II, for having supported his Milan campaign. And indeed, this tomb is so unusual, and so extremely rich, that already in the 18th century there was a legend about it, saying that a Jewish king from Poland (!) was buried here. However, the tomb does not belong neither to any king, nor to any man, but – as we read in the moving verses of the epitaph, translated by Rachel Greenblatt – to a woman, one 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 hurried to [perform] a lesser commandment as much as 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 man 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 a boom in international trade in the wake of the great geographical discoveries, and an army which, on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, had become increasingly costly, requiring more and more mercenaries and equipment, the rulers were ever in need of more cash. And one could legally turn for cash only to the Jews, who were not subject to the church ban on lending at interest. Therefore, in many royal courts they gave a standing order to an influential Jewish banker for financial management, producing cash, and the acquisition of various goods, which was in turn recompensed with 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 this office, which he held to 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 with 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, supporting the coat of arms of a nobleman.

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 arrangement: the nobleman’s coat of arms is held up 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, in which Bohemia was subdued, Ferdinand II urgently needed even more cash than usual, to pay his soldiers and to continue the war, which was destined to last thirty years. Therefore, in 1622, he rented out the imperial coinage monopoly for a yearly six million guilders of cash to a consortium formed for this purpose. The two financial experts of the consortium were Jacob Bassevi, and the Dutch banker Hans de Witte, living in Prague, and the three 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 commissary Franz von Dietrichstein – the builder of the castle of Nikolsburg –, and the imperial commander-in-chief Albrecht von Wallenstein. The consortium also involved ten aditional 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 on buying silver – and the value of the silver coins issued was the consortium’s profit. The greater the profit, the more silver was bought and then issued. Therefore, Jacob Bassevi organized an extremely effective acquisition network of small Jewish traders around the empire, who were also provided with state-certified scales. The name of these tilting sales – Wipperwaagen – gave the 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 profit would also have risen more slowly. Therefore, Bassevi and Witte proposed a third way, by reducing the silver content of the coins. The idea found favor, and as the price of silver increased, so they decreased its proportion in the coins – all the way down to 13% of the original content.

The consortium members made incredible gains – Bassevi, 2 million 300 thousand guilders; Witte, 18 million 500 thousand –, while inflation and dissatisfaction grew throughout the empire. The following flyer came out against “the Jewish counterfeiters” and is almost a true likeness of Jacob Bassevi, vacillating between Justice and Avarice, while the avenging divine justice is already hanging over his head. The flyer entitled “The epitaph for 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 in the empty spaces after June 1623.

As long as Karl von Liechtenstein, the plenipotentiary Bohemian 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 an arrest warrant against the authors of the scheme. In 1631, Bassevi and 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 the assassination of Wallenstein, suspected of treason, the road ended for them as well. Witte committed suicide, 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 the 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 victim to the demolitions of 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 renovation fever. Today the palace quarter around the Parížská-Široká axis stands in its place. The small island, consisting of the old cemetery and the few buildings standing next to it – which is today used to create the illusion of “the Jewish heritage” for tourists – are only the tip of an iceberg, or rather of a submerged continent.

The map below shows that the eclectic block of flats at number XIV was built exactly on the location of the Great Yard, which had been created by 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 marked the map with little black arrows indicating the points of view of the photos which I was able to collect depicting the conditions before and during the demolition. As the news of the demolition – just like in other cities – attracted a lot of curious photographers to the quarter, a large trove of photographic material has survived, on the basis of which I soon want to present the entire lost 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 flats was destroyed during the Prague uprising, senselessly unleashed three days before the end of the Second World War. A number of plans were proposed to erect new buildings in its place, but none of them were realized. Now an anonymous square is here, with parking lots, and with the underground garage of the Brutalist-style Hotel Intercontinental.

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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 Lesser 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. On the following map, the double palace bears the cadastral numbers 73 and 74.

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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, too, was dismantled at the turn of the century. Only the Bassevi coat of arms, depicted above, was transferred to the museum of Prague, but as we have seen, this has also since disappeared.

However, the demolished palace did not disappear without a trace. Besides the few photos above, something else 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 the urban planners – 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 of 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 change it much. 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, what the lost palace of Jacob Bassevi was like, home of the most powerful Jew who ever lived in Prague.

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