The Jewish settlements in the Southwestern corner of France, near the Spanish frontier, are among the oldest in Europe. They were founded more than four centuries ago by Jews fleeing from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, who settled there and formed rich and prosperous communities. For some time, however, there has been a strong movement from the country and the provinces to the large towns in France, and these Jewish colonies have not been spared in the process. In many cases the communities have ceased to exist altogether, in others a few old people represent all that is left of a one-time prosperous Jewish community.
Such a town is Peyroharade, which, until comparatively recent times, contained several hundred Jewish families, and now has but one Jewish inhabitantâ€”an old lady, who cannot make up her mind to leave her old home. The Jewish colony here dates from the sixteenth century when refugees from the Inquisition accepted the hospitality of the ruling price, the Duke of Grammont. This prince, a very liberal ruler, offered the Jews a home, and as long ago as the beginning of the eighteenth century the Jews were granted full rights of citizenship and even admitted to the very exclusive guilds.
A NOBLE INTERMARRIAGE
It is interesting to note that a descendant of this prince, the Duke de Grammont, married a Jewess, Marguerite von Rothschild. The relations between the Jews and their Christian neighbors were always excellent, and in the course of a conversation the Mayor of the town smilingly told me that the Jews had left it not because of bad conditions, but because they had become too prosperous.
I saw the old records of the Jewish Community, which are a unique document of the Jewish history of that time. Among other interesting things, I discovered in them that a fine was imposed for going to sleep in the Synagogue during prayers, as also for breaches of the Kashruth laws and other Jewish regulations. Yet apparently all this did not help. Gradually the community became smaller and smaller. In 1893 the services in the old synagogue were discontinued, and a little while later the synagogue itself was sold to the town and the ritual utensils were given away to the Jewish community in Biarritz. And so one of the oldest Jewish communities in France passed out of existence.
An entirely different picture meets our eye in the neighboring town of Bayonne. Here the Jews were granted no civil rights, and had to live in a Ghetto outside the town until the French Revolution. To the present day the synagogue stands on the same site on which the original one was founded 300 years ago, and its entrance is decorated with the coat of arms which the King granted to the Jewish community in 1696. At that time the King also granted a coat of arms to a number of Jewish families, thus raising them to the minor nobility.
STILL SPEAK. PORTUGUESE
Bayonne boasts three Jewish cemeteries. To the present day the age-old custom, according to which a couple marrying buy themselves a burial site at the time of their marriage, is followed. In the synagogue the old Portuguese ritual is still followed. The old Portuguese Jews still greet each other in Portuguese, and have fine-sounding old names like Mendes da Costa, Gomez, Aliwera, and so on.
There is very little Jewish life, and there are no social institutions of any sort. True, there is a Jewish Home for the Aged, but this is largely supported by old Bayonne Jews now living in Paris. From time to time the body of an old Bayonne Jew is brought back from Paris to be buried hereâ€”not because the deceased particularly wanted to be buried in his old home, but merely because, in accordance with the old custom, the burial ground had already been bought many years before.
THE BORDEAUX COMMUNITY
Some two hours’ journey from Bayonne is Bordeaux, the economic and cultural center of this whole district. Among its 300,000 inhabitants it counts some 1600-1700 Jews. Eighty percent of these are French or Algerian Jews who have been settled here for generations, the rest are Russian or Polish. This latter group can again be divided into two groupsâ€”the older, and the newer immigrants. The former stand half way between the new immigrants and the French Jews, but the new immigrants have no contact whatsoever with the old French Jews and live their own life quite separately from the others. The French Jews, though not entirely assimilated, participate but little in Jewish affairs, though there are some immensely wealthy families among them.