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The Jewish Community of Berne, Switzerland


Alternate spelling: Bern

Capital of Switzerland

The Jewish Community Berne (German: Judische Gemeinde Berne, JGB) has been the official and organizing force within Berne's Jewish community since 1848. It is located next to the Berne Synagogue at Kapellenstrasse 2. The JGB offers guided tours of the synagogue, which in addition to being open for tours also holds weekly services, on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Rabbi David Polnauer has served as the community's rabbi since 2007.

Community services include a Hebrew school, for students in grades 1-9, as well as a weekly youth group for ages 7 through 16. Social organizations include a Bikkur Holim, an Israeli Club, a sports club (Judischer Turnverein Berne, JTV), a Jewish Women's Club, WIZO, and the Association of Jewish Students (Verein Judischer Studierender Berne).

Though there are no kosher restaurants in Berne, kosher products can be found in the Loeb AG supermarket.

The Jewish cemetery, which was consecrated in 1871 and has remained functioning, is located on Papiermuhlestrasse 112. The cemetery includes a Holocaust memorial, which was erected in 1988. The cemetery is open for visitors from Sunday through Friday, and closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.


The first documented evidence of Jews in Berne dates from the 1260s. At that time most worked as moneylenders. In 1293 or 1294, following a blood libel accusation, a number of Jews were killed and the rest were expelled from the city. Shortly thereafter an agreement was made allowing the Jews to return, on the condition that they pay a fee of 1,500 marks, and that they forgive all debts owed to them.

During the Black Death epidemic (1348) the Jews of Berne were accused of poisoning the wells and a number were burned at the stake. At the end of the century, in 1392, the Jews were expelled from Berne. Although there were some Jews living in Berne between 1408 and 1427, those who subsequently arrived in the city, mostly physicians and cattle dealers, stayed only temporarily.

After the occupation of Switzerland by the French revolutionary armies and the foundation of the Helvetian republic in 1798, a number of Jews began arriving in Berne from Alsace and a number of other locations. They needed a special license in order to engage in commerce, and were also required to keep their accounts in German or French, instead of their native Alsatian Judeo-German.These restrictions were ultimately removed in 1846.

The Jewish Community of Berne (German: Judische Gemeinde Bern, JGB) was founded in 1848. A synagogue was consecrated in 1855; a cemetery followed in 1871.

Berne University, which was established in 1834, became one of the first German-speaking universities to hire Jewish lecturers without requiring them to change their professed faith; a number of Jews subsequently held academic positions in the university, including Dr. Gabriel Gustav Valentin, the first Jewish professor to be elected to a chair at a German-speaking university, and Anna Tumarkin, the university's first female professor. Albert Einstein also served as faculty in the natural sciences department. The university was attended by a number of Jewish students from Russia and Hungary before World War I; one notable alumnus was Chaim Weizmann, who would later become the first president of the State of Israel.

From 1933 until 1935 a trial was held in Berne in which evidence was submitted indicating that the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a forgery. The court ruled that the work was fiction, and the publisher was fined, only for the ruling to be thrown out in 1937 on a legal technicality.

In 1969 there were 230 families who indicated that they were members of the Jewish community of Berne (it is likely that there were more Jews in the city who did not affiliate with the established community).
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Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
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Ernst Kurth (1886-1946) Musicologist. Born in Vienna, Austria, he studied there and from 1912 taught at the University of Bern. He is the author of Foundations of Linear Counterpoint: Bach’s Melodic Polyphony (1917), which stimulated the study of Bach’s music and the teaching of counterpoint. Kurth also wrote Romantic Harmony and its Crisis in Wagner’s Tristan (1920), which surveys romantic harmony until Debussy. He wrote the biographical study “Bruckner” (1925) and the book Psychology and Music (1931). He died in Berne, Switzerland.

Selma Brunschwig Guggenhein (1885-1977)
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Baschwitz, Hermann (1811-1867), physician, born in Frankfurt on the Oder, Germany (then part of Prussia), great grandson of printer Meyer Hirsch Baschwitz (1715-1784). Hermann was determined to become a doctor. He graduated from the university of Halle, Germany, in 1834 and went on to specialize in aspects of surgery and gynecology in Berlin. It appears that some of his university friends had radical ideas, much to the dislike of the conservative authorities of the country; his friends and he together with them were noticed by the police. To avoid arrest, Baschwitz was obliged to flee Prussia.

He went to Switzerland and, in order to practice medicine there was obliged to requalify by passing medical examinations in Berne in 1838. He started to work as a doctor in the village of Villeret in Berne Canton. He was clearly a well-liked and devoted doctor. When a local woodcutter was injured and accused Dr Baschwitz of indifference to his wounds, 33 villagers came to his defence and signed a letter denying the allegations as vicious calumnies. In 1841 he was officially admitted to the medical association of Berne, Switzerland. In 1844 he accepted an appointment in the village of St Immer near Biel in the Canton of Neuchatel. He devoted himself to his new homeland. In 1845 he was elected to be a full member of the Swiss medical association and he volunteered to serve as a reserve doctor in the Swiss army.

In 1846, having left Frankfurt over ten years before, he discovered that his Prussian nationality had been forfeit. His request to have his nationality reinstated to enable him to return home in order to visit his ageing parents was rejected. For the next three years the now stateless Baschwitz tried to acquire Swiss nationality or at least permission to live there on a permanent basis. He found himself caught in a bureaucratic nightmare; his requests were constantly rejected. He was rejected because his Prussian visa had expired and the Prussian authorities (who had cancelled his citizenship) were not ready to assist in its renewal. He was rejected because his Swiss residence permit had expired. In 1850 he was rejected because he was Jewish and the residents of Locle where he now lived didn’t want a Jew in their village. Finally Baschwitz’s luck changed. In December 1851 he was given a temporary right of residence in Locle for nine months on condition that he guaranteed his good behavior by a signing over a substantial bank deposit. This temporary permit was renewable. Baschwitz renewed his voluntary service with the Swiss military. In 1854, regarded as a very respectable citizen with influential friends, he was elected member of the Swiss Freemasons Lodge of Alpina. Then in 1855 the Prussian government decided to reinstate his citizenship. He returned home, was reunited with his family and married a distant cousin, Ida Baswitz, 24 years young than himself. The couple had no children.
Hisin, Haim (1865-1932), Eretz Israel pioneer, born in Mir, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire). After the 1881 pogroms and the 1882 anti-Semitic laws he decided to join the Bilu movement, the foreunner of the kibbutz movement, to establish agricultural settlements in Eretz Israel. He worked in Mikveh Yisrael and Rishon le Zion and helped to establish the settlement at Gederah. For some time he worked as a coachman carrying passengers between Jaffa and Jerusalem. In 1887 he returned to Russia where he studied pharmacology. In 1898 he went to Berne in Swizterland where he studied medicine.

Hisin helped to propagate Zionism amongst Russian Jewish students in Europe and took part in the first Zionist congresses. In 1905 he returned to Eretz Israel as a medical doctor and became the representative of the Odessa committee of Hovevei Zion in Jaffa. He helped to found the settlements of Beer Yaacov an Kfar Malal. In 1909 he was one of the founders of Achuzat Bait, the first area of the settlement which was to become Tel Aviv. He died in Tel Aviv.

Born in Erdobenye, he studied philosophy at Halle and was ordained rabbi at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. He taught at Zurich from 1886 to 1891 and was then professor at Berne, where he edited a number of leading philosophical journals. Stein wrote on philosophy and sociology; he was a cultural and political optimist, opposing the pessimism of Spengler and Nietzsche. One of his last books, based on lectures given in the US, was entitled Evolution and Optimism.

Josef Jadassohn (1963-1936) Dermatologist. Born in Liegnitz, he studied in Breslau and from 1896 was professor and director of the dermatological clinic at the University of Berne, Switzerland. From 1917 to 1931 Jadassohn was professor of dermatology at the University of Breslau. He was famous for his work on skin and venereal diseases. A skin disease that he was the first to identify is known as "Jadassohn's disease".

David Frankfurter (1909–1982), student of medicine who shot a Nazi official in protest against the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime. Frankfurter was born in Daruvar, Croatia (then part of the Austria-Hungary). His father was rabbi in Daruvar and later the chief rabbi in Vinkovci. The Frankfurter family moved to Vinkovci in 1914. He graduated from elementary and secondary school, and in 1929 began to study medicine. His father sent him to Germany to study dentistry, first in Leipzig and then, in 1931, to Frankfurt am Main. In the course of his studies he witnessed the Nazi advent to power and the initiation of anti-Jewish measures. He was obliged to leave Germany and so continued his studies in Switzerland, settling in Bern in 1934.

The Nazi movement began to gain ground among the Germans and German speaking Swiss. Convinced of the danger, Frankfurter kept an eye on Wilhelm Gustloff, who as head of the Foreign Section of the Swiss Nazi party (NSDAP), had ordered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be published in Switzerland. In 1936, unable to endure further the torrent of insults, humiliations and attacks on the Jewish people even in neutral Switzerland, Frankfurter bought a gun. On 4th February 1936 he went to Gustloff's home, now head of the Nazi party in Switzerland. When Gustloff, who was in the adjoining room, entered his office where Frankfurter was sitting opposite a picture of Hitler, Frankfurter presented himself as a Jew and then shot him five times in the head, neck and chest; he left the premises, went into the next house and asked to use the telephone. He rang the police and confessed to the murder. He then went to the police station and calmly told the police what had happened.

Gustloff was made a Blutzeuge/Martyr of the Nazi cause and his assassination later became part of the official propaganda.Although the assassination was well-received by the largely anti-Nazi population of the country, the Swiss government prosecuted the case strictly owing to concerns about its status of neutrality. Frankfurter was convicted and sentenced to an eighteen-year prison term. At the end of World War II, having served 9 years of his sentence, he applied for a pardon on February 27, 1945 which was granted on June 1, on condition that he left the country and paid court costs.

He settled in Israel and published a book about his experience, Nakam ("Vengeance", 1948). In 1969 the banishment order was rescinded and Frankfurter visited Switzerland. In Israel he worked for the Ministry of Defence and later as an officer in the Israeli army.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), mathematical physicist, born in Ulm, Germany, he grew up in Munich where his father and uncle had an electrochemical plant. His scientific interests were awakened early and he studied physics and mathematics at the Zurich Polytechnic.

In 1901 he took on a junior appointment at the patent office in Berne - and while there lay the foundations for 20th century physics. In 1905 he published three important discoveries including the special theory of relativity.

From 1914 Einstein directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin. In 1916 he produced the general theory of relativity. Its significance was at first contentious and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1922 it was for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.

Einstein was involved in humanistic causes, notably Zionism and pacifism and took an active interest in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The object of anti-Semitic attacks, he left Germany when the Nazis came to power and renounced his former pacifist stand. He moved to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, N.J., where he remained the rest of his life.

Einstein helped to inaugurate the US program that culminated in the atomic bomb because he feared Germany might get it first but after the war he was outspoken in the need to abolish war.

When Chaim Weizmann died in 1952, David Ben-Gurion proposed that Einstein be elected President of Israel but Einstein declined the honor. He has been acclaimed as one of the outstanding and most influential intellects of the modern world.