B The Old University
The park at Topfmarkt follows the path of the old city wall. The decorative wall that stands there today is dedicated to the Alma Mater Viadrina, Frankfurt's old university. First we can see the University crest on the wall. Then follow representations of the old Viadrina's main building, the Collegium House that used to stand on this site, and the portraits of six professors. Between the portraits there is an opening, which symbolises the entrance to education. The Collegium House was completed here in 1507, on the site of the former synagogue.
The old Viadrina emerges in 1506 as part of a second wave of university foundings in Europe. This makes it the first university in Brandenburg state. The founding is initiated by the then Brandenburg Elector Joachim I, the elector who also grants Jews privileges again, like free trade and the right of free abode.
However, as at every university in Europe at this time, only Christian students are admitted.
The university has Law, Theology, Medicine and Philosophy faculties. Through committed professors, the range of subjects in the Faculty of Philosophy expands to include 10 disciplines, including Hebraic studies.
Until 1788 there are no barriers to admission to the university, as long as one can afford a course of study. This means that many people seek to take a degree. The Elector is not pleased with this development, so he introduces a numerus clausus.
Jewish students are prohibited from entering the university at the time of its founding. But in 1613 a turnaround takes place here in Brandenburg, when the Elector Johann Sigismund joins the reformed Church. As a consequence of that, reformed professors are employed. Their new teaching ideas and methods mean Frankfurt develops to become an academic centre of German Calvinism. One goes travelling, becomes interested in foreign cultures, and becomes open to them.
Another favourable circumstance is the new settlement of a Jewish population in the Mark of Brandenburg in the mid 17th century. In 1671, Elector Friedrich Wilhelm receives 50 Jewish families from Vienna, of which 10 settle in Frankfurt.
The community is an important criterion for Jewish students. They have a favourable place to go and with the necessary learning they can find a position as a Talmud or Midrash teacher.
Medicine is the only subject at the university that is worthwhile for a Jewish student. There is hardly any perspective for Jews as academics in other subjects, except for Talmud study with a rabbi. At this time most Jews are in trade, or work as doctors.
In June 1678, Tobias and Gabriel ben Mose (also called Moschowitz) are allowed to enrol at the Alma Mater Viadrina. They are the first ever Jewish students at a German university. They do, however, still need a privilege from the Elector for this step. Their matriculation numbers are marked and some professors resist their admission. This resistance continues through their course. For some professors, they become Christianisation objects - they should be convinced to convert.
Although they complete their degrees successfully, the two students are still forbidden to undertake doctoral studies in Frankfurt, so they move to Padua in Italy. From there, Tobias ben Mose makes a career as the Sultan's personal physician in Constantinople.
The first Jewish student to gain a doctorate does so only in 1721, supported by Professor of Medicine Andreas Goelicke. Moses Salomon Gumperts gets his doctorate in Medicine but because of his Jewish faith, he has to forgo the usual ceremonies in the Marienkirche. He is also denied a teaching post.
In the entire history of the University from 1506 to 1811 there is not a single avowed Jewish professor. Aron Margalitha, Professor for Old Judaism, is christened before taking up his professorship. Christian Leberecht Felß also has to be christened before taking up employment. He had even previously worked as a rabbi.
From 1678 to 1811, at least 140 Jewish students study in Frankfurt. But there are never a large number of them there simultaneously. A large share comes form Poland. In the 73 years from 1721 to 1794 there are 29 PhDs attained in Medicine by Jewish students.
In August 1811, the Alma Mater Viadrina is moved to Breslau because of competition with the Berlin University, today the Humboldt University.
Up to 1962, the university buildings serve, among other things, as school buildings and a district court. In GDR times, many attempts to make use of the building fail. It becomes derelict and is finally demolished in 1962.
Incidentally, the portrait to the far left on the decorative wall shows Johann Christoph Beckmann, University Director and Professor of Greek Language and History, as well as Doctor of Theology. We owe to him a special part of Jewish and University history - the Hebrew printers.
Markus Göldner, student at European University Viadrina