Frankists – a follower’s personal experience

At the end of the eighteenth century,  during the same time Napoleon was  struggling to seize the whole of  Europe, the young Bohemian Jew  Moses Porges-Spiro was struggling to  rescue his soul from one of the most  disreputable sects of Jewish history. He  recorded the story in a Gothic German  manuscript, later translated into  English by his great-great-grandson,  Arnold Von der Porten.

The beginning of the story finds  Moses living with his ostensibly  observant Jewish family in Prague,  blissfully unaware that his home  harbored a dark secret. 

Secrets of the Zohar 
“I was born on December 22nd, 1781  [5541],” Moses begins. “My father,  Morenu Rabbi Gabriel Porges, was  very learned in Judaism, a virtuous and  righteous man… He was a pleasant,  good man and he never used corporal  punishment on his children. My  mother was a kindhearted woman. She  managed the business that supported  the family. Father paid little attention  to the business. He was a scholar and  gave lectures. The business was the  production of Rossoli [an eighteenth  century liqueur] and the sale of brandy.

As was customary in those days, I  was taught Hebrew and to translate  the Bible. In my seventh year I was  enrolled in the Israeli-German School.  I left it when I was only in my eleventh  year.”

A few peaceful years later, Moses  got the surprise of his life when he  discovered that his family was not like  other families.

“Just after my fourteenth year,” he  writes, “my father called me into his  room and asked me in a solemn way if  I believed that the Torah’s revelations  contained all that was necessary for our  salvation and eternal happiness here  and the life beyond. Until this hour I  had been quite a believing Jew… He  told me in a solemn tone: ‘There exists,  besides the Torah, a holy book, the  Zohar, which reveals to us the secrets  which are merely hinted at in the Torah  and which challenges us and directs  us towards spiritual completeness. It  directs us as to how to achieve that  goal.

“’There are many noble people who  have devoted themselves to this new  teaching. The salvation from mental  and political pressure is their aim, it is  their goal… To you, my son, everything  shall be revealed. Mr. Noe Kassowitz,  one of our own, shall instruct you.”

It turned out that the Porges-  Spiro family secretly belonged to  a Messianic sect founded decades  earlier in 5511/1751 by Jacob Frank,  who, unlike his predecessor, Shabsai  Tzvi, was an almost total ignoramus.  Surviving records of his teachings  consist largely of a hodgepodge of  simple parables and facile, ridiculous  misinterpretations of Biblical verses.

His followers were called Zoharists  as they not only abandoned normative  halachah in favor of the esoteric  kabala teachings, but also interpreted  kabala in a way that sanctioned the  most disgusting behavior.

After the excommunication of the  sect in 5516/1756, Frank and many of  his followers baptized and moved their  base to the German town of Offenbach.  By Moses’ time, Frank had died and  the lucrative business of running the  sect was taken over by his daughter  Eve, assisted by two brothers, Roch  and Josef. Although Moses yearned to  make the trip to their Machaneh Kadosh  (holy camp), as Frankists called it, due  to his father’s strained circumstances  he could not afford the 258 mile trip  from Prague to Offenbach. 

Jew Taxes 
In the end, Napoleon Bonaparte  forced his hand. Cannon fodder was  required to repulse his conquest of  Europe, and Moses was of prime  recruiting age.

“When young men were being hauled  out of their beds at night, it caused me  to hide out at an acquaintance’s house  (Salomon Brandeis),” he records. “To  escape the danger [of conscription], it  was decided after a few weeks that I  should emigrate (sic) to Germany.

Since I could not emigrate  legitimately, I was to accompany  a merchant by the name of Katz to  Teplitz. He was waiting for me in front  of the Strachower Gate. When we  arrived in Teplitz he directed me to an  old Jew from Soboten who spirited me  across the mountains along smugglers’  paths to Saxony. For this he wanted 2f.,  a ‘Species-Taler,’ which I gladly gave  him.

“There I stood on the peak of  Geiersberg [Vulture Mountain], a  seventeen year old youth, absolutely  alone, formerly accustomed to live  surrounded by loving parents and  siblings being cared for by my mother’s  gentle ways. Forsaken by everyone, I  stood surrounded by forest.”

At the beginning of his trek, Moses  had decided to spend only 3 f. on travel  expenses and retain 60 f. to hand over  to the Frankists, even at the cost of  going hungry or needing to beg. Now,  this plan threatened to go awry due to  the anti-Jew taxes of his time.

“Overnight I rested in a village and  around midday I arrived in Dresden,”  he recalls. “Upon arrival I suffered  unpleasantness and insult. I had to pay  Jew tax [for Jews traveling through the  town]. For the privilege of being born a  Jew, just about everywhere in Germany  one had to pay body duty, just like the  dear cattle. Then my backpack was  searched. The customs officer noticed  that my sleeping cap had never been  used. I had to pay duty on it and a fine.  That exhausted my small funds.”

At last, Moses arrived in Offenbach,  headquarters of the Frankist  “Machaneh.” With tears of fervor, he  entered the holy house, climbed a few  steps, and pulled the bell cord. Several  Maaminim (believers) surrounded  him, and, as is common with such sects  until our time, he was smothered with  affection and attention. Finally, the  great moment arrived when he was  permitted to have an audience with  the head lady, and privileged to kiss  her foot. Afterwards, placing the bag  containing his 60 f. prominently on a  table, he sidled backwards out the door.

Moses was assigned the privileged  position of helping serve the three sect  leaders at table, which was not only an  honor, but also included the bonus of  eating their leftovers, nothing to sneeze  at when the common herd were fed  vegetables and inferior quality soup  from a communal kitchen.

Meanwhile, the business of the sect  went on; the three sect leaders reported  their daily spiritual visions and having  them carefully committed to paper,  and followers reverently entering  the “holy room” that contained the  clothes and bed of the “Holy Father,”  Jacob Frank, to pour out their hearts in  prayer. In a token continuation of the  Frankists’ ambition of taking part in  the Messianic wars at the end of days,  the young members were drilled every  day by a Polish drill-master and trained  in the use of firearms and sabers. 

Disillusionment 
For Moses, disillusionment set in  after a few short months.  “In autumn that same year, my good  father arrived in the company of Mr.  Jonas and Mr. Aron Bur Wehli,” he  records. “I was overcome with joy to see my dear, beloved father again.

The three highly respected and learned  men were received solemnly and  ceremoniously by every one of the  Maaminim and the next morning they  were received by the high Masters.  They laid sacrificial gifts at the feet of  the Chewise [Eve], the Wehli’s in gold,  which was received most joyfully.

Both were rich people. My good father,  who was not a man of means, brought a  bolt of batiste [fine cloth].”  Soon afterwards, Moses overheard  one of the leaders, Joseph, make a  mocking remark about his father’s  modest gift and this sent his faith into  a tailspin.

“This gift brought about the  beginning of the diminishment of my  fanaticism,” he records. “In the end  I became convinced that everything  about this place was a fraud and that  several hundred well-meaning people  were taken advantage of by faked  religion, having been drawn here from  hundreds of miles around, to become  impoverished and unhappy.”

He was also shocked at the Frankist’s  propensity to deprive followers of all  their possessions.

“That same year,” he writes,  “Mr. Salom Zerkowitz arrived in  Offenbach. He had once been quite  wealthy. He brought with him quite  a fortune; however, he had to offer it  up on command. It consisted mostly  of Austrian State Papers, which I  carried to Frankfurt where I had the old  Rothschild convert them to silver. Mr.  Zerkowitz was a good, honest man. He  cried when he had to give up his last  possessions.”

Moses was not the only one to lose  his faith in the fraudulent system.
“Among the residents of my room  there was a young man from Dresden  by the name of Johan Hoffinger,”  he writes. “He befriended me at this  time and after some preparations and  sounding, he allowed me to suspect  that he did not agree with all of what  was going on, or had gone on. When  he was satisfied that I would not betray  him, he finally confided in me that he  had reached the conclusion, after long  probing and reasoning, that a fraud of  unbelievable proportions was being  perpetrated here and that the believers,  who had brought such great offerings,  could not conceive of the idea that  they were the victims of a massive  swindle. Also, that they had been  robbed of all means by which to return  to their far away homes. Through such  conversations, which we had quite  often, we finally reached the decision  to escape.”

At four a.m. one morning they  deserted their sentry duty and made  their escape.

“We leaned our muskets into a  corner and entered the courtyard with  our hearts pounding with the most  profound excitement,” he writes. “We  were exposed to the danger that the  teamster or the stable help might catch  us. From there into the garden, we  climbed over a board wall and were  free. This so-called Polish Court lay  at the outskirts of the town. We ran  towards the nearby forest.”

After a long journey, Moses made  it back to Prague where he and his  brother became the first entrepreneurs  to use steam in cotton manufacture.

Within a few years of his escape, the  Frankist enclave in Offenbach went  bankrupt and most Frankists were  absorbed among the local Catholics  and disappeared.

Moses enjoyed a better fate. Thanks  to his escape, his descendants remained  Jewish many generations afterwards,  including Jews who fled from Hitler  and resettled in the United States.

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