Oppenheimer – Shmuel saves Europe from Turkish invasion

Shmuel Oppenheimer was a Hofjude (court Jew) who turned everything he touched into gold. This is the only reason he was tolerated by Jew-hating Leopold I of Austria, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

For centuries, the Vienna kehillah had flourished. Filled with Torah, wisdom, wealth and honor, it was led by gedolim, including Rav Yom Tov Lippman Heller, author of the Tosfos Yom Tov, and Rav Shabsai Sheftel Horowitz, son of the Shelah, who added the commentary, Vavei HaAmudim, to his father’s work. Tragedy hit during the reign of Vienna’s last rav, Rav Gershon Ashkenazi, author of Avodas HaGershuni. The Viennese of those times lost no love over Jews, and trade-guilds had been demanding their expulsion for decades. Then came joy followed by sorrow. Empress Margareta Theresa, daughter of the king of Spain, produced an heir for her royal husband only to mourn his death within a year.

What misdoing had prompted her baby’s death? Obviously her husband’s sin of allowing Jews to dwell in his kingdom! The empress begged him to throw them out and he didn’t need much persuading. In 5430/1670, the Jews were banished into the winter rains and many of them froze to death.

Joyously, the Viennese populace razed the Great Shul in order to build the Church of Leopold on its site. In its foundations, the emperor reverently placed a coin engraved bearing the words: “The exalter Empower Leopold of Austria has turned this den of reprobates into a sanctuary of G-d after exiling the wicked Jews out from here.” Another shul, transformed into the Margareta Church, survives until this day. Only then did the Viennese people discover the downside of the expulsion. Who would replace the exorbitant taxes Austrian Jews had been pouring into the king’s treasury? Threatened with new taxes, people suddenly realized the Jews had been needed after all, and even the theological faculty of the Vienna University provided proof that certain popes had disapproved of expulsions. The emperor made a compromise.

For centuries, rulers possessed of more money than brains had realized that a good way to put their finances in order was to have a Hofjude do the job on their behalf. These included famous shtadlanim, such as the Abarbanel and Josel of Rosheim, and even Jewish women sometimes gained national prestige after inheriting the position of court Jew from their husbands. Hofjudes acted as bankers, purveyors of war materials, trade delegates and diplomats.

In return for his services, the Hofjude was granted special privileges, a chance to gain fantastic wealth and influence to help his persecuted Jewish brothers. Of course, the protective umbrella of a capricious German prince was always subject to sudden removal and then a Hofjude could suddenly find himself stripped of fame and fortune and almost reduced to begging in the street.

Painful as it was, the fanatical Leopold had no choice but to invite Shmuel Oppenheimer to leave his Heidelberg home and settle in Vienna with a small cadre of Jewish families that would create the nucleus of a new Vienna kehillah. Shmuel, descended from a wealthy Frankfurt business family, had been born in Heidelberg, Germany in 5490/1630, and had built a formidable financial empire thanks to his genius for organization and a network of relatives and wealthy Christians.

In those days, one of Europe’s biggest headaches was Ottoman Turkey’s effort to extend its Moslem empire westwards through Europe. Since the fourteenth century, Turkey had occupied large parts of Hungary, Yugoslavia and other central European countries, almost capturing Vienna in 5289/1529. Opposing Turkey during those centuries were the Christian kings and princes of Europe, including the ferocious fifteenth-century Romanian, Prince Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler.

The Turks attempted to seize Vienna once again in the Great Turkish War of 5443/1683. Fortunately, they took so long transporting their 200,000-strong army over the land that the Christians had time to throw together the “Holy League” of Poland and Vienna. But who would raise funds and supply their giant army with food and weapons? If the Turks won, the financer might lose his entire investment. As usual, Shmuel Oppenheimer was given the task and it may be to his credit that Western Europe does not yet have a mosque on every street corner.

The Turks began the Siege of Vienna in July 5443/1683 after Emperor Leopold and 80,000 citizens had fled in terror, leaving 11,000 soldiers and 5,000 Viennese to defend the city, outnumbered twenty to one. The Turks’ chief attack modus operandi was to set 5,000 men digging underground tunnels beneath the city, filling them with gunpowder, and blowing buildings and city walls sky high.

However, it was Jan III Sobieski of Poland who relieved the city on the 12th of September after two months of agony. An eyewitness left a report:

“After a siege of sixty days, accompanied with a thousand difficulties, sicknesses, want of provisions, and great effusion of blood, after a million of cannon and musquet shot, bombs, granadoes [sic], and all sorts of fire works, which has changed the face of the fairest and most flourishing city in the world, disfi gured and ruined most part of the best palaces of the same, and chiefly those of the Emperor…

“Finally, after a vigorous defence and a resistance without parallel, Heaven favorably heard the prayers and tears of a cast-down and mournful people, and retorted the terror on a powerful enemy, and drove him from the walls of Vienna, who since the Fifteenth of July last early in the morning, to the Twelfth of September, had so vigorously attacked it with two hundred thousand men; and by endless workings, trenchings, and minings, reduced it almost to its last gasp.”

After scattering the Turkish forces in three hours, Sobieski announced, “Veni, vidi, De-us vicit,” “I came, I saw, G-d conquered”. (This statement was modeled on Julius Caesar’s similar aphorism, “Veni, vidi, vici,” “I came, I saw, I conquered.”) According to legend, it was at this point in time that the city of Vienna created the world’s first bagel. This was when they expressed their gratitude to Sobieski and his horsemen by presenting him with a stirrup-shaped loaf.

The Turkish siege of Vienna was the high-water mark of their 300-year conquest of Europe. After sixteen years, Turkey acknowledged defeat with the 5459/1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, which some historians mark as the beginning of the end of the Turkish Empire that fi nally cracked during World War I.

For this, Shmuel Oppenheimer gets the lion’s share of praise. As Prince Maximillian Ludwig of Baden wrote Emperor Leopold, without Shmuel’s credit the Austrian army would have been annihilated. Shmuel, too, wrote towards the end of his life:

“As long as I lived in Vienna, I provisioned, almost every year, the two armies fighting against the French and against the Turks, supplying fl our, oats, horses and money for recruits, as well as munitions, powder, lead, cannon, artillery, wagons, horses and oxen, and there were never any losses.”

Was the destruction of the Moslem threat good for the Jews? Perhaps not, but keeping two of the world’s largest religions in mutual stalemate had its benefits.

At the pinnacle of his power, Shmuel Oppenheimer became known as Judenkaiser, the Jewish prince, but not everyone was delighted at this state of affairs. Emperor Leopold I had never been a great lover of Jews and now that his country owed Shmuel debts, raised by interest of 12 to 20 percent an annum, to the tune of three to six million florins, his resentment stirred even deeper. It was time to utilize the time-honored method of shaking off such inconveniences, but he waited.

Shmuel’s huge profits had also aroused the envy and hate of the Viennese who were suffering hard times and unimpressed by the argument that Shmuel had risked his shirt backing their emperor against the Turks. In 5460/1700, the populace rioted and attacked his opulent mansion. Keenly aware of such risks, Shmuel had built a secret passageway in his home and his family made a safe escape.

Emperor Leopold had the patience and decency to wait for Shmuel’s passing in 5473/1703, before crushing his financial empire. He then coolly invented a multimillion counter-debt that canceled

Shmuel’s loans, impoverishing not only the Hofjude’s family but also jeopardizing dozens of nobles and stockbrokers who had invested in Shmuel’s finances. Like most Hofjudes, Shmuel was always of service to his people. Towards the end of his life, he helped suppress a viciously anti-Semitic book written by Johann Andreas Eisenmenger. The latter had faked interest in conversion and studied Torah with Jews in Heidelberg and Frankfurt for nineteen years in order to fine-tune his terrible work, Entdecktes Judenthum (Judaism Unmasked).

Of those who worked to repress the book, Shmuel was the most successful. Through the liberal dispensing of funds, he persuaded Emperor Leopold to lock away its 2,000 copies and ban its printing within the German Empire. However, the Jews’ relief was short-lived as the book was reprinted not too long afterwards and is cited by our enemies even nowadays. Shmuel Oppenheimer left a legacy.

The great Austrian general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, presented Shmuel with priceless Jewish manuscripts from Turkey, which are now housed in the Bodleian Library of Oxford. He also helped finance the 5429/1669 aliyah of Rav Yehudah HaChassid (the Second) and his followers to Eretz Yisroel where they built the famous Churvah Shul now under restoration.

In the second oldest shul in the Czech Republic, built in 5402/1642, survives one of the last testaments to Shmuel’s greatness. On its aron hakodesh is the following inscription: “This is a gift from the prince and high official, Shmuel Oppenheimer, at the King’s Court and in the capital city.”

(Credit: Sobieski III, Jan. Raising the Siege of Vienna,”cited by Prof. David Stewart, Hillsdale College, Michigan.)

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