by Roy Oppenheim

The Guggenheim dynasty and the Aargau-er Surbtal, Switzerland

In his bestselling book Portnoy's Complaint, the famous American writer Philip Roth mentions Endingen and Lengnau, the two villages from which a number of world-renowned Jewish families originate. This is a phenomenon for which people can be proud on both sides of the Atlantic—especially in Switzerland and in the USA. Descendants of these families include—to name but two—US film director William Wyler, born in Endingen (The Desperate Hours, Ben Hur, Funny Girl), and the well-known composer Ernest Bloch, whose grandfather led the choir in the Lengnau Synagogue. Ernest Bloch emigrated to America in 1916. The Guggenheim family, whose roots are also to be found in this area, played an especially significant role in the arts.

I had the privilege of meeting Peggy Guggenheim twice. She was a fascinating, open woman of the world, who was good friends with nearly every protagonist of classical modern art. A woman who not only constantly questioned bourgeois social conventions, but merrily broke them.

A woman who wrote art history, this urbane, well-traveled patroness of the arts also descended from the Lengnau Guggenheims. The world in which her ancestors lived, however, was the very antithesis of the large, cosmopolitan, polyglot 20th century of which Peggy Guggenheim was the impressive epitome.

Let us flash back to the birth of the Swiss Confederation, at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries: at that time, Jews lived in all of Switzerland's larger towns. In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, they were driven out of one town after another: those who dared resist were executed. After much wrangling and debate, the 1776 Tagsatzung (the Parliament at that time) decided to confine Jewish settlement to the sole towns of Endingen and Lengnau. The two towns were at the busiest crossroads of Baden county, with the Zurzach fairgrounds to the north and Baden, then a well-frequented European spa, to the south. Moreover, both towns were situated on the European trade route of the day, which went from Munich via Lake Constance to Lyon in France.

At the time, it was customary for Jews to derive their surnames from local place names since Hebrew names were difficult to pronounce. The Guggenheims probably got their name in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years War, from Gougenheim, in Alsace, which was where the first Guggenheims in our region probably originated. The first record of a Guggenheim in Lengnau dates back as early as 1696.

Life in the two farming towns was difficult for the Jews. Farming, like most other professions, was forbidden to them. The only way they could earn a living was by peddling. Even then, they had to observe a multitude of strict restrictions. They had to pay a toll or peddling charge each time they entered a borough or crossed a cantonal border. A huge tax was levied on marriages. Burial on communal land was forbidden, as was land ownership. The number of Jewish households was limited to 108 so that Jews often had to wait years before they could start their own home.

Today still, 2-door houses are a characteristic feature of Lengnau and Endingen scenery: one entrance for Christians—and a separate one for Jews. Jews and Christians had to enter their homes over different thresholds. If, by chance, a Jew ever earned a bit of money, he would be taxed back to poverty.

But nevertheless: the two Jewish communities were autonomous and were allowed to worship and manage their internal affairs. They raised their own taxes to cover the needs of their communities, to care for their poor and to provide schooling and religious instruction.

The Guggenheims were among the most active families of the Surbtal. In 1702, Jacob Guggenheim of Lengnau, one of Peggy Guggenheim's ancestors, stood trial for having acquired a vineyard in Wettingen without permission. One year later, his house was burnt down anonymously in reprisal. The same Jacob Guggenheim was a leading figure in Lengnau. In 1732, when the Jews were threatened with expulsion from the Surbtal, the 250 Jewish families in the valley chose Jacob Guggenheim to represent them and bring the Jewish question before the government (Tagssatzung) in Zurich. Jacob Guggenheim held a famous inflammatory speech. Nevertheless, Jewish taxes were massively raised. Joseph, one of Jacob Guggenheim's sons, was the talk of the country. After months of trying, Johann Caspar Ulrich, a protestant vicar from Zurich, succeeded in converting Joseph, who was educated in a Talmudic school in France, to Christianity. The result was an ugly confrontation between Jews and Christians which was blown out of all proportion by the Swiss press of the time.

In the early 19th century, Switzerland went through a severe economic crisis—brought on by the Napoleonic occupation of the country. Trade, which was vital for the Jews, stagnated completely. "The pale, emaciated faces of the poor were a humanists' nightmare" wrote a contemporary. On top of that was the Jew's political misery. Helvetia had released the Jews from special taxes—but with the so-called Jewish Law of 1809, the newly-created Canton Aargau abolished all Jewish rights. Another episode illustrates the harshness with which the Jews were handled then: in 1818, Samuel Guggenheim of Lengnau risked his own life to save two children from a fire. Guggenheim wanted to give away the reward due to him but asked to be allowed to sell his wares in the area where the event had occurred. His request was refused without explanation.

Isaac, another son of the courageous and renowned Jacob Guggenheim attained a modest degree of prosperity. He had eight children from his marriage, among them Simon. Simon's wife died in 1836 and he raised his son Meyer and his five daughters alone. He later became tied to Rachel Weil, a widow who had three sons and four daughters from her marriage. The Lengnau authorities refused to authorize their marriage.

So Simon and Rachel pooled their meager means and decided to emigrate with their children. In Switzerland it was rumored that in the new 50-year old nation, the United States of America, there were neither ghettos nor discrimination.

In 1847, the year the new Lengnau synagogue was consecrated and one year before the Swiss Confederation was founded, 55 year-old Simon Guggenheim and 41 year-old Rachel emigrated with their children. The journey across the Atlantic from Hamburg to Philadelphia took two months by ship. Simon and Rachel shared their fate with thousands of other Swiss nationals driven to America by hunger. From the narrow universe of central Europe to Philadelphia: the contrast could hardly have been greater.

The new world was more impressive than anything anyone from the Swiss Surbtal could possibly have imagined. The greater part of the young American Union had still not been settled. The thick woods and endless fields, the wild and lonely Rockies and the big new cities impressed the travelers from far-away Europe. Philadelphia was already one of the most attractive and tolerant States in the Union. In the USA, the Gold Rush had started. Only a few of the large successful American families had already attained wealth and influence: the Astors, Du Ponts and Vanderbilts were already on their way to great wealth. The Rockefellers, Kennedys and Fords had not yet entered the scene. The dynamic rise of the Guggenheims as textile merchants, mining and steel industrialists and finally as world-class patrons of the arts is an other story – an incredible, unbelievable, unique success story that you may already know.

The following must be added to be complete: Simon Guggenheim, who emigrated to America, had one son, Meyer Guggenheim. Meyer Guggenheim's marriage produced eight sons and three daughters, including the arts patrons Solomon R Guggenheim and Benjamin, Peggy Guggenheim's father.

The question is: what is the connection between this rags-to-riches success story and the Swiss town of Lengnau in the 18th and 19th centuries? My answer is that only the confined, difficult world of the Aargau ghetto could understandably and demonstrably have produced the concentrated force, the tremendous vitality, the unrestrained willpower that inflamed the Guggenheim family generation after generation. This incredible success story is the story of indiv iduals who set out to prove, to themselves and to the world, that Jews could do as well as people of other creeds provided they were given a chance.

For the Guggenheims it was not just a matter of making money. Financial success first made their exemplary cultural and social commitment possible. The memory of their ancestors' confined and precarious conditions in their former homeland no doubt played a significant role. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Guggenheims never forgot their Aargauer Surbtal origins. In 1902, 55 years after their grandfather had emigrated and one hundred years ago today, Peggy Guggenheim's father and uncle donated a large sum of money to help finance the foundation of a Jewish retirement home in Lengnau.

Nowadays, there is no longer a ghetto in these Swiss towns. In the early 19th century, the Swiss Jews started defending themselves—and step by step, they opened the ghetto doors. In 1866, the Jews were granted free establishment rights and they slowly spread out to other towns and areas.

The Swiss ghettos of Lengnau and Endingen disappeared after 150 years when, towards the end of the 19th century, Switzerland followed other countries' example and granted the Jews full civil rights. Although the history of the Jews in our country since Roman times has been one of persecution, banishment and discrimination, the Swiss Jews were spared the fate of millions of European Jews—deportation.

© 2002 Roy Oppenheim

Jewish cemetery in Lengnau

Two-door house in Lengnau

Two-door house in Lengnau

Close-up of house with double entrance in Lengnau

A book of trading restrictions imposed on Jews published in 1773

Jewish cattle-dealer, 19th century ceramic

Jewish peddler, 19th century photograph

Synagogue in Lengnau

Interior of the synagogue

Friday Night, by Alis Guggenheim (1896-1958)

List of Guggenheim donations in 1902 for a Jewish retirement home in Lengnau

Photo of Jewish retirement home taken soon after it was built

Jewish retirement home in Lengnau in 2002

A recent view of the retirement home on a sunny day
credits: Hangar Design Group