Alte Universität/ Realgymnasium, Postkarte ©Sammlung Knappe
"Schmuckmauer" der alten Universität
The old Viadrina was established in 1506 during a second wave of founding new Universities in Europe. This made it the first Brandenburg state university. The founding initiative came from Joachim I, Elector of Brandenburg. He also restored the privileges of free trade and the freedom of movement to the Jews. However, he did not grant them access the new University. This was only to happen some 200 years later.
The First Jewish Students
The University had four faculties, Law, Theology, Medicine and Philosophy. Dedicated professors would later expand the curriculum of the philosophical faculty to cover ten disciplines, including the study of the Hebrew language. Initially, Jewish students were still denied access to enrollment. However, the turnaround came in 1613 when Kurfürst (Prince-Elector) Johann Sigismund joined the Reformed Church. As a result, Reformed professors were hired on. Through their new pedagogical methods and ideas, Frankfurt (Oder) developed into a learned center of German Calvinism. As people began to travel more, they also began to develop an interest in foreign cultures.
Another favorable circumstance was the (renewed) settlement of Jews in the Mark Brandenburg during the middle of the 17th century. In 1671 Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm accepted 50 Jewish families from Vienna, 10 of whom settled in Frankfurt (Oder). Shortly thereafter in June 1678, Tobias and Gabriel ben Mose (who also went by Moschowitz) were allowed to enroll at the Alma Mater Viadrina. They were the first Jewish students in Germany. For this, they were given special privilege from the Kurfürst. Their recorded matriculation numbers also indicate this. Some professors protested against their admission to the university. The students faced anti-Semitic discrimination during the entirety of their studies at Viadrina. They were subjected to the proselytizing of some Professors, who sought to convert them to Christianity. Despite their successful studies, they were prohibited from obtaining a doctorate, hence they moved to Padua. After completing his studies, Tobias ben Mose the spent his career as the personal doctor to the Sultan in Constantinople.
The first doctorate was conferred to a Jewish student in 1721, supported by the medical Professor Andreas Goelicke. Moses Salomon Gumperts received his doctoral degree in medicine, however due to his Jewish faith he had to forego the customary celebrations in the Marienkirche. He was also denied the opportunity to work at the university as a lecturer.
During the entire history of the old University between 1506 and 1811, there was not one practicing Jewish professor. Aron Margalitha, Professor for Ancient Judaism was baptized before becoming professor. Christian Leberecht Felß also had to be baptized before taking his position at the university. He had even been a Rabbi beforehand.
The End of the Old University
Between 1678 and 1811 at least 140 Jews studied in Frankfurt (Oder). However, most students were never studied at the university at the same time, and the majority came from Poland. During the timespan between 1721 and 1794 a total of 29 medical doctorates were given to Jewish students.
In August of 1811 the Alma Mater Viadrina, due to its competition with the newly founded Berlin University – known today as the Humboldt University – was relocated to Breslau.
After this, the university buildings housed a school and the district court, among other things. During the GDR period there were several attempts to repurpose the building, but these efforts failed and the building was demolished in 1962. Today a wall decorated with reliefs commemorates the old University in Frankfurt (Oder).
Meier, Brigitte (2008): Frankfurt/Oder. In: Diekmann, Irene A. (Hrsg.) (2008): Jüdisches Brandenburg. Geschichte und Gegenwart. 1. Aufl., Berlin: vbb verlag für berlin-brandenburg, 113-153.
Targiel, Ralf-Rüdiger: Mit kurfürstlicher Genehmigung immatrikuliert in Frankfurt: Jüdische Studenten an der Viadrina, in: Diekmann, Irene A. (Hrsg.): Jüdisches Brandenburg. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Berlin 2008, S. 409–416.