The Lost Letters

thirty years war

The Misplaced Prague Mailbag of Nov. 22, 1619

If historians of tomorrow would one day stumble across some of the phone recordings, Zoom meetings, and email exchanges of today, what a story they would paint, what a picture they would build, of living through the upheaval of COVID-19.

Which is what one unassuming little mailbag has done to shed light on living through the beginnings of a tumultuous war four centuries ago.

Like many European campaigns, the Thirty Years’ War, waged from 1618 to 1648, began as a religious conflict that soon ballooned beyond the initial Protestant-Catholic dispute. In the scheme of European history, this is pretty ordinary, humdrum stuff. Encompassing a number of Central European powers and their grievances, the three decades witnessed an ebb and flow of combat, resulting in the deaths of eight million people and the further fracturing of an already fractured region.

But as Holy Roman Emperors and provincial leaders went about their warring business, over 50 Jewish residents of Prague sat down to pen their loved ones letters on one particular Friday — November 22, 1619. Eager to send word to relatives in Vienna as the hostilities escalated, many signed off their missives abruptly, rushing to complete their preparations on that short Erev Shabbos.

Except those rushed letters would take a long time to arrive. Nearly 300 years, in fact.

A Homegrown Mail Service

In the early 1600s, Lob Sarel Gutmans, a merchant of Prague who was working in Vienna, had arranged a postal service of sorts between the two cities, more than 150 miles apart. He hired a messenger to carry letters back and forth, and on the Prague end, Gutmans’ wife delivered them to their recipients and collected responses to be sent back. The couple ran this as a business and collected pay from senders on a set schedule. (Although not everyone at the time was literate, scribes or neighbors would often pen the letters for those who could not do so on their own.)

What exactly happened on November 22, 1619, is speculative, but Gutmans’ messenger did not seem to make it back, and it is thought that the mailbag may have been intercepted by some Austrian soldiers. Conjecture, indeed, and a mystery that will not likely ever be solved, but the bag finally resurfaced in the dusty archives of the Imperial Court of Vienna in 1911.

Two scholars, Alfred Landau and Bernhard Wachstein, stumbled upon the cache, and like most historians who have such fortune, realized they had struck gold — at least in history currency.

Piecing together the city’s geography and then playing some Jewish geography, the pair was able to make sense of who was related to whom, thanks to these ordinary yet extraordinary letters, with all of their juicy tidbits of community news and updates.

Nearly all of the missives end with a reference to the approaching Shabbos, such as “written in great haste, on Friday, the 15th of Kislev,” or a more elaborate one: “Dear lovely mother, I would have liked to write you a special letter, as would be right, but the Shabbos is nearing, thus it could not be at this time.”

Just about all, with only a few exceptions, bear the date of November 22, giving us a small snippet, just a slanted vantage point, of life in this community and a sense of its concerns as Ferdinand II and Frederick of Bohemia fired up their artillery.

A Human Collage

What’s in a letter?

Everything — from the significant to the mundane. The purchase of an elegant coat, the request for a veil, the news of the birth of a child and encouragement to advance in learning.

Introductions

It feels almost unseemly, somewhat intrusive, to read the private musings and updates that pepper these documents. A stern father, a worried wife, a respectful son — they share their news and reassure each other of their good health as an opening, nearly without exception. Most begin their letters with the Hebrew date and the weekly parashah.

Another interesting feature is the deference woven into each greeting. “Peace, peace, to my beloved son,” one father writes, “the worthy and excellent man who climbs from step to step, the dear and sensible, G-d-fearing and worthy master Aaron, may his Rock and Redeemer keep him, and to my daughter-in-law, the modest and pious lady Frumet, who dwells like a princess in her room, may she live.”

Even more eloquent are the paragraphs from son to father. “Joy and pleasure to my beloved father, teacher and master,” one such letter reads, “the crown of my head, to the highly esteemed and famous man acquainted with the language of the sages, with the interpretation of hidden words, to the master of learning… in peaceful company of his wife, my mother, the pious and graceful lady without blame and fault…” and on it goes.

At times humorous and at times weighty are the chidings about the recipients’ not having written often enough. One parent complains that “while other people receive letters nearly every week, we hardly [receive] once in 8 or 10 weeks.” A sister writes how she has written three letters in the span that the other has written just one. And then there are the more laden ones, where fears regarding the recipients’ well-being are evident. After all, Europe was on the brink of war.

Echoes of War

The encroaching fear is alluded to in the letters, but some dwell on it more than others. One son addresses his mother with reassurance, “The situation is the usual one of the times, not too bad, although it could be better.”

Another is more concerned, hearing that his father-in-law-to-be in Nikolsburg has been attacked, though the shver seems to be safe and his family has retreated to a fortress. Peppering his letter with quotes from Tanach, nearly each sentence is a reference to a particular passuk. “I was made speechless for an hour by the bad news we received,” he writes. “The hand of the enemy was upon you and had seized all your treasures, and that they lifted hatchet and hammer against the [shul], and that you scarcely saved your life.”

One wife urges her husband not to be overly frightened by war talk. “As to the situation in our community,” she writes, “it causes us alarm just as it does at your place, but there is peace, thank G-d, although people are afraid of a war and of the scarcity, but it is still tolerable. And what many people talk is nothing else than lying and deceit; pay not attention to such gossip.”

Indeed, questions and rumors do make their way into the letters. Although newspapers were beginning to emerge in society, they were mostly regulated by governments, so news still traveled primarily by letter or word of mouth. “I have been told that the Duke of Bavaria has captured Nordlingen,” one sister writes. “I should like to know whether this is true.”

Still, despite the fears, the war-making is threatening but not a central theme of the writings. In fact, the central theme is what it often is in most Jewish communities — daily life, family news and religious aspirations.

Torah Learning

As trying times press in on the residents of the Jewish community of Prague, emphasis on Torah learning is dominant in these letters.

A son writes glowingly of his Talmudic achievements, sharing with his parents his great love of learning.

“I let you know that I found peace for my soul, which desires to drink from the fountain and the well of the living waters (‘be’er mayim chaim,’— Shir Hashirim 4:15), he writes, describing his experience at the yeshivah of Harav Yom Tov Lipmann Heller. Referencing the large crowds that gather around this personality, he calls these students “all heroes,” his motivation to join their ranks.

“So I too said: I should like to become one of them, for I have a desire for knowledge like they have and want to gird myself for the battle of the Torah.”

Interestingly, this letter is one of the only pieces not written in Yiddish. Rather, it is penned in Lashon Hakodesh, except for the postscript, which is addressed specifically to the boy’s mother. This is likely because most women, if they were literate, read and wrote Yiddish rather than Hebrew. (There are a few examples of Torah-educated women fluent in reading and writing Hebrew, but they were the exception.)

A grandfather writes passionately to his young grandson, whose father is deceased, that the boy should take full advantage of his yeshivah studies, which are costly. “It is much for us to pay nine gulden to a teacher for a term,” he stresses. Therefore, “see that you can attain and achieve something.” Concluding a postscript with “fix a period for the study of Torah, meet everybody with a cheerful countenance, and do not hesitate to ask if there is something obscure for you,” this grandfather has clearly stepped in to manage the young boy’s education.

One father scolds his son for not making more time for study and instead absorbing himself with business concerns. With a vein of bitterness, the parent reflects that he would never have given his son in marriage had he known this would occur. “Your father-in-law told me… that he would study with you so that you would be able to hold your own even with a Moreinu in barely two years. Instead you have studied making money night and day.”

Softening his tone, the father then continues, “My dear son, I am writing you here my firm will and opinion that you must do nothing else than come here for learning. You have time enough for trading.”

Encouraging his son to take a two-year sabbatical back in Prague for undisturbed learning, this father then commits what is often a parental blunder — he holds up his son-in-law as a model student: “I cannot write enough how much Hashem, may He be praised, has delighted me with my son-in-law Yitzchak, how he is learning day and night… If you were here, he would be a great help to you.”

Spouses Separated

One writer is a doctor, separated from his wife who resides in Vienna, because of the dangers of travel. The letter does not explain why this man was obliged to be in Prague, but he writes to dissuade her from making the trip to join him. With the dual risk of war and infection, he says she will not be allowed into Prague, even if she secures safe travel means.

“They do not permit anybody from Vienna to enter,” he explains, referencing an epidemic spreading in that region. “People who arrived here were forced to stay in the cemetery for three days and afterward were simply expelled under penalty of 500 gulden.”

Like COVID-19 distancing and travel restrictions, early modern society had fines and barriers put in place to discourage social movement.

He stresses his displeasure at being apart from his wife and children: “I myself do not want to remain separated from you and the children… I want to risk everything…” He then leaves it up to her whether he should attempt to travel back to Vienna.

He continues by describing his daily work, which, he thanks G-d, is plentiful, both among Jews and Christians — so much so that he is “obliged to take a horse” because he traverses the city daily.

The wife of the mail coordinator, Madame Gutmans, writes two letters, both heavy with concern as to her husband’s well-being. With her husband presumably in Vienna for business purposes, she has not heard from him in a while.

“I have been grieved because I have not heard a word from you in seven weeks, where you are in the world, especially in such a situation as we have now,” she writes.

She expresses what many women must have experienced in the medieval and early modern periods, when Jewish men commonly traveled for months through dangerous regions during uncertain times. One Cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom dealt with this, ordering men not to be away from home for more than 18 months at a time.

“I do not eat, I do not drink, I do not sleep, my life is no life for me,” she conveys. “For in good days, if I did not have two letters a week, I thought that I should not be able to live longer… and now I do not at all know for such a long time where you are in the world. But what shall I do now? I have worried about so many things, I must rely upon the Creator.”

It seems she resumed her letter-writing later in the day, because she continues writing that she had just met a messenger who had seen her husband at a certain merchant fair a little while back.

Her letter is quite long, full of political and community news, one event being a riot that nearly ravaged their neighborhood. She stresses her gratitude to Hashem for the near-escape and says it is all in “the merits of our ancestors.”

Apparently, this letter was written earlier in the week, because come Friday, November 22, Mrs. Gutmans writes a new letter, a more joyous one, expressing her relief at having finally received word from him. The mail messenger must have brought her that long-awaited news.

She responds, describing her great relief and gratitude to Hashem for her husband’s well-being.

Uncertainty About the Future

Like many young couples in 2020 who waited anxiously to hear when their weddings would take place, 1619 witnessed a similar phenomenon.

One chassan and kallah are left wondering where and when the event will occur, because the girl’s family has suffered an attack and retreated to a fortress for protection.

In his letter, the groom, very deferentially, asks his in-laws about the wedding location and date. “As our joyful feast will be celebrated soon, I am about to draw the attention of your learned excellency, (although this may not be necessary with a punctual man like you), that your learned excellency may not omit to inform me wither I shall turn myself.”

With war and uncertainty, he is unsure whether the wedding will be in “the holy community of Vienna or the holy community of Nikolsburg.”

While many waited for significant events like a wedding, others were waiting for more trivial ones, like the arrival of a new accessory.

One daughter had apparently asked for a veil and her mother responds, “Even if I could get it for nothing, I could not send it,” suggesting that travel and transport of goods were unpredictable. She comforts her daughter with an undertone of admonishment: “If we should lack nothing else than veils, it would be all right,” although she assures her that once it becomes possible, she will send one.

One significant theme culled from these missives is that, just as in 2020, the frightening macro-event does not mean the elimination of the preexisting micro-events in people’s lives. One individual describes dire poverty, another, a sick relative, and a few others, efforts to help ransom a prisoner — pidyon shevuyim.

The community of Prague seems to have taken up the mission of freeing this particular prisoner and had the appointed scribe write urgent letters to heads of the Viennese kahal for its assistance. Concluding with a hurried: “Written on Friday near the entry of the Kallah,” one missive begs for 100 gulden to be released for this captive from the money set aside for the poor. Another urges a particular individual to borrow a sum for this purpose. Of course, the fate of the poor prisoner is unknown. The letters written on his behalf never reached their destinations, and one can only guess that with the encroaching war and difficult travel, securing his release was disrupted.

It’s amazing what can be excavated from a sack of letters.

Lives born, lives lost; money made, money spent; hopes drawn, hopes rent. Stories told and news shared that, perhaps tragically, would never be heard, never be read.

Just a sliver of a dynamic community on a busy Friday afternoon, gleaned from a handful of letters that were finally opened a few centuries too late.