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Napoleon and the Jews

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(provided by Peter Foges)

In 1799 while he was besieging Acre, then General Napoleon Buonaparte famously issued a Proclamation calling for "a Jewish homeland" as well as emancipation for the Jewish people in lands held by France.

Trouble is no document exists -- only a few newspaper reports.

In July 1940 in London an Austrian Jewish refugee -- a lawyer and amateur historian named Fritz Kobler, then working on a book about Napoleon and the Jews was introduced to another Austrian Jewish refugee -- namely my great uncle Ernst FOGES. Ernst had intended to escape post-Anschluss Vienna and make his way to Palestine, but at the last moment decided to go to London instead, arriving in late August in the nick of time, helped no doubt by his nephew Wolfgang FOGES (my father) who was already there.

Ernst sat Kobler down in his little flat in Hamilton Terrace, in the Maida Vale district of north London, and handed him a piece of paper. It was the text -- in German -- of the missing Proclamation!

Long story short -- the original, in the handwriting of Wolf FLECKELES (Ernst's great-grandfather) head of the Prague Jewish community, brother of the famous Rabbi FLECKELES, had been a family heirloom which Ernst had packed up (not before making a few typewritten copies) and entrusted to a shipping handler at the docks in Trieste to await his arrival en route to Haifa.

After the war hurried enquiries established that Ernst's trunk had been opened by the Nazis in 1944 and it's contents disposed of -- documents were sold to antiquarians and antique dealers in Trieste, other stuff sent to Berlin to aid the German war effort. An effort was made by Kobler, through the Jewish agency, to appeal to the collectors of Trieste by means of ads in the local papers etc. -- but to no avail.

Here's the thing. Who is to say the typescript wasn't a forgery? Well Kobler after careful research and close textual anaysis was convinced that the text was real. So why should the famously fierce Rabbi and his ultra Orthodox brother around 1800 have had a translation made of a document, originally French, all other copies of which have disappeared? Per Kobler, because there was a battle royal going on in Prague between the Fleckeles brother and secret Frankists and Shabbateans in the city who presented a threat to the rabbinate, not the least because of their belief that Napoleon was the Messiah. So -- to find out what the French general had said, they ordered up a translation, in great secrecy, which they then suppressed.

Kobler thought it might have been rendered into Hebrew and then German, so odd and clunky -- but thus all the more convincing -- is the usage.

And why no other copies? Because later on Napoleon, for raisons d'etat, came to regret and gloss over his early philo-semitism -- and never spoke of it again. He may well have ordered all French-language copies, (there may not have been many since this was a spoken Proclamation, not published as such, except in precis form in the official French government gazette, Moniteur),  expunged from the records or burned.

Ernst died in London in 1948. Kobler's book, "Napoleon and the Jews", in which he relates this tale, was published by Schoken Books in 1975.

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