Glückel of Hameln (c.1646-1724) was a Jewish woman from a well-off merchant family who wrote an account of her life for the edification of her children. She was married twice and had fourteen children. She was also very involved in the business affairs of her family, and frequently offered opinions on economic and social issues in her memoirs, which were written in Yiddish.


Excerpts from the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln (1719)

My good mother brought me into the world, the year of Creation 5407 [1646-47], in this city of Hamburg. Even if our sages say, "it is better not to be born," meaning that men have so much to endure in this sinful world, still I tank and praise my Creator that He made me according to His will to take me under His holy charge.

My father gave his children, girls and boys, a secular as well as a religious education. And whoever came hungry to my father's house went forth fed and satisfied. Before I was three years old, the German Jews, I am told, were driven out of Hamburg. Thereupon, they settled in Altona which belonged to King of Denmark, who readily gave them letters of protection. This city of Altona lies barely a quarter of an hour from Hamburg.

About twenty-five Jewish families were previously settled in Altona, where we had our synagogue and cemetery. After we newcomers had remained there for some time, we finally succeeded with great difficulty in persuading the authorities of Hamburg to grant passes to Altona Jews, so we might enter and do business in that city. Such a pass was valid for four weeks, it was issued by the burgomaster and cost one ducat; when it expired another had to be procured in its stead. However, if you got to know the burgomaster or his officials, the old pass might be renewed for a second four weeks.

This meant, God knows, a great hardship for our people, for all their business lay in Hamburg. Naturally, many a poor and needy wretch would try to slip into the city without a pass. If the officials caught him, he was thrust into prison, and then it cost all of us money to get him out again. In the early dawn, as soon as our folks were out of synagogue, they went down to Hamburg, and towards evening, when the gates were closed, back they came to Altona. Coming home, our poor folks often took their life in the hands because of hatred for the Jews rife among the dockhands, soldiers and others of the meaner classes. The good wife, sitting home, often thanked God when her husband turned up safe and sound.

***

My father was in no wise rich but, as I said, he trusted in the Lord. He left no debts and worked himself to the bone to provide decently for his family. He had gone through a great deal in his life and, already become aged and worn, he naturally hastened to marry off his children.

He was already a widower when he became engaged to my mother. For fifteen years or more he had been married to a splendid woman, of good family, named Reize, who maintained a large and fine house. My father had no children by her, but a previous marriage had blessed her with a daughter, beautiful and virtuous as the day is long. The girl knew French like water! Once this did my father a mighty good turn.

My father, it seems, held a pledge against a loan of 500 Reichthalers he made to a nobleman. The gentleman appeared at his house one day, with two other nobs, to redeem his pledge. My father gave himself no concern, but went upstairs to fetch it, while his stepchild sat and played at the clavichord to pass away the time for his distinguished customers. The gentleman stood about and began to confer with one another in French. When the Jew, they agreed, comes down with the pledge, we'll take it without paying and slip out. They never suspected, of course, that the girl understood them. However, when my father appeared, she suddenly began to sing aloud in Hebrew, "Oh, not the pledge, my soul-- here today and gone tomorrow!" In her haste the poor child could blurb out nothing better. My father now turned to his gentleman. "Sir," he said, "where is the money?" "Give me my pledge!" cried the customer. But my father said, "First the money and then the pledge." Whereupon our gentleman spun about to his companions. "Friends," he said, "the game is up-- the wench, it seems, knows French"; and hurling threats they ran from our house.

A few days later our gentleman appeared alone, repaid the loan with due interest, took the pledge, and said to my father, "You are well served and your money is well spent teaching your daughter French." And he turned on his heels and left.

***

After our wedding, my husband and I remained for one year in Hameln. Our business went poorly, for Hameln was not a trade centre; and my husband did not wish to confine himself to moneylending among the country folk. From the outset of our marriage, he had bent his thoughts toward settling in Hamburg....

Although my husband was a stranger, he quickly learned how things stood. At that time, the trade in gems was not flourishing as it is now, and the burghers and young engaged couples among the the Gentiles seldom or never wore jewels. Instead, it was the fashion to wear solid gold chains; and gifts, if the occasion demanded, were all of gold. What though, to tell the truth, the gains were smaller than in jewels, my husband began by dealing in gold, and plying his trade ran from house to house, to buy up the precious metal. Then he turned it over to the goldsmiths, or resold it to merchants about to be married; and he earned thereby a tidy profit.

However much my husband toiled, and truly the whole day he ran about upon his business, still he never failed to set aside time to study his daily "portion" of the Torah. He fasted, too, a great part of every day the Torah was read forth in the synagogue, at least until he began to make long business journeys, with the result that even in his youth he became sickly and needed much doctoring. Yet, for all that, he never spared himself, and shirked no pains to provide his wife and children with a decent livelihood....

My blessed husband worked manfully at his business, and although I was still young, I too did my share. Not that I mean to boast, but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over.

***

The next time I came with child I suffered terribly. I came down with a fever, God save us! in my seventh month, an unheard-of thing. If it began in the morning I suffered chills for four whole hours, then I burned for four hours, and finally, for four hours again, I sweat, and that was worse than either the chills or the burning. You may imagine my torments...

I continued in this way to suffer torments for two full months. My might failed me, and more than once I thought to myself, "Dear Lord, when my time comes upon me, I shall have neither force nor strength to deliver the child."

But when my time was one me, the ever-faithful God so graciously lent me his aid, I gave birth almost without pain or effort, as though the child fell of its own will.

It was a lovely, well-built child, but it cam down at once with the selfsame fever as mine. Though we summoned doctors and every mortal aid, it proved of no avail. The child suffered fourteen days, and the God took back his share and left us ours, a bit of martyred clay. And me He left, a mother brought to bed-- without her babe.

I had two or three further attacks of the fever, but even before I rose from my childbed I was once again healthy and strong.

Thereafter I gave birth to my daughter Hendelchen, and two years later my son Samuel, then my son Moses, my daughter Freudchen, and my daughter Miriam. The two youngest barely knew their father.

What, indeed, shall I write of the gaps between times? Every two years I had a baby, I was tormented with worries as everyone is with a little house full of children, God be with them! and I thought myself more heavily burdened than anyone else in the world and that no one suffered from their children as much as I. Little I knew, poor fool, how fortunate I was when I seated my children "like olive plants round my table."


Source: The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, translated by Marvin Lowenthal, New York: Schocken Books, 1977, pp. 5-7, 11-12, 32-34, 40, 140-142.