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Jan Bruck / hwNovember 29, 2012

Some 300,000 Jews live in Chicago today, making it the 10th largest Jewish city in the world. The foundation of the community was laid by German émigrés in the 1840s, in a city full of possibilities.

The corner of Wells and Lake Street in the German-Jewish business quarter in Chicago in 186 Copyright: Chicago History Museum Collection
Image: Chicago History Museum Collection

Horse-hooves kick up the sand on the corner of Lake and Wells Street. A group of women wearing long, black dresses with white-lace collars converse in front of the convenience store. It's Friday afternoon, the store owner has shut up shop.

"Closed on account of religious observance," reads the sign in the window. Outside, horses and carriages tied to wooden posts await their owners. The voice of Rabbi Kunreuther reverberates from a first floor window as he chastises his servants.

This would have been a typical scene at this crossroads in the heart of Chicago's German-Jewish community in the mid-19th century. Historians estimate that the first German-Jewish émigrés came to Chicago in 1841. Back then, the city had 30,000 residents, the majority of whom lived from the iron and timber industries.

But many German-Jewish immigrants earned their living as street traders, going door-to-door to sell their wares. They later opened small groceries or clothing stores and their living quarters were usually above their shops.

Julius Rosenwald
Julius Rosenwald was a leading businessman in Chicago and the chairman of SearsImage: Chicago History Museum Collection

Young and open city

In early Chicago, German Jews were just one of many émigré groups, alongside Brits, Swedes and Irish. They were accepted and mixed with the top levels of social and political circles, something which remained difficult for many Jews in Europe at that time.

"The early German-Jewish émigrés found a young and very open city," Libby Mahoney explains. She is the curator of "Shalom Chicago," an exhibition examining the long history of the Jewish community in the city, currently on show at the Chicago History Museum. "There was no concrete social structure and, because of that, fewer barriers and hindrances for new arrivals."

In this climate, all doors stood open for German Jews. Many of them built careers in the banking sector, in insurance or real estate. They successfully integrated into American society and occupied prominent positions in clubs and associations.

German Jews also founded the first synagogues in the cities of Chicago and Illinois. The Kehilath Anshe Maariv Temple was located in a small room above a textile business on the corner of Lake and Wells Street. The temple's first rabbi was the ultra-Orthodox Ignatz Kunreuther.

Successful businesspeople

The Kehilath Anshe Maariv Temple in Chicago pictured on a postcard from 1911
The Kehilath Anshe Maariv Temple in Chicago, pictured on a postcard from 1911Image: gemeinfrei

Another prominent figure in the German-Jewish community was Julius Rosenwald, the chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, a major retailer in Chicago. Under the direction of Rosenwald, Sears, as the company is still known, became one of the biggest retailers in the world.

Rosenwald used his position as a leading businessman to develop the community in Chicago. He donated money to Jewish and other causes, such as the establishment of many museums and schools. In 1927, Rosenwald founded and financed the Museum of Science and Industry, today one of the world's leading technology museums.

Until the turn of the century, the number of German Jews in Chicago rose to over 20,000. With 1.7 million residents, the "windy city" had become a metropolis. Within 30 years, the city had attracted more than a million new residents. This dramatic increase created new fields of activity.

"With the growth of the city, established businesses also expanded," explains Edward Mazur, the chairman of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. "In turn, that raised the demand for credit. So the outlook was great for the banking sector in a booming city. A number of German-Jewish émigrés took the opportunity."

The great divide

Over time, many German-speaking Jews moved out of the city center to more affluent districts in the South of Chicago. By around 1900, a "Golden Ghetto" had emerged there, as the historian Irving Cutler called it.

The area was populated by wealthy Jewish families with German roots, who preferred to keep things within their own community - especially when it came to marriage. From the beginning of the 1880s, more and more eastern European Jews came from the Russian Empire to Chicago. They soon constituted 80 percent of the city's Jewish population.

Eastern European Jews in Chicago's West Side
Eastern European Jews in Chicago's West SideImage: Chicago History Museum Collection

The elite in southern Chicago shut themselves off from the new arrivals, who mostly settled in the western parts of town. Their reasons were diverse, Libby Mahoney says: "As a general rule, the German Jews came to Chicago with a high level of education and a large amount of financial power. The strongly assimilated German Jews were worlds apart from the new arrivals from eastern Europe."

But there were never any tangible conflicts between the two communities and the stark gap between them closed over the years.

A few Jewish communities also moved to the South Side. Instead of a cramped room above a clothing store, the Kehilath Anshe Maariv Temple got a new building, representative of the social success of its members.

In the south of the city, German Jews also founded non-profit institutions such as the Michael Reese Hospital. It replaced a Jewish-financed hospital which was destroyed during the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871. The clinic was open to patients of all faiths.

Influences still visible today

A painting of the Great Fire of Chicago (Mary Evans Picture Library)
The Great Fire of Chicago destroyed more than half of the city in 1871Image: picture-alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

German-Jewish residents also played a decisive role in the founding of the University of Chicago in 1890. "Like many American universities, the University of Chicago encountered many financial difficulties during its establishment," Mazur explains. "The most influential rabbi in Chicago during this period, Emil G. Hirsch, campaigned heavily for the funding of the university."

Due to his connections, money flowed regularly flowed into the university. Today, the University of Chicago is one of the most elite private universities in the United States.

You only have to look around modern-day Chicago to find German-Jewish influences, Mazur says. Many of the major department stores were founded by German Jews, not to mention numerous museums and cultural institutions.

Libby Mahoney emphasizes the fact that the influx of émigrés during the Holocaust would have been unthinkable without the existing German-Jewish infrastructure in the city. The German Jews who came to Chicago in the middle of the 19th century had already laid down deep and robust roots in the city. These roots continue to contribute to the vibrancy of the metropolis to this day.