The “Niedersächsischen Nachrichten von Gelehrten neuen Sachen“ [Lower Saxon Notices for New Learned Matters] was published in Hamburg and stood in the tradition of early scholarly periodicals. The journal appeared in the years 1729 to 1736 (until 1731 under the name “Niedersächsische neue Zeitungen“ [New Lower Saxon Newspaper] and followed the example of other reviewing papers, such as the “Neue Zeitschrift für Gelehrte Sachen” [New Periodical for Learned Affairs]. Every two weeks it reported on all areas of the sciences with a focus on scholarly life in Hamburg.
The text begins with a few biographical facts on Dr. Simon Lefmans: mentioned is his disputation from the year 1685 in Utrecht, and he is introduced as “a Jew, from Essen.” p. 737 This information is verifiable: Lefmans, whose birthdate is unknown, was registered in Duisburg as a medical student in June 1675, and was thereby the first Jewish student in Duisburg. See the database of enrolled university students at Duisburg, 1652-1818 at: https://www.uni-due.de/ub/archiv/universitaetsmatrikel.shtml (last accessed March 2016). The source text also mentions his time in Duisburg and names “Barbeck” as his teacher. That refers to Friedrich Gottfried Barbeck p. 738, Professor of Medicine at Duisburg since 1671 and an enthusiastic supporter of the philosopher René Descartes.
Simon Lefmans’ biography reflects clearly the changes in the medical landscape of the 17th century: He stands as the first Ashkenazic physician in Hamburg and, in general, one of the first Jewish physicians to have studied medicine at a German university.
German universities accepted Jews very slowly. Previously, they were only able to study in southern Europe or the Netherlands. The first Jew in the Netherlands to obtain a doctorate, who moreover became a Hamburg physician in Kaneter in 1624, was the Sephardic Jew Benedict de Castro. In 1652, the first Jew received a doctorate from Heidelberg. For the most part, it was the faculties of medicine and philosophy in which Jews were permitted to matriculate. It would take another century, however, before Jews were permitted to study at all German universities.
Lefmans also decided to seek his degree in the Netherlands. Initially, he returned after the conclusion of his studies from Duisburg to Essen, where his father Levi Lefmans practiced as a lay doctor; they worked together there. At the same time, Simon Lefmans served for six years as the personal physician to Bernhardine Sophia, the Abbess of Essen. Academically trained physicians were still a rarity in the 18th century, and they rose to treat the temporal and spiritual elites. Lefmans went, in 1683 at the latest, to Utrecht and took his doctorate there in 1685, supervised by the theologian and physician Melchior Leydecker; his inaugural thesis was “De Variolis” [Concerning Smallpox]. Probably around 1693, Lefmans finally settled in Hamburg as a “Medicus Practicus.”
In what spirit his work was reviewed can be surmised from the registry entry in the appendix of the Niedersächsischen Nachrichten [Lower Saxon Notices]: “a Jew doctor’s ludicrous disputation” stands there as its announcement. The text then sets about denigrating everything to do with Simon Lefmans. The argument closely follows the contemporary antisemitic stereotypes and fables, such as the Ritual Murder legend, whereby Jews allegedly needed the blood of Christian children for, among other things, medical purposes. Lefmans was accused of possessing dangerous secrets and hiding information. It states that there were cryptic “Kabbalistic secrets” p. 738 in the Hebrew introduction to his dissertation, meant to be hidden from Christian colleagues. In the summary the author concludes, “[…] that in this disputation there lurks all sorts of Jewish secrets which Doctor Lefmans has rendered in medical language.” p. 745 Thus, the author’s rebuke was that the physician possessed secret, dangerous knowledge.
Again and again, the text speaks of Lefmans disparagingly as the “Jewish physician” and the “Jew doctor.” He was accused of bungling medications, manifesting a fundamental arrogance, and having the intention of doing harm to his Christian patients. Thus it is written: “A person, according to the Jew doctor’s healthful advice, should cook horse manure in beer and drink it daily […]. Perhaps, Doctor Lefmans prescribed that kind of medicine from a special motive. We recall […] having read that the Jews believe that when they drink rose water in Paradise, the goyim will have to be satisfied with horse urine.” p. 743
The author’s accusations remain vague; he cites no sources. He reinforces and spreads hearsay; his utterances about the Jewish conception of life after death are an example of this. That the author does not name his sources and deals in vague insinuations, such as “we recall […] having read,” indicates that he is falling back on traditional stereotypes and clichés, that could neither be proven nor needed any further explication.
Hearsay about Jewish physicians survived for centuries and in the 20th century was again used and disseminated by the National Socialists. Later it was said that Jewish women physicians were sexually invasive toward their female patients or that they purposefully contaminated vaccines. These rumors flowed into corresponding discriminatory measures after 1933.
As long as Jewish physicians were present in Germany, they were the target of antisemitic attacks and subject to polemical writings. Physicians and theologians criticized and incriminated Jews in general and Jewish physicians in particular, in medical as well as moralizing writings. Stereotypically, Jewish physicians were represented mostly as dishonorable, secretive, malevolent, and poorly trained. The anonymous author thus comes to the conclusion: “Jews cannot serve as honest Medicos, nor be consulted by Christians in good conscience.” p. 746
In the 1630s and 1640s, three texts, swiftly following one another, appeared as a direct response to the new competition that had arouosed when Sephardic physicians established themselves successfully in Hamburg: namely, the polemical writings of 1632 and 1636 by the Hamburg physicians Jacob Martini and Joachim Curtius, as well as the defamatory book “Judaismus oder Judenthumb” [Judaism or Jewry] (1644) by Johannes Müller, the chief pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Hamburg. Dependent upon the disseminated writing of the physician Ludwik von Hörnigks, “Der Judenarzt” [The Jew Doctor] of 1631, Martini’s “Apella Medicater Bullatus oder Der Judenarzt“ polemicized vehemently against Sephardic doctors.
In the case of Simon Lefmans, the reactions to the defamatory text have also survived. In the edition of the Niedersächsischen Nachrichten [Lower Saxon Notices] from March 12, 1733 it is stated that various “not unimportant Christians” have responded to the criticism of Lefmans with the argument that “a Jew Doctor could nevertheless be a good physician for Christians.” To open the eyes of Lefmans’ protectors, it was thought necessary to republish the above-mentioned antisemitic book Apella medicater Bullatus by Jacob Martini, for one had “to know Jewish doctors from the ground up and to learn to comprehend them,” in order to understand “that it is a serious matter of conscience for a Christian to entrust his health to a Jew, to a sworn enemy of Christians.” Niedersächsische Nachrichten von neuen Gelehrten Sachen, December 3, 1733, vol. XCV, pp. 825f. And in fact, the more than a hundred year-old polemic appeared in the same year  with a new foreword against “bunglers,” aimed directly against Lefmans. Up to this time, nothing more is known about Lefmans’ further life and work in Hamburg, nor is his date of death known.
The text in the Niedersächsischen Nachrichten [Lower Saxon Notices] abundantly documents the high visibility of academically trained physicians in this period and, simultaneously, what hostile reactions were let loose upon the Jewish physicians in Hamburg and beyond.
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Anna Villiez-Kupisch, Dr. phil., born 1974, is director of the Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Israelitische Töchterschule in Hamburg. Among her research interests are: the history of medicine in colonial times and nazism, history of science, provenance research and the history of the development of anatomic, ethnological and anthropological collections.
Anna von Villiez, The Ashkenazic Physician Simon Lefmans. Jewish Physician and Antisemitic Resistance (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 27, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-155.en.v1> [September 22, 2020].