Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Vicksburg is the second highest point along the Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans, and it was this geographical attribute that caused the Spanish to establish a fort in 1791. The area gradually developed into a trading post called Walnut Hills, and was eventually incorporated and named after Reverend Newit Vick, who had established a mission in the area in 1811. With its location on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg became a major trading port with the rise of the steamboat. The town is perhaps best known for the major Civil War battle fought in 1863. Here, Ulysses S. Grant forced the Confederate army to surrender, effectively splitting the Confederate forces in half. Today, Vicksburg has a large tourism industry surrounding the historic battlefield, but what is not often studied is the rich history of the town’s Jewish community. Jews have lived in Vicksburg since the city’s early years, and have been an integral part of the city’s history.
German Jews arrived in Vicksburg before the town was even incorporated. Most came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. By 1825, when Walnut Hills was renamed and incorporated as Vicksburg, twenty Jewish families already lived in the area. Most of these Jewish pioneers came from southern Germany and Alsace. By the time of the Civil War, many Jews had settled in Vicksburg and grown attached to their new home. Several Vicksburg Jews fought for the Confederacy, including Leon Fischel who
served as an aide to Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. Leon later named his son Albert Sidney Johnston Fischel. The first soldier to be wounded during the Battle of Vicksburg was a Jewish man named Philip Sartorius, who was shot by a Union bullet at Milliken’s Bend. Similarly, his brother, Emanuel Sartorius was shot, losing the tip of his finger. Other wounded Jewish soldiers included Herman Nauen and Louis Hornthal, both of whom came from prominent Jewish families.
The Sartorius brothers were one of the first Jewish families to arrive in Vicksburg. Quite pious, the Sartorius brothers brought two torahs with them to America. These were the first torahs in Vicksburg. One of the brothers, Phillip Sartorius, left behind a biography of his life for his daughter, Rose Miriam Bock. He wrote especially fondly of his religious practice in Bavaria. He wrote, “None except those who have lived and were raised in a pious Jewish family, can realize how solemn and beautiful our Sabbath and High Holy Days were celebrated.” Soon after entering college, he and his brothers decided to make the trip to America. His ship first arrived in New Orleans, and he immediately went to Vicksburg to join his brothers. He was lured to work in Princeton with a better salary, but eventually, at the request of his brother Isaac, he returned to Vicksburg. Though he and his family were deeply troubled by the Civil War, small pox epidemics, and the loss of several of their children, Phillip Sartorius was ultimately remembered as a great business leader and pious Jew. Not only was he one of the region’s leading merchants, but also served as secretary of Congregation Anshe Chesed.
Another important early figure was Bernard Yoste. He was born in Charlesville, France in 1805. His first home upon arrival in the United States was Berks County, Pennsylvania. By 1840, however, he was established in Vicksburg and had become a naturalized citizen. In addition to being the congregational president and spiritual leader of the early Vicksburg Jews, he was a prominent Vicksburg business man. Though his cause of death is unclear, he died on May 22, 1863 owning nine slaves and having $3,000 loaned on interest. Though his original resting place is unknown, a memorial plaque was placed in the city cemetery where the rest of his family is buried. Other early settlers include M. A. Levy, who served as a city selectman in 1832 and 1833. Louis Levy and David Brown arrived in 1834, and were closely followed by Julius Hornthal and Abraham Aaron.
By the end of the Civil War, there were 90 Jewish families in town, and 35 Jewish-owned stores. Many of these recent Jewish immigrants came from Prussia as well as Poland. They filled the role of the merchant class in the highly agricultural area, allowing them to thrive by providing the goods and services to local farmers. These Jews became an important part of Vicksburg’s civic and economic life. Most became merchants as Jews owned dry goods, furniture, jewelry, hardware, food, and drug stores, as well as several other businesses. Bazinsky Road, Kiersky Street, and Marcus Street were all named for prominent local Jews.
As the community grew, Jews organized religiously. In 1841, they formed a congregation described in the local newspaper as the “Hebrew Benevolent Congregation of the Men of Mercy.” The congregation was formally incorporated in 1862 as “Anshe Chesed” (People of Loving Kindness). They dedicated their first synagogue in 1870. Vicksburg Jews formed several other Jewish organizations, including a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1866 and a local chapter of B’nai B’rith in 1867.
In 1871, they formed a Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Association, which they later renamed the B’nai B’rith Literary Association. Popularly known as the “B.B. Club,” the group served as the social center for Vicksburg’s Jewish community. Their original building was located on Cherry and Crawford Streets. After the first building was destroyed in a fire in 1915, a new building was erected on Clay and Walnut Streets. It was handsomely equipped with facilities for Jewish social engagements, including a swimming pool, meeting rooms, a fine dining room, ballroom, and a library. In 1967, the building was sold to the city. Recently, it was restored to its original grandeur by Laurence Leyens, who now serves as mayor of Vicksburg.
Life was often difficult in this river city. Yellow fever epidemics in 1871 and 1878 were a major impediment to the growth and success of the Vicksburg Jewish community. In 1871, eleven Jews died in the outbreak. The 1878 epidemic took 46 Jewish lives, one third of the Jewish congregation at the time. Among the dead was Rabbi Bernhard Gotthelf, leaving the Jewish population both drastically diminished and without leadership. In this time of crisis, however, Levi M. Lowenberg stepped up to conduct services to the ailing Jewish community.
Despite this deadly outbreak, the Jewish community of Vicksburg remained strong well into the 20th century. Another wave of Jewish immigrants had come from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They even formed their own Orthodox congregation, though they soon merged with the long-standing Reform congregation Anshe Chesed, which adjusted to embrace the newcomers. In 1927, 467 Jews lived in Vicksburg.
As in the Civil War, the Jewish citizens of Vicksburg were highly active in World War II. Forty-eight Vicksburg Jews served in the military during the war. The Temple sponsored two families who had fled Europe from Nazi rule. One of these German Jews was Albert Friedlander, who after attending high school in Vicksburg later became one of the leading Reform rabbis in the world. Despite these new additions to the community, World War II had an adverse affect on the community’s population, as many young Jews did not return to the city. Between 1937 and 1948, the city’s Jewish population dropped from 378 to 280. Since then, it has continued to decline along with the rest of the Mississippi Delta.
Vicksburg Jews have made important contributions to life in the river city. Lee Kuhn operated a very successful dry goods store, and despite having five children, he left the entirety of his estate, $400,000, to City Catholic Charity Hospital when he died in 1953. His will contained the provision that the hospital was to be enjoyed by all people, regardless of race, religion, or financial status. Similarly, he left $20,000 to the temple fund for the purpose of administering aid to the underprivileged local children. Jews were active in the city’s civic life. Several served on the city’s board of trade. Maurice Emmich served on the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, was president of the local rotary club, and was named “Man of Year” by the Jaycees in 1963. Other Jews served as elected officials, including Abe Kiersky, who served as city tax assessor from 1889 to 1937. Henry Haas served as county tax assessor in the 1950s and 60s. The current mayor of Vicksburg, Lawrence Leyens, is Jewish.
Over the years, the community has declined, a product of economic changes, intermarriage, and recent generations’ desire to live in larger metropolitan areas. As in other towns, the Jewish merchant class has faded as changing economics led many young Vicksburg Jews to pursue opportunity in bigger cities. Today, only about 25 Jews live in Vicksburg, most of them elderly.