The Rich Jewish History of Vicksburg
By David Maggio
The first Jewish people settled in the area of Walnut Hills in 1821, and by the time Vicksburg was incorporated in 1825, the Jewish population numbered about twenty families. Most came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and had their origins in the Germanic lands of central and Western Europe (Alsace-Lorraine, Baden, and Bavaria), fleeing political and religious persecution and seeking new economic opportunities. Mostly peddlers by trade, Jewish merchants established themselves in Vicksburg, an area reminiscent of their homes along the Rhine, and contributed greatly to the area's importance as a leading trading and commercial center on the Mississippi River.
The Sartorius brothers, Phillip and Isaac, were one of the first Jewish families to arrive in Vicksburg. Quite pious, the Sartorius brothers brought two Torahs with them to America, which became the first Torahs in Vicksburg. With strong attachments to their religion, these families at first conducted worship services in private homes, and then later in larger halls of various buildings as their community grew. At first, the congregation first met at the home of Bernard Yost, a cotton broker in the city. They originally met at his business, and then at his home on Zollinger Hill. In 1841, the Jewish Congregation of Vicksburg was established and given the name “Anshe Chesed” (literally translated from Hebrew as “Men of Kindness"). The congregation was incorporated and chartered by the State of Mississippi in1862 when the number of families had grown to more than fifty. Its founding and charter made Anshe Chesed a permanent part of the religious life in Vicksburg, although the building of a synagogue had to await the end of the Civil War and better times.
The pattern of Jewish communities in the United States indicated that in most cases, cemeteries for the burial of their dead were established even before a congregation for worship was founded. Therefore, it may be assumed that a Jewish Cemetery pre-dated the one now located at the end of Grove Street in Vicksburg. It is believed that the earlier Jewish cemetery was located at the corner of Zollinger Hill and Jackson Road, on the land of Bernard Yost, the first president of the Anshe Chesed congregation. From available records, it appears that the current Anshe Chesed Cemetery came into being in 1864 when on August 23rd, the parcel of land was deeded to the Board of Trustees of Anshe Chesed Congregation for the purpose of establishing a burying ground for the benefit of its members and their families. The land was owned at that time by the Kinsey Brothers, who had purchased the land for the purpose of developing into home sites, but with the advent of the Civil War, the location was turned over to the Confederate Army, and the Second Texas Lunette was located on the site. After the fall of Vicksburg, the land was in such bad condition, it was sold to the Temple for their cemetery. Shortly thereafter, bodies were removed from the old cemetery at Zollinger Hill and re-interred. The first burial at the present cemetery was on May 25, 1864, when Mayer Mayer was buried in grave No.1. This shows the cemetery’s creation to be almost 40 years prior to the establishment of the Vicksburg National Military Park, which now surrounds the cemetery. Buried in the cemetery, are eight Jews that died in the service of the Confederacy. Others might also be buried that served the South but are not accurately marked as such. In the yellow fever epidemic on 1878, a large number of Jewish children died, and because so little was knowing about the disease, many felt those that died in the epidemic should be buried away from those that had died of other causes, so in the cemetery today is a section called Boys Row, where are buried the male children that died in the epidemic. It is not known is if any females died and are buried elsewhere.
Because of lack of anti-Semitism in Vicksburg, Jews were readily accepted into the community, and many fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Philip Sartorius who had brought the Torahs from Europe to Vicksburg was the first soldier to be wounded during the Battle of Vicksburg; he was shot by a Union bullet at Milliken's Bend.
With the end of the Civil war, Vicksburg, unlike many other cities in Mississippi, experienced new growth as a great river port and commercial center. The Jewish community grew both in numbers and affluence. Many of these recent Jewish immigrants came from Prussia as well as Poland. The merchant class in the highly agricultural area, they thrived by providing goods and services to local farmers. These Jews became an important part of Vicksburg’s civic and economic life. Jews owned dry goods, furniture, jewelry, hardware, food, and drug stores, as well as several other businesses. Bazsinsky Road, Kiersky Street, and Marcus Street were all named for prominent local Jews.
As the Anshe Chesed congregation continued to grow, the need for a strong political leader became apparent and a search was initiated. A very able rabbi, Bernard Henry Gotthelf, from Louisville, Kentucky, was offered, and accepted, the pulpit of Anshe Chesed. Interestingly enough, Rabbi Gotthelf had been the second Jewish Chaplain with the Union Forces in the Civil War.
To accommodate the growing congregation, a lot was purchased on Cherry Street, between China and Clay Streets. In May of 1870, a magnificent Temple was completed, and very elaborated dedicatory services held, attended by leading religious and political leaders of the community and state, including the governor. This synagogue on Cherry Street served as the Anshe Chesed congregation for a full century.
Seeking social outlets for the youth, the affluent Jewish community in Vicksburg organized the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Association in 1871 (later to become the B’nai B’rith Literary Society). In 1892, a beautiful building was built on the corner of Clay and Walnut Street to house this association, only to be destroyed by fire in 1915. Completely rebuilding the structure, the social life of the Jewish community continued there until the building was sold to the city of Vicksburg in 1967.
Over time, traditional Judaism became increasingly difficult to observe in a community so far removed from the mainstream of Jewish life in the U.S. cities of the East and the North. The spirit of reform was in the air among many of the German Jews in the United States, and its impact reached the Anshe Chesed congregation in Vicksburg. In 1873, a Union congregation of American Hebrew Congregation was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, and one year later, Anshe Chesed of Vicksburg was admitted as a member of this group of congregations under the banner of Reform Judaism. The largest Jewish congregation in Mississippi, Anshe Chesed moved rapidly to adopt the changes of Reform Judaism and a proud and prosperous Jewish community greeted the turn of the century and the years ahead.
With few exceptions, Jews from Eastern Europe did not settle in Vicksburg in the great wave of immigration from 1880-1920. In 1876, the Mississippi River, upon which the city was founded and from where the city derived a large portion of its income, changed courses and moved away from the city front. The cities growth became stagnant, as did the water in the old bed of the River at the waterfront. However, the city survived, and when the Yazoo Diversion Canal again brought a waterfront to the city, the downtown community was viable again. In the 1930's most of the businesses in the city were owned by the Jewish community, but after World War II, many young men came back from the war and did not enter into the businesses their families had had for generations. This, along with the Jewish immigrants preferring to be among like-minded kinsmen who followed traditionalist (orthodox) religion, helped to reduce the size and influence of the Jewish community in the city.
By the late 1960’s, the magnificent temple on Cherry Street had also fallen on hard times. A new temple was erected at the end of Grove Street on land adjoining the Jewish Cemetery and was dedicated in 1970. The temple today still used the Torah given to them by the Sartorius’ brother before the Civil War. Three other Torahs also located at the Temple, are used in services. Very valuable to the congregation, both religiously as well as monetarily, the Torah very seldom leaves the Temple. The Temple on Cherry Street, no longer used for temple services was occupied for a short time as a church, but then in the late 1970's was torn down, and Vicksburg lost one of its most beautiful structures. With the destruction of the oldest Temple in the State of Mississippi, the catalyst for the preservation of historic building in the city was initiated, and many structures are saved today, because of the loss of the Anshe Chesed Temple. The oldest Temple in the State today, is the Temple in Port Gibson, Mississippi.
Editors Note: David has harvested the passages above from several sources on the Jewish history of Vicksburg. The local Jewish population has dwindled away as children have moved away to bigger cities, someday soon they will be only a memory. Anshe Chesed is now under the care of “The Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park.