In honor of Icelandic National Day, Jewish Treats presents a history of Jews in Iceland.
It is interesting to note that long before any Jews actually visited Iceland, let alone resided there, there was a unique Icelandic word for Jews: Gyðingar, a derivative of the word Guð, meaning God. In fact, there is even a 13th century text called The Gyðingar Saga, which was a retelling of the Book of Maccabees and included fragments of the writings of the ancient historian Flavius Josephus.
Jews did not arrive in Iceland until the 1700s, and even then they only came as traveling merchants. There is particular note given to the arrival in 1815 of “The Ulricha, “ a trade ship controlled by Ruben Moses Henriques of Copenhagen that is specifically referred to as a Jewish ship.
In 1853, as a dependent of Denmark, Iceland was pressured to follow the path of Denmark, which had permitted Jews to settle in its lands in 1850. The Icelandic parliament, the Althing, refused. Two years later, however, this decision was overturned - although it was many years until any Jews took advantage of this law. One interesting recorded Jewish resident was Fritz Heymann Nathan of Copenhagen, who arrived in 1906. An extremely successful businessman, Nathan built Iceland’s first “tall building” (five stories) in 1916. The next year, after marrying, he realized that his family could not live a full Jewish life in Iceland and he returned to Copenhagen.
A real Jewish community was not established in Iceland until the allies arrived there during World War II. (In fact, Iceland had a closed immigration policy and only a few European Jews managed to find refuge there.) With the influx of Jewish Allied soldiers, a congregation (one that still exists today) was established. It was during World War II that Iceland reached its greatest Jewish population. While some Jews remained after the war, there is great pressure on all minorities to conform and assimilate into the Icelandic culture. Today, there are only 50-100 Jews living in Iceland.
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