A number of Jews from Westphalia settled in Zwolle during the first half of the 14th century. The small community was wiped out in 1349 during the brutal persecution of Jews that followed in the wake of the bubonic plague epidemic at the time. A few Jews settled anew in Zwolle at the start of the 15th century; an expulsion order issued in 1490 by the town fathers of Zwolle soon ended their stay on the town.
By the 1680s, the attitudes of the town had changed and Jews again were granted the right to settle in Zwolle. During the second quarter of the 18th century, the retail merchants' guild at Zwolle decided to admit Jews into its ranks. Beginning in 1756, the town's tanners' and hide merchants' guilds also admitted Jewish members.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Jewish population of Zwolle rose to the point that an organized Jewish community could be formed. In 1722, the community purchased ground for a cemetery on the present-day Willemsvaart (at the time the Kleine Schans or Luurderschans). The official statutes of the community were drawn up in 1747. During the early years of Jewish settlement at Zwolle, religious services were held in a private home. In 1746, the Jews of Zwolle were granted the right to hold religious services openly. They then hired the Olde Munte (the Old Mint House) for use as a synagogue. During the 1750s, the municipality of Zwolle donated the Librije building, part of a former Dominican monastery located on the Broerenkerkplein, to the Jewish community. The building was restored and consecrated as a synagogue in 1758. At the time, the Jewish community at Zwolle was governed by a seven-member council. The community employed a rabbi, a religious teacher, and a cantor.
The relatively good economic circumstances in Zwolle attracted many, mostly poor, Jews to the town. Throughout the 18th century, the city fathers of Zwolle and the local Jewish community attempted to stem this flow. At the time, most of the Jews in Zwolle worked in the textile and clothing trade and the dying of clothes and fabrics, as street vendors, in the trade in hides and in grain, in the potash industry, and as butchers and livestock traders. Two Jewish doctors also lived in the town.
In 1795, following the establishment of the Batavian Republic, the Jews of Zwolle achieved de facto the same civil rights as the other residents of the town. The official emancipation of the Jews of the Netherlands was declared one year later. In 1814, as part of the reorganization of Dutch Jewry and the establishment of community hierarchies and jurisdictions, Zwolle was selected as the seat of the upper rabbinate for the provinces of Drenthe and Overijssel. During the second half of the 19th century, the reformist tendencies of upper rabbi Jacob Fränkel created considerable controversy within local Jewry.
The Jewish population of Zwolle continued to grow throughout the 19th century and reached its zenith as the century came to a close. The majority of the Jews in the town lived near the synagogue in the Waterstraat. At the time, most of the Jews in Zwolle worked in the clothing and textile industry, in commerce, and in various professions. Zwolle was home to a large Jewish working-class population.
The Broerenkerkplein synagogue was refurbished in 1860 despite its having become too small for the sizable community that it served. By 1899, the community built a new synagogue and schoolhouse in the Schoutenstraat.
Jewish education had been provided to the children of the community since the beginning of the 19th century. A second Jewish cemetery located in the Watersteeg (the present-day Kuyerhuislaan in the Herfte neighborhood of Zwolle) was established in 1887. During the second half of the 19th century, the Zwolle community was governed by a council that also administered aid to the poor. Other community officials included two treasurers for the collection and disbursement of donations to the Jews of Eretz Israel. The Jews of Zwolle maintained numerous voluntary organizations including burial societies, charitable societies, and societies for the care of the interior of the synagogue.
Even though the Jewish population of Zwolle set into decline as the 20th century began, Jewish life in the town continued apace. From the turn-of-the-century to the outset of the Second World War, new social and cultural societies were founded including Zionist societies and a sport and recreational society for the Jewish youth of the town. During the 1930s, the Zwolle community lent support to the considerable number of Jewish refugees who had flocked there from Germany.
In 1941, during the second summer of the World War II German occupation of the Netherlands, Jewish livestock dealers were barred from Zwolle's livestock market. Following the expulsion of Jewish children from public education, a separate elementary school and two separate middle schools were established for Jewish children living in the town. The first mass arrests of Jews in Zwolle took place in October 1941; thereafter, an unknown number of those Jews who had been apprehended were transported to Mauthausen concentration camp where they were murdered. Deportation of Jews from Zwolle continued apace from August 1942 until April 1943. Most of the Jews in the town eventually were sent to Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe and murdered; only a few returned alive. A quarter of the Jewish population of Zwolle managed to survive the war in hiding.
During the war, the German authorities confiscated the Zwolle synagogue and use the building as a storage place for the household furnishings of deported Jews. The synagogue's Torah scrolls and ceremonial objects had been hidden on time and were recovered after the war. Many gravestones were removed from the old Jewish cemetery on the Willemsvaart during the course of the war. The cemetery was cleared away during the postwar period.
Jewish life in Zwolle arose anew after the war. The community continued to gather in the Schoutenstraat synagogue on Sabbaths and holidays. The synagogue was restored in 1991. On the occasion of its re-consecration, a portion of the Schoutenstraat and the Nieuwe Markt was renamed after Samuel Hirsch, the last upper rabbi of Zwolle. A dozen streets in the Schellerbroek quarter of Zwolle are named after local Jews murdered during the war. A monument to all the deported and murdered Jews of Zwolle was unveiled in 1985. In 1999, the community celebrated the 100th anniversary of its synagogue. To this day, the building is used intensively by the community for religious and cultural activities.
The Jewish population of Zwolle and surroundings:
The size of the Jewish community over time