History of the Jews in Iceland

History of the Jews in Iceland

Jews did not come to Iceland until the 17th century, but even then there was no real immigration until the 1930s.


The Icelanders knew the Jews from the Bible, and called them "Gyðingar". The term was used since the 11th century and is apparently a diminutive of Guð (God). It was probably invented by the monks who wrote the Icelandic Sagas. The Gyðinga Saga, the Saga of the Jews, was written in the 13th century. It is a translation of the First Book of Maccabees and fragments from the writings of Flavius Josephus. [ [http://www.northvegr.org/lore/sagas/006.php Sagas From Latin Sources] ]

A formerly neutral, currently negative term for Jew is "Júði" (plur. "Júðar").

Early history

The first Jews to come to Iceland were traders. Daniel Salomon, a Polish Jewish convert to Christianity, came to Iceland in 1625.

In 1704, Jacob Franco, a Dutch Jew of Portuguese origin who was living in Copenhagen, was appointed to be in charge of all tobacco exports sold in Iceland and the Faroe Isles. In 1710 Abraham Levin and Abraham Cantor were given similar responsibilities. Isak, Cantor's son, took over from his father in 1731.

In 1815, the Ulricha, a Jewish trade ship rented by Ruben Moses Henriques of Copenhagen, arrived in Iceland.

In 1853, the Iceland parliament, the Alþingi, rejected a request by the Danish king to implement the Danish law allowing foreign Jews to reside in the country. Two years later the parliament told the king that the law would be applied to Iceland and that both Danish and foreign Jews were welcome. The Alþingi said that the Jews were enterprising merchants who did not try to lure others to their religion. However, no Jew is known to have accepted this offer.

Though most trade was owned by native Icelanders, in the late 19th century there were a small number of trading agents which represented firms owned by Danish Jews.

At the millennial celebration of the Althing in 1874 a Jewish journalist from Hungary, Max Nordau (later co-founder and President of the Zionist Organization), was mentioned.

In 1906, Fritz Heymann Nathan came from Denmark and quickly became a prosperous merchant. In 1913, he founded Nathan & Olsen in Reykjavík. After getting married in 1917, he realized it was impossible to conduct a Jewish life in Iceland and moved to Copenhagen. The firm was highly successful until the Icelandic government introduced trade restrictions in the 1930s.

In 1916, Nathan built the first big building of Reykjavík, with five stories. The building was designed by Mr. Guðjón Samúelsson and was considered very elegant. It was the first building to be lit by electrical lights. [ [http://www.nathan.is/about.php Nathan & Olsen] ]

Late 1930s

During the Great Depression, it was much easier for non-Jewish immigrants, mostly Germans and Scandinavians, to obtain work and residence permits than for Jewish immigrants. Icelandic immigration policy generally followed that of Denmark's. In May 1938, Denmark closed its gates to the Austrian Jews and Iceland did the same a few weeks later.

In the late 1930s, the Hilfsverein der Juden in Deutschland (the Aid Association of German Jews) wrote a report to the Auswanderberater in Reich on the possibilities of Jewish immigration to Iceland and concluded it was impossible.

Several Jews were expelled from Iceland and in the late 1930s Icelandic authorities offered to pay for the further expulsion of Jews to Germany, if the Danish authorities would not take care of them after they had been expelled from Iceland.

Otto Weg, a Jewish refugee from Leipzig, was one of the few allowed to stay in Iceland during the war. He wanted to become fully Icelandic, left Judaism and adopted the name Ottó Arnaldur Magnússon. He had a doctorate in geology and mathematics, but he never received an academic post in Iceland. He worked in construction and later gave private lessons and wrote pamphlets teaching algebra and Latin.

World War II


On May 10th, 1940, British forces arrived in Reykjavík, and among there were some Jewish servicemen. They did not find a synagogue but eventually did find other Jews who had arrived earlier.

On Yom Kippur of that year, about twenty five Jewish soldiers from England, Scotland and Canada gathered with eight Jewish refugees and Hendrik Ottósson. Ottósson who had married a Jewish woman, served as their "Shammash". The Icelandic authorities offered a chapel in Reykjavík's old cemetery. Ottósson found the suggestion insulting and rented a hall of the Good Templars' Lodge. They borrowed the only Torah scroll available in town. This was the first non-Christian religious service in Iceland in 940 years.

At the end of the day the first Jewish congregation in Iceland was officially founded. Arnold Zeisel, an elderly manufacturer of leather goods from Vienna, became the first head of the community. The group gathered regularly until the Americans took over from the British.

The first bar mitzvah in Iceland took place on the Shabbat of Passover, 1941, though the matzos arrived too late for that Passover. The community persevered during that year even though the British forces were unwilling to send a rabbi to Iceland.


Once the American forces arrived in 1941-1942, Jewish life became more active. An American field rabbi arrived in Iceland at the end of 1941. The congregation had grown large enough that a new building had to be found.

Besides the American soldiers congregation there was also an Orthodox congregation. They used a corrugated-iron hut for their services.

The American rabbis who were stationed in Iceland during the war maintained contacts with the refugee Jews. The German-speaking Jews preferred the liberal, Reform approach of the American rabbis over that of what they were used to from Germany or Austria.

At the Rosh Hashana service in 1944 at the Naval Air Station Keflavik, there were five hundred Jews present and a Torah scroll was flown in from the United States.

From that point till the mid-1950s there were two Jewish congregations in Iceland. In 1944, the number of Jewish servicemen in Iceland was estimated at 2,000 out of a total of 70,000, and for a few years a rabbi was stationed in Keflavík.

Post World War II

In 1955, author Alfred Joachim Fischer visited the country and wrote about the Jews there. Fischer mentioned that nearly all Jews who had come to Iceland and been naturalized had taken Icelandic names, as the law demanded.

During the postwar period, most Jews kept a low profile and wanted to attract as little attention as possible. Most were not religious and kept to themselves. In some cases, Jews hid their origins and past from their family and their acquaintances.


In 2000, Iceland participated in a Holocaust conference in Stockholm, and it has signed a declaration of the European Council that obliges the member states to teach the Holocaust in their schools. In reality, this has not meant increased instruction on the Holocaust and genocide in Iceland's educational system.

Jews in Iceland Today

The Jewish community in Iceland today is almost non-existent. Religious observance is very liberal and the community uses a printed Torah scroll. In recent years there have been four bar- and bat mitzvahs in Reykjavík. The Jewish community has discussed applying for registration as a religious organization, but there has never been sufficient interest to do so.

There are Jewish singles tours to Iceland, with a Shabbat service in a geothermal lagoon.There are reports of Jews being buried in the old cemetery in Reykjavík and of headstones engraved with the Star of David. However, the Star of David was used by the Freemasons and does not prove any connection to Judaism.

Despite the tiny population of Jews in Iceland, the First Lady of Iceland is Dorrit Moussaieff. She is an Israeli Bukharian Jew. Moussaieff has also introduced the Jewish culture to Iceland in a very positive way. [http://news.walla.co.il/?w=//903179&tb=/i/7276770]


ee also

*History of the Jews in Denmark
*Evald Mikson

External links and references

* [http://www.haruth.com/jw/JewsIceland.html Jews of Iceland]
* [http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-vilhjalmur-f04.htm Iceland, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism, 1625-2004]
* [http://notendur.centrum.is/~snorrigb/Jewicel.htm Iceland and the Jewish Question until 1940]

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