(1570–1634), financier, merchant, and court Jew. Born in Italy (likely in Verona), Ya‘akov Bassevi of Treuenberg (also known as Bazzevi, Passeni, Bashe [from Heb., Bat Sheva], and Jakob Schmiles) went to Prague with his brother Samuel at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1599, both brothers were granted imperial privileges of free trade, similar to those given to Mordecai Maisel a few years earlier. These privileges were later confirmed by Emperor Mathias in 1611, who named Bassevi his court Jew.
From 1621, Bassevi was addressed in all official documents as “Seiner k.k. Majestät Diener und Hofhandelsmann” (His Imperial Majesty’s Servant and Court Merchant). In 1622, Ferdinand II added “of Treuenberg” to Bassevi’s name, making him the first Jewish nobleman in the Habsburg realm. Bassevi’s diploma of nobility was later stored at the Great Court Synagogue in Prague, no longer in existence.
As leader of the Prague Jewish community, a position he held from 1616, Bassevi obtained permission from Charles of Lichtenstein, the governor of Bohemia, for Prague’s Jews to purchase 39 houses from Christians in 1623, a transaction that enabled Bassevi to enlarge the rather constrained Prague Jewish quarter. These residences had been confiscated from Protestants after the battle of Bílá Hora (White Mountain). As was true of his predecessor Maisel, Bassevi built a synagogue in the area, after buying property with several houses called Great Court in 1627. The design most probably was influenced by Albrecht of Valdstein’s architects (it was destroyed in 1906 during demolitions in the Jewish quarter). Bassevi also used his own resources to pay 12,000 Reichsthalers—an enormous sum—as a part of a fine demanded for the release of imprisoned Prague rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, accused of treason and blasphemy.
Bassevi’s charity was not limited to Jews in Prague. With the support of aristocratic friends, he protected Jews in the countryside against attacks by imperial soldiers and extended his financial help to Jews in other countries as well. According to the inscription on his gravestone, he assisted the poor in the Land of Israel. Bassevi himself owned a large amount of real estate in Prague, including a house in the settlement of Saint Nicholas, two houses granted him by the emperor in an area called Třístudniční (Three Wells Place), and a home in the so-called Goltzischer Hof, with a large garden near the Vltava River. In 1623, he rebuilt another house, called (after its original owner) Konopovsky, for himself and his family into a large palace in late renaissance style.
Tombstone with images of lions, Jewish cemetery, Prague, dating from 1628. Grave of Hendl, the wife of wealthy financier and merchant Ya‘akov Bassevi of Treuenberg (1570–1634). Photograph by Vladimir Uher. (Courtesy of the photographer)
In 1622, Bassevi joined with Charles of Lichtenstein, Duke Albrecht of Wallenstein, nobleman Pavel Michna of Vacínov, and a Dutch merchant, Hans de Witte, to form a consortium to operate a mint. Shortly after its organization, however, their profits declined, forcing the owners to produce valueless “long coins” (which contained less silver and more copper). Their actions resulted in bankruptcy and a price rise. Neither de Witte nor Bassevi—who were responsible for the group’s professional activities—were responsible for the failure, but their partners gained enormous profits.
After the death of his main protector, Charles of Lichtenstein, in 1627, Bassevi fell into disfavor with the emperor. Bassevi’s property was confiscated, and he was imprisoned in 1631 and was liberated only after Wallenstein’s intervention. Bassevi then managed to escape to the town of Jičín (in northeast Bohemia), the center of Wallenstein’s domain, where he again engaged in commercial activities.
Bassevi’s life ended shortly after the murder of Wallenstein in 1634. He died in the same year in the central Bohemian town of Mladá Boleslav while fleeing Jičín (he is buried in its Jewish cemetery). Bassevi’s property was confiscated by the emperor, and his impoverished descendants lived in the Prague Jewish ghetto for several decades.
Bassevi was married twice. His first wife, Kaudel bat Avraham, was still alive in 1616 and left a number of descendants. His second wife, Hendel, was childless and is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.
Bohumil Bondy and František Dvorský, eds., K historii Židů v Čechách, na Moravě a v Slezsku, 906–1620, vol. 2 (Prague, 1906), doc. nos. 947, 1037, and 1043; Moriz Grünwald, “Der alte israelitische Friedhof in Prag. Eine Studie. IV. Jakob Bassewi von Treuenberg,” in Illustrierter israelitischer Volkskallender (Prague, 1891/92), pp. 93–118; Koppelmann Lieben, ed., Gal ‘ed: Kovets me’ah ve-shiv‘im kitve luḥot avne zikaron bi-sedeh ha-kevurah . . . Prag (Prague, 1855/56), pp. 23–28, Hebrew and German; Otto Muneles, Starý židovský hřbitov v Praze (Prague, 1955), epitaphs in Hebrew at end.