Merchants and communal leaders in Bohemia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Popper family came from Bresnitz (Břesnice), a commercial junction in southern Bohemia owned by the Kolowrat barons, one of the few noble families of Slavic descent that remained in Bohemia after 1620. During the seventeenth century, the Popper family provided a range of services to the Kolowrats, particularly granting credit. Under Kolowrat patronage, the Popper family business expanded substantially, also moving into commerce.
From 1680, members of the Popper family regularly attended the Leipzig fair. By the first half of the eighteenth century, they had accumulated great wealth, which they converted into political power within the Bohemian Jewish community. The first to do so was Wolf Popper (1702–1767) who, from the 1720s, combined his extensive economic activities in industry, wholesale trade, and tobacco production with his position as collector of the “Jewish Tax” or Leibmaut (body tax) from rural Jewry of Bohemia. In the late 1720s he became primator der Landesjudenschaft (head of the Jews of Bohemia)—a position that granted him the right to live in Prague.
Wolf’s son, Joachim Ḥayim Popper (also Joachim Edler von Popper; 1730–1795) simultaneously earned a huge fortune for the family in commerce, establishing strong political connections with Bohemian nobility as well as with the Habsburg government. During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Joachim was a supplier to the Austrian army. By the 1780s, his amassed capital enabled him to open a currency exchange in Vienna. At the same time, Joachim consolidated his family’s position in the tobacco trade, when, in 1765, he became a major partner in the first pan-Austrian Jewish tobacco farm. In the years 1772–1792, Joachim held the position of community head; he was ennobled by the emperor in 1790.
During the reign of Emperor Joseph II, Joachim Popper had made a name for himself as an unrelenting champion of the rights of Jews in Bohemia. In 1790, shortly after Joseph issued his revised Edict of Tolerance for Jews of Galicia, Popper submitted a petition, asking the emperor to reformulate his edict for the Jews of Bohemia in accordance with the Galician model, so that it would include a revocation of the restrictive Familiants Law, relieve the tax burden, and grant permission for Jews to acquire land property. Although his efforts failed and most of the restrictions remained until 1848, his struggle was an important landmark in the evolution of the modern political awareness of Bohemian Jewry.
The economic activity of the Popper family in many ways anticipated the patterns of economic activity that characterized the Jewish socioeconomic elite of Bohemia at the outset of the industrial revolution in Bohemia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although several Poppers were involved in Bohemian economic life in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the family as such was no longer significant.
Josef Karniel, Die Toleranzpolitik Kaiser Josephs II, trans. Leo Koppel (Gerlingen, Ger., 1986); William O. McCagg, A History of Habsburg Jews, 1670–1918 (Bloomington, Ind., 1989).
Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann