A history marked by extended periods of prosperity and cultural richness, time and again cut short by violence.
Tracing Jewish History Along the Rhine
By PETER WORTSMAN
In the summer of 1963, when I was 12, my parents, German-speaking Jewish refugees from Vienna, took us children on a boat trip up the Rhine. It was our first time in Germany, the country that had annexed our parents’ native Austria and sent them running for their lives. Family sentiments ran strong: longing spiked with anger, nostalgia with regret. All I really cared about were the castles crowning every slope and the chocolate-covered marzipan. But when we rounded a boulder-strewn bend in the river — “The Lorelei,” the legendary perch of the siren who lured boatmen to their doom — my mother was so moved she leapt up and declaimed, in German: “I don’t know what’s come over me, / That I should be so sad.”
The elderly man seated beside me smiled wistfully and whispered in thickly accented English: “You know vat a minyan is?” I nodded. A minyan, I knew, is the Hebrew word for the quorum of 10 men it takes to engage in public prayer. His was a coded question to sift out fellow Jews floating up the mythic vein of the German identity. And though I did not realize it, “The Lorelei,” the verse my mother had begun to recite, was penned by Heinrich Heine, a native Rhinelander of Jewish descent. And it was not just among the most beloved poems of the German language, but my mother’s hymn to a lost world.
That memory resurfaced last April, almost 50 years later, when my wife and I retraced that childhood journey, from Cologne to Mainz. What we found stirred mixed emotions. Vestiges of Jewish life along the banks of the river recalled a history marked by extended periods of prosperity and cultural richness, time and again cut short by violence. Virtually intertwined with the grape vines that dot the region, scattered tombstones and a few reconstituted sanctuaries tell the story.
There have been Jews in the Rhineland for as long as anybody’s been singing about it. They first sailed down the Rhine along with the Roman army. The earliest written testament to Jewish life in the region is an edict signed in A.D. 321 by Emperor Constantine allowing Jews to be elected to the curia of Cologne.
Traces of the Jewish presence had long been buried under in that city, our point of departure. Leveled by Allied bombs in World War II, Germany’s fourth largest city is a hodgepodge of nondescript ’50s-era functionality and splinters of the past, out of which a great cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage site, rears its twin spires. Construction began in 1248 and didn’t end until 1880. At 516 feet, it was briefly the tallest structure in the world (until the Washington Monument took first place); today, the spectacle of its man-made majesty etched against the sky still takes the breath away. It also contains an arcane reminder of ancient Christian-Jewish relations, tucked away in a dark corner.
We took an English-language tour of the interior, admiring, among other wonders, one of the highest Gothic vaulted ceilings in the world, the ornately gilded reliquary holding the supposed bones of the Magi, and Gerhard Richter’s luminescent 11,500-piece stained-glass window in the south transept. But our young guide had no idea of the whereabouts of the object I was after. We finally found it affixed to the north wall, toward the rear of the cathedral: a plaque posted by Archbishop Engelbert II in 1266 establishing in Latin the terms of the so-called Judenprivileg (Jews’ privilege). It literally set in stone medieval Jewry’s subservient status and prescribed perks for so-called Schutzjuden (protected Jews), notably the right to proceed unmolested when burying their dead.
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The original impetus for our trip was a site of grander scale than the plaque: a recently completed archaeological dig that uncovered the foundation of a Carolingian synagogue dating back at least to A.D. 800 and an entire city block of Cologne’s Medieval Jewish community. Discovered and saved from demolition by the archaeologist Otto Doppelfeld in 1953, the dig is still an open pit, partly covered by a tent, in the city’s historic center. When the Archaeological Zone and Jewish Museum, a vast area of approximately 110,000 square feet, opens to the public, visitors will have a privileged peek back at some 1,700 years of intertwined German and Jewish history. Unfortunately, the opening, originally scheduled for 2015, was recently postponed until 2018 — held up by the cost of construction as well as the reticence of some members of the city government to countenance such a massive museum directly in front of the Renaissance city hall.
Though we didn’t have access to the site, we huddled against the fenced-off area, near a street sign that reads Judengasse (Jews’ Alley), peering down into the open pit, trying to decipher the story the stones laid bare.
In its heyday in the mid-14th century, the Jewish community — an important minority of about 1,000 among an overall population of some 40,000 — flourished in the shadow of the cathedral. But in the centuries prior, extended periods of prosperity and peaceful coexistence with their Christian neighbors had been shattered, first by marauding crusaders who in 1096, and again in 1146, whet their blades on Jewish blood before heading for the Holy Land. All hell broke loose yet again in the terrible Black Plague Pogrom of 1349, when Jews, falsely accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease, fell victim to the fury of mobs.
Evidence of that violent history is reflected in the finds, including heaps of scorched and smashed pottery and fragments of stone tablets with some of the earliest inscriptions in Yiddish, essentially medieval Rhineland German written in Hebrew. Katja Kliemann, an archaeologist involved with the dig, said the profusion of objects and their shattered state demonstrated “both the richness and the fragility of the relationship between Christians and Jews.” (For now, highlights from the dig, including a golden ring, are on rotating display at the underground ruins of the Praetorium, the Roman governor’s palace, around the corner on Kleine Budengasse.)
An eighth-century mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, within the complex of the future museum, offers another telling clue. To descend its steps is to turn back the clock several centuries. Peering into the basin, where generations of women and men sought ritual cleansing, my wife and I tried to picture their reflected faces. (The mikvah, currently closed to the public, will reopen pending completion of the museum.)
The Museum Ludwig nearby, on Heinrich-Böll-Platz, holds another kind of treasure trove, one of the world’s great collections of German Expressionist and other 20th-century modernist paintings, some by Jewish artists, like Ludwig Meidner and the Russian Marc Chagall, all reviled as “degenerate” by the Nazis. The paintings were safely hidden in a bank vault for the duration of the War by Josef Haubrich, a discriminating collector; he later donated them all to the German public “to give them an opportunity to see and contemplate for themselves ... what had been withheld from them” during the dark years of the Third Reich.
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We hopped the train from Cologne to the lovely old river town of Boppard, where we boarded a KD Line boat for a leisurely six-hour cruise up river to Mainz.
The narrow, winding stretch of the river from Boppard to Bingen is particularly picturesque, with castle ruins and terraced vineyards every which way you look. A crisp white grauer burgunder sipped on deck enhanced memories of my mother’s recitation as we piloted past the treacherous Lorelei bend, and the loudspeaker crackled with a tenor singing Heine’s verse set to music by Friedrich Silcher.
Next stop, Mainz. Of the numerous Jewish settlements along the Rhine, those in the three cathedral towns of Mainz, Worms and Speyer collectively comprised an illustrious medieval center of life and learning known as ShUM, an acronym composed of the first letters of the city names in Hebrew. In 2012 the state governments, municipalities and Jewish communities of the ShUM collectively sought inclusion in the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. The application is still pending.
While heavily bombed, Mainz managed through judicious architectural reconstitution to retain a taste of the past. Still, all that’s left of the once rich Jewish heritage are a few tombstones, including one dated 1049 — said to be the oldest known Jewish tombstone in Europe — and a small store of sacred objects at the Mainz State Museum (Landesmuseum).
But echoes linger. “A principio creavit Deus celu et terram,” reads the Latin translation of the opening words of the Old Testament in clear black type on three copies of the Gutenberg Bible, precious tomes held in a dimly lit vault at the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz’s most visited site.
It is Hebrew letters, though, that inspired the abstract configuration of the modern synagogue and community center on Synagogenplatz, erected in 2010 at the site of the old synagogue destroyed by the Nazis. The oddly shaped geometric structure is intended to represent the five letters of the Hebrew word qadushah, or holy. We joined a tour led by Stella Schindler-Siegreich, a leader of the Mainz Jewish community, 900 strong today. I asked her what she thought of the Cologne dig. “Museums are nice,” she allowed, “but Jewish life is more important, or else there’ll be nothing left but an old cemetery.”
While much of Worms, with its clunky, blocklike postwar architecture may lack the charm of Mainz, the town made a concerted effort to reconstruct and showcase remnants of its Jewish past. The old Jewish quarter around its Judengasse retains a haunting allure. Burned down by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, the 11th-century synagogue, also known as the Rashi Shul, named for the illustrious Talmudist Shlomo Yitzchaki (a.k.a. Rashi) who studied there, was rebuilt from scratch and consecrated in 1961. A 12th-century ritual bath survives untouched. History also spared the serene Heiliger Sand Cemetery, just outside town, Europe’s oldest Jewish resting place, whose tombstones tilt like the backs of old men.
Our last stop was Speyer, the loveliest of the three ShUM cities, whose reconstructed historic center is ringed with wine taverns. The SchPIRA Museum, on Kleine Pfaffengasse, near the corner of Judengasse, evokes a medieval Jewish courtyard, comprising the surviving eastern wall of a 12th-century synagogue and a monumental ritual bath.
Sipping riesling in the vaulted cellar of the Speyer Ratskeller, the restaurant in the cellar under city hall, I found myself reciting Heine’s verse and mulling in joy and sadness over more than a millennium and a half of history. “A fairy tale from ancient times, / I can’t get it out of my mind...”
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Tracing Jewish History Along the Rhine - NYTimes.com