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Celebrating 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany

19.02.2021

Kosher food, Jewish holidays and theater mark a yearlong celebration of the diversity of Jewish culture in Germany dating back to the 4th century.

Back in the year 321, Cologne, then the capital of the Lower Germanic province of the Roman Empire, inspired an official edict that marks the earliest evidence of Jewish life in Germany.

When the Cologne City Council wanted to repair a dilapidated bridge but lacked the financial means, a Jew named Isaac wanted to help out. He would, however, have to hold office in the city council. A request was subsequently submitted to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.

"By law valid throughout the empire, we permit all city councils to appoint Jews to the city council," read the resulting edict issued by Constantine 1,700 years ago. The emperor had unknowingly produced the first written evidence of Jewish life in Europe north of the Alps.

Jewish culture throughout the ages

Archaeologists have also unearthed traces of Cologne's medieval Jewish community under the central Rathausplatz or Town Hall Square, including the remains of an 11th-century synagogue and the mikweh, the women's ritual baths.

After the remains were discovered in the 1950s, the Rathausplatz was subsequently converted into a parking lot as part of the postwar reconstruction. The Jewish cultural remnants disappeared underground until 2007, when archaeologists ripped up the pavement again.

The resulting dig turned out to be the discovery of the century: a jumble of alleys, walls, cellars and stairs were part of a complete medieval Jewish quarter. Were sections already standing in the year 321?

Cologne has applied for the quarter to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A museum is to be built over the archaeological site and is due to open in 2024. Cologne has applied for the quarter to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is further evidence of Jewish life from the early Middle Ages in other German cities. In Augsburg, archaeologists discovered an oil lamp from the 4th or 5th century on which a menorah, a Jewish candelabrum, is depicted.

Jewish life also existed in Trier, another former Roman town in the far west, as evidenced by an edict of Emperor Valentinian I (364-375) that forbade soldiers from being accommodated in synagogues.

Making Jewish life visible

Emperor Constantine's edict of 321 remains the oldest source of Jewish life, however. It provides important evidence of a "coexistence of different religions," said Andrei Kovacs, managing director of the "321-2021: 1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany" association and co-organizer of the anniversary year.

Especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism, it is important to "make Jewish life visible," said Kovacs. The 46-year-old musician and entrepreneur hails from Romania and has a Jewish-Hungarian background. His grandparents survived the Budapest ghetto and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

"Anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are probably over 1,700 years old. But we also want to show what Jews have contributed to society in those years," he said. "There are many great initiatives today to create conversations between Jewish and non-Jewish people in our society."

Synagogues in Germany
Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin

The Jewish community in Berlin with more than 11,000 members is once again the biggest in Germany. Its main synagogue is on the Rykestrasse, a red-brick building in a Neo-Romanesque style dating from 1903/04. With seating for over 2,000 it is the second largest synagogue in Europe after the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest.

Synagogues in Germany
Erfurt Synagogue

It's thought to be one of the oldest synagogues still standing in Europe. It was by chance in the year 1100 that the Erfurt Synagogue survived a medieval pogrom as well as repeated phases of persecution. It was converted into a storage hall and later even used as a ballroom, so its true purpose remained hidden until the 1990s. It was eventually restored and re-opened in 2009 as a museum.

Synagogues in Germany
Jewish Cemetery 'Heiliger Sand' in Worms

The first settled Jewish communities were established along a north-south passage following the Rhine river between Speyer, Mainz and Worms. The oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe can be found in the synagogue compound in Worms. The tombstones with over 2,000 still legible inscriptions, some dating back to the 11th century, are well worth seeing.

Synagogues in Germany
Cologne Synagogue

Cologne was one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany during the Weimar Republic. In 1933 there were seven synagogues. On November 9, 1938, during the nationwide pogroms of Kristallnacht, all houses of prayer were destroyed. After the war, the synagogue in Roonstraße was the only one to be rebuilt. Today it is once again a lively center of Jewish culture in Germany.

Synagogues in Germany
The "document" at the Neupfarrplatz in Regensburg

The first Jewish community in Bavaria was based in Regensburg. In the Middle Ages it was one of the most important in Europe. The first synagogue, which was destroyed in 1519, is today commemorated by a work of art in white stone marking the outline of the synagogue. In 1995, during excavation work, the old remnants were found, leading to the creation of an underground information center.

Synagogues in Germany
The Baroque synagogue in Bayreuth

The synagogue in Bayreuth has a very different history. The building, from 1715, served as an opera house and was only later converted by the Jewish community into a synagogue. Today it is the only surviving Baroque style synagogue in Germany, which is still used today as a place of worship.

Synagogues in Germany
Ulm Synagogue

The Jewish community in Ulm has had a synagogue again since 2012. Former German President Gauck attended the inauguration, at which he spoke of "a day of joy for all people of good will". The building, which is oriented towards Jerusalem, is to be the central contact point for Jews in the east of Württemberg and in the Bavarian part of Swabia.

Synagogues in Germany
The Great Synagogue of Augsburg

It is the only synagogue in Bavaria to have survived National Socialism almost unscathed. Opened in 1917, the Art Nouveau building is considered one of the most beautiful prayer houses in Europe. The eye-catcher is the 29-meter-high dome, which is decorated with oriental elements. The synagogue also houses the Jewish Cultural Museum, which documents the history of the Jews in Augsburg.

Synagogues in Germany
The timber-framed synagogue in Celle

In this region of Germany, Jews were only granted permission to build synagogues in 1737. This simple, timber-framed building dates from this period. The opulent, Baroque-style interior, like so many synagogues in Germany, fell victim to the Nazi "Kristallnacht" pogrom in November 1938. Since 1974, the building has been used once again as a synagogue.

Synagogues in Germany
The Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt

The early 20th century rang in an economic boom for Jews in Germany, which, in turn, inspired a more liberal movement within the Jewish community. This synagogue dates from this era and resembles Assyrian–Egyptian architecture. Neither Nazi pogroms nor the Second World War could fully destroy it. So, to this day, it stands as a testament to the glory days of German Jewish life.

Synagogues in Germany
The Old Synagogue in Essen

The Old Synagogue in Essen was built between 1911 and 1913. It was one of the largest and most important Jewish centers in prewar Germany, but was severely damaged by the Nazis in 1938. After the war it served first as a museum for industrial design and later as a place of commemoration and documentation. After elaborate reconstruction work it is now home to the "House of Jewish Culture" museum.

Synagogues in Germany
The New Synagogue in Dresden

The Old Synagogue in Dresden, designed by Gottfried Semper and part of the city's famous skyline, was destroyed in 1938. More than half a century later, at the same location, this award-winning new building was opened in 2001. Inside the sanctuary, is a cube containing a square worship space, curtained off on all sides, intended to evoke an echo on the scale of the Temple at Jerusalem.

Synagogues in Germany
Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich

Munich also set out to architecturally mark a new chapter in German Jewish history. The Ohel Jakob, or Jacob's Tent, synagogue was inaugurated in 2006. The building is part of the new Jewish Center consisting of the synagogue, the Jewish Museum of Munich and a community center funded by the city. With its 9,500 members, the Jewish community in Munich is one of the biggest in Germany.

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'Religion and intellectual history'

The yearlong celebrations were scheduled to kick off this month. However, the planned ceremony with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has already been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the journey of Constantine's edict, the events will include a traveling exhibition with stops in other cities in North Rhine-Westphalia as well as in Berlin.

Themes such as "Right and Wrong," "Living and Being Together," "Religion and Intellectual History" and "Faces, Stories and Feelings" will make the everyday and intellectual history of Jewish life in Germany tangible.

"Our strategy is to undertake a new approach. We want to appeal to as broad a segment of society as possible and also create easy access to Jewish culture at times," said Kovacs.

The nationwide celebration will include, among others, a puppet theater that playfully explains Jewish holidays, a dance and performance festival called "Israel is real," kosher food tasting sessions and a Jewish Cultural Summer. In the event of another lockdown, online alternatives may be available.

Countering anti-Semitism through culture

"1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany" is deliberately planned as an event that doesn't just look back, Kovacs explained. The persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust will therefore not be the focus during the anniversary year. "We want to counter the often difficult and tragic past with something positive," he said.

Kovacs cited the "Sukkot XXL" project, which will attempt to introduce a Jewish holiday such as the Feast of Tabernacles in a simple way.

"We want to build and decorate a leaf hut, a 'sukkah,' together," he said. "The idea is to spend a lot of time in it: eating together in it, drinking together, talking, laughing, arguing." Such a cultural experience aims to counteract possible "prejudices or illusions." 

The anniversary of Jewish life in Germany is a celebration of existing religious diversity

Celebrating religious diversity

A new work of art depicting the current relationship between Jews and Christians will also be created at the Cologne Cathedral. In addition, the Archdiocese of Cologne wants to contribute to the commemorative year by addressing the anti-Semitic sculptures at the cathedral such as the "Jew's sow."

Cologne's Rabbi Yechiel Brukner called for a radical approach. "It would be great if it were decided, quite boldly and revolutionarily: Stop the anti-Jewish depictions in the cathedral."

Discussions on similarly offensive sculptures have already taken place at other German churches, but none have yet been removed. Such debate can help bring deep-seated prejudices to light, said Kovacs. "I hope that this year we can make precisely such 'open wounds' visible and stimulate such important discourses."

As stated by the "321-2021: 1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany" association, the ultimate hope is for 2021 to be "a year in which bridges can be built and walls can be torn down by putting a focus on our shared life."

On Sunday, February 21 from 10:00 UTC, DW TV's German-language program will focus on the topic "1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany." It can be watched here

This article has been adapted from German by Brenda Haas.

Sabine Oelze