Old Synagogue and Mikveh in Erfurt
Old Synagogue and Mikveh in Erfurt - Testimonies of everyday life, religion and town history between change and continuity is part of the Tentative list of Germany in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Old Synagogue and Mikveh in Erfurt date from the heyday of Ashkenazi Judaism and illustrate the close ties between Jewish life and the Christian environment in a medieval town. The Old Synagogue from the 11th century is considered the oldest preserved synagogue in Europe. Today, the Erfurt treasure is on display there, a hoard of coins and jewellery hidden at the time of the Black Death progroms in 1349. The property also includes a 13th century mikveh and a residential building from the same period.
Map of Old Synagogue and Mikveh in ErfurtLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
I visited this tentative WHS in August 2020 as a convenient stopover during my road trips to Poland. Perhaps due to the recent unexpected positive experience I had while visiting the synagogue in Zamosc, combined with the lack of hospitality shown by the old synagogue reception staff in Erfurt, I really did not enjoy my visit and sincerely hope this tentative WHS never makes it on the list as in my opinion it lacks any tangible OUV.
That said, at least I got some value out of the 8 euro entrance fee from the Erfurt treasure permanently displayed inside since 2009. The treasure was discovered in 1998 buried underneath the wall of a cellar entrance most likely during the pogrom of 1349. This is probably the main reason why the site is heavily guarded and photography inside is strictly not allowed. Bags (even very small ones) have to be left in free lockers at the reception. The old synagogue is closed on Mondays and entrance is free every first Tuesday of the month. The highlight of the Erfurt treasure for me was the intricate early fourteenth century Ashkenazi wedding ring. The ring features a beautifully crafted ornate miniature version of a gothic tower and six engraved Hebrew letters that spell out "mazal tov", meaning good fate or good luck, on the tower's roof. I have never seen anything like it.
The Jewish community of Erfurt first appears in historical records of the late 11th century with the Old Synagogue dating from around that time. Up until the 14th century, this Jewish place of worship underwent several modifications and adaptations to cater for the needs of the growing religious community. What can be seen today after entering the reception or by peeking through the gate of the neighboring courtyard used as a parking lot, is a tall gabled building with a rose window on one side (which is the only exterior indication that this was once used as a place of worship.
Over centuries Jews and Christians lived side by side in the centre of Erfurt. However, this can to a sudden end in 1349 when the plague broke out and the Christian population held the Jews responsible for this epidemic. Jews were persecuted and several rioters murdered a large number of Jews living in the Jewish quarters and burnt down the roof of the Old Synagogue of Erfurt. The synagogue was converted into a storehouse and during Nazi rule only the Great Synagogue was burnt down. Interestingly, a fragment of the old Torah ark served as a lintel. The north facade (the one you see from the reception) shows numerous signs of the building's varying uses. After a careful inspection, you'll be able to notice part of an air grille dating from the late 19th century when the ground floor housed the kitchen of a restaurant!
After visiting the old synagogue, I peeked through a glass panel in the roof of the concrete protective building to try to actually see the mikveh but didn't see much of the medieval remains. If you want a closer look, you must join one of the guided tours “on the trail of Jewish history” (prebooking) or visit on Thursdays at 4pm or Saturdays at 2pm in April-October or on Thursdays at 3pm in November-March. Next, I made an effort to view the third component of this tentative WHS after enjoying Erfurt's historic centre (the latter seemed much more worthwhile). On Benediktsplatz 1 in the historic city centre, a medieval stone building is located known as Jewish Stone House. Numerous essential structures from its time of construction (around 1250) have been preserved but I can't see how this can contribute anything to the WH list.
November 2019 - in my wife's business trip to Erfurt, my daughter and me joined to enjoy the area. Erfurt is a beautiful town. It has a quite unique cathedral, the Krämerbrücke is besides Florence and Bath one of the few bridges with houses on top. And there is also some Bauhaus, since Weimar is just around the corner. But for becoming a whs, Erfurt decided to nominate its jewish heritage. Two sites, that were only discovered lately during renovation. The Synagoge was built in between sheds, which now vanished. And the mikveh was covered with soil before. Therefore both sites are well preserved. We decided not to visit the Museum inside, but just have a glance from outside. The mikveh you can only see through a glass window. On a guided tour through Erfurt at evening, that was organized through the Business trip, I asked the guide about the mikveh. And...he knew the code to actually visit the interior. What a lucky chance. 1500 year old jewish stones.
However, I am not sure about the nomination. Erfurt is not like Trebic, but jews have only been part of the population. The sites propably have OUV. But please make some Serial nomination out of it.
I think that this TWHS should be deleted or changed at least. Otherwise I do not fully understand the strategy of the state party of Germany.
There are 3 active sites on the German TWHS related directly to former Jewish communities: (1) Synagogue in Erfurt as one of the oldest, largest and best preserved synagogues in Central Europe, (2) ShUM as the important community of Ashkenazi Jews with origin deeply in Middle Ages, and (3) the cemetery in Altona as the second largest Sephardic cemetery outside Portugal.
It is not likely that all three sites will be inscribed, and I can see certain rivalry between Erfurt and ShUM: The ShUM nomination has been already submitted for year 2021, and it is cleverly stated there that “The lasting influence of the ShUM communities on Ashkenazi Judaism is attested to this day by major monuments – e.g. the excellently preserved religious buildings (the synagogue and the ritual bath) in Erfurt and the mediaeval Jewish monuments in Regensburg, Vienna and Andernach.”
The justification of the Altona cemetery plays a different game stressing not Ashkenazi but its Sephardic character.
I am afraid that these are only political games, and interest about the genuine OUV lies aside, and it is somehow hidden in the elaborated phrases. All it is about the fact, that there is only one WHS in Europe focused (almost) only on the Jewish testimony – Třebíč. The rest Jewish monuments are parts of much bigger urban ensembles, as seen in Prague, Cracow, Ferrara, Bardějov, etc. - that make sense to me.
This TWHS consists of three structures located close to each other in the very center of otherwise very beautiful Erfurt: (i) the synagogue which was closed during time of my visit, but even from outside one can partly read the history of the building with visible parts dating to 1270 and 1300 (PHOTO).
(ii) During very recent excavation, the mikveh of unusual size and structure was found close to the Kramerbrucke Bridge, and I could spot it through the window.
(iii) The last part is the stone house with fine details from around 1250 on Benedictsplatz 1 (I could not enter and see it), which was apparently owned by Jewish community in middle ages, taht is arguable and this is the weakest part of the nomination if this really contributes to OUV.
Based on my search on internet, there are about 20 medieval synagogues (sometimes also with the mikweh) in Europe: in Portugal (Tomar), Spain (Cordoba, 2x Toledo, Hijar, Barcelona), France (2x Avignon), Germany (Erfurt + ShUM), Austria (Korneuburg), Czechia (Prague), Slovenia (Maribor), Italy (Ferrara, Trani), Croatia (Dubrovnik), Hungary (Buda), Poland (Cracow), and Belarus (Hrodna). From this list, I saw/visited medieval synagogues in Ferrara, Trani, Sopron, Worms, Speyer, Erfurt, Prague, and the old mikweh in Montpellier. I also visited a lot of synagogues from later periods: such as around 10 (!) synagogues in Prague, and many others in Czechia, including Třebíč, Pilsen, etc., and also the small Jewish quarter with synagogue in Pitigliano in Tuscany, and I am sure I forgot some places… My favorite is the old new synagogue in Prague, which is perfectly preseved, still in use and built in the same time as the visible parts of the old synagogue in Erfurt.
It is evident, that the testimony of Jewish community is very complex and it is difficult to separate it from the context of other cultures. Thus, I cannot see any OUV in the single synagogue in Erfurt. The building itself is very old but certainly not unique as it has been built in standard medieval style found elsevere in Europe.
The chances of ShUM are much higher – I am planning to visit all the ShUM components again, because I have not yet seen the cemetery in Mainz. I will not be surprised also in the case of success of Altona cemetery, but my guess is it will be submitted as a serial nomination with other related sites all over the world.
As mentioned in the review below, the building has not been used as synagogue for a very long time, but rather as warehouse and restaurant/ballroom. In the picture, you can still see the ventilation system from the restaurant. Because the building was no longer recognisable as a synagogue, it survived the Third Reich.
We visited the museum on a Tuesday to find out that the entrance was free (don't know if this true for every Tuesday), including a guided tour. The tour was given by two women, one specialist in judaism and one muslima who both explained the history of the synagogue & the rituals of both religions.
Although certainly interesting, we also feel that the site lacks outstanding universal value to be recognised as a WHS.
The subtitle sounds a bit overblown and boastful compared to what this T-list site actually includes, namely a synagogue, the ruins of a ritual bath and a secular building. The photo shows the synagogue, it is the same view as in the photo of the Wiki article and the same view as in almost all photos that can be found on the web, indicating that there is not much more to see. The oldest parts of the building have been dated back to the late 11th century, but nothing inside is reminiscent of the original use. At least the façade with the lancet windows and the rosette looks like a religious building. After the pogrom in 1349, the building was used as a warehouse for several centuries, later as a restaurant with a ballroom. Therefore, it was no longer recognisable as a synagogue for a long time. In the 1990s, the Old Synagogue was rediscovered, renovated in the following years, and opened as a museum in 2009. The museum shows medieval Hebrew manuscripts and models documenting the architectural history of the synagogue. The most important exhibit is the Erfurt Treasure, consisting of silver coins and gold and silver jewellery. The treasure was hidden by a wealthy Jew in 1349 and rediscovered in 1998. The ballroom from the 19th century can still be seen on the upper floor.
Not far from the synagogue is the ritual bath, or rather its ruins. The ruins were discovered and excavated only a few years ago. Today, the mikveh is overbuilt by a protective building and can only be visited with a (free) guided tour (weekly on Thursday afternoon). But you can take a look at the ruins through a small window on the roof of the building. I visited Erfurt in 2013 and took a guided tour. The mikveh is located at the banks of the River Gera, so it's only a few steps down to the bath. There is not more to see than the water basin and the side walls up to the height where the vaulting begins. Well, it's not worth to plan your trip according to the date of the guided tours.
Finally, the Stone House, a residential building in the centre of the old town, that once had Jewish owners. The T-list entry mentions that the interior has a painted beam ceiling and other unique architectural elements, but the house is not yet open to the public, thus I can not report on that. From the outside it's just an old building between other old buildings. Admittedly, it is the oldest wall, but can easily be overlooked and I had difficulties to identify the right house.
The three buildings are close together in the centre of the lovely old town and not far from the Krämerbrücke (a kind of northern version of the Ponte Vecchio). The remains are of a remarkable age, but that's the most impressive about them.
It has been proposed to combine the nominations of the ShUM cities and from Erfurt, but I don't think that this would be an improvement. There is no obvious connection between them. The strength of the ShUM nomination is the proven significance for the development of Ashkenazi Judaism, the extension by Erfurt would rather weaken the proposal. In contrast, the sites in Erfurt have been rediscovered only recently and further research is needed to reveal their historical background. Thus the Erfurt approach is more general: to testify “everyday life, religion and town history”. However, I doubt that the sites have the quality to tell a compelling story and meet this ambitious claim.
2015 Added to Tentative List
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