Europe TravelQuick Trips
Rhine River urban sites shine light on centuries of Jewish history in Germany
Stars and Stripes January 27, 2023
When American and allied forces moved into Germany and Poland at the end of World War II, they liberated Jewish prisoners from concentration camps and brought an end to the Holocaust.
It’s a moment in Jewish history most Americans learn about at school and on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is commemorated each year on Jan. 27.
Much less studied, though, is the over 1,000 years of Jewish life in Germany before the war.
The cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, all provide lessons about their Jewish communities throughout the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages.
The three Rhine River cities were home to some of the earliest Jewish settlements north of the Alps and are considered the cradle of Ashkenazic Jewry, a diaspora population that coalesced in Europe around the end of the first millennium and today constitutes about 80% of Jews globally.
These so-called “ShUM” communities, an acronym derived from the Hebrew names of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, were centers of scholarship and formed an association from the 11th century with common laws that would affect the spiritual and intellectual life of Jews throughout Western Europe.
In 2021, UNESCO granted World Heritage status to various Jewish sites in the three cities, which are near one another and easy to reach from several U.S. military installations in the area.
I chose to travel by train during a recent visit. My first stop was Speyer, about an hour ride from my starting point, Kaiserslautern.
Before setting off, I downloaded the SchUM-Stadte mobile app to help guide me through the various sites in each city. I recommend it.
It provides stories with English audio and visuals that help visitors get a more thorough understanding of each location.
Admittedly, the stories can be a bit bizarre at times. In Speyer, for example, we hear about a statue of a medieval Jewish scholar that comes to life and flirts with an American tourist.
But overall, the app is a useful tool, and the quirkiness adds levity to tales often rife with heartache, death and destruction.
All the sites in Speyer are at the SchPIRA museum, which is about a 15-minute walk from the city’s main train station. Schpira, or Shpira, is the Hebrew name for Speyer.
After passing through a small exhibition space, visitors proceed outside into the Jewry Court, the earliest preserved Jewish community center in central Europe, which was developed from about the year 1090.
Here stands the aforementioned scholar statue. Also in this spot is the much older Speyer synagogue, originally built in the early 12th century and rebuilt around 1200 after being damaged in the Crusades.
Several of its walls are still standing, making it one of the best-preserved synagogues of its epoch in Europe.
A few steps away is the even more impressive mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, where men and women used to cleanse themselves on special occasions or after encountering anything deemed impure. Built around 1120, it’s the oldest of its kind in northern Europe.
To reach the mikvah’s basin, where groundwater and rainwater collect, visitors must pass through a Romanesque portal and descend two staircases beneath the ground.
About an hour train ride north of Speyer is Worms, one of the oldest cities in Germany and home to the oldest preserved Jewish cemetery on the Continent.
The Heiliger Sand cemetery is about a 10-minute walk from Worms’ main train station. The oldest of its roughly 2,500 visible gravestones date back to the 1050s.
Despite being a place for the dead, the cemetery is a symbol of survival.
Touring the ShUM sites makes visitors aware of the waves of terror Jews in the region suffered throughout the centuries, including mass murder during the Crusades, subsequent massacres and repeated expulsions. The Holocaust continued this history of horror.
Yet through it all, the Heiliger Sand managed to escape major damage and endure. This wasn’t the case for other graveyards, whose tombstones were stolen and repurposed as building material.
The SchUM-Stadte app has two separate stories on the cemetery and those buried there.
Another area of Worms rich in Jewish history is Synagogenplatz, which is about a 10-minute walk from Heiliger Sand. A synagogue was first built at the site in 1034, but it was severely damaged during the German Crusade of 1096 and rebuilt in 1175.
The earliest known women’s section of a synagogue anywhere in the world was added to the building in 1212-13. After further destruction in World War II, the synagogue was rebuilt with original materials and is now open to visitors.
Visitors also can explore the nearby Jewish Museum in the Rashi-House, which offers additional insight into the ShUM communities. However, the exhibition is predominantly in German.
The final ShUM city, Mainz, is about a half-hour north of Worms on the train. At the height of the Middle Ages, Mainz’s Jewish community rivaled those in in Speyer and Worms, but few physical traces of it remain.
Despite the dearth of artifacts, the SchUM-Stadte app provides a guided walk through the city, which was one of my favorite parts of the entire ShUM sites tour.
Early on, the walk passes by a fragment of Mainz’s medieval city wall, described as a stone witness to the city’s Jewish history. It continues to where the Jewish Quarter existed in the Middle Ages and to where the Jewish ghetto stood from the end of the 17th century.
Listening to descriptions of what used to be on the now nondescript city streets was an absorbing and slightly haunting experience.
The walk concludes at Mainz’s Old Jewish Cemetery.
All the ShUM sites are well worth a visit. After a day of exploring, visitors will feel a connection to the area’s past and to the Jewish communities whose voices continue to be heard in the present.
Sites on the Rhine
SchPIRA museum: Kleine Pfaffengasse 20/21, Speyer Heiliger Sand Cemetery: Willy-Brandt-Ring 21, Worms Synagogenplatz, Worms Jewish Museum at Rashi House: Hintere Judengasse 6, Worms Old Jewish Cemetery: Mombacherstrasse 61, Mainz
Hours: Variable. More information on opening hours and guided tours in each city can be found here.
Cost: SchUM-Stadte app: free; SchPIRA museum: 4 euros for adults, children 10 and under free; Heiliger Sand cemetery: free; Synagogenplatz Worms: free; Jewish Museum at Rashi-House: adults 1.50 euros, children 0.80 euros. Various paid parking options are available in each city close to the sites.
Information: SchPIRA museum +49 6232 291971, Jewish Museum at Rashi-House +49 6241 853 4701