“Heiliger Sand“/"Holy Sands": the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe
The Jewish cemetery in Worms is the eldest preserved in situ in Europe. Tombstones seen here are dated back to 1055/56. Graves of significant scholars are found here as well as those of martyrs or ordinary community members. The tradition of travelling to the graves of scholars is known since the 14th century.
Among those buried in Worms are:
- Rabbi Meir von Rothenburg, called MaHaRam (died 1293),
- Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen (died 1307),
- Rabbi Nathan ben Issak (died 1333),
- Rabbi Jakob ben Moses haLevi, called MaHaRil (died 1427),
- Rabbi Meir ben Isaak (died 1511),
- Elia Loanz, ein Baal-Schem (died 1636).
The cemetery survived medieval expulsions and pogroms and even the Shoah – not always completely unscathed, yet without suffering major damage or having numerous stones removed, so that some 2,500 stones are witness to the history of the community.
An initial documentation project of the cemetery in the 19th century remained unfinished. Following up on this, in the course of the application for UNESCO- World heritage Status the work of historical inventory of the gravestones will continue, for the most part by Prof. Michael Brocke and his team from Salomon Ludwig Steinheim-Institute for German-Jewish History at the University Duisburg-Essen. The project is financially supported by the Antiquity Association Worms.
The 1000 year history of the Worms’ community came to a brutal end with the last deportations in September 1942 – but the significance of ShUM did not end with the Shoah. During the past few years a new Jewish community has revived the former ShUM area in Worms.
Structural Ensemble: Jewish life in Worms
In Worms it is possible to get a clear impression of the urban situation and thereby of the course of the medieval Jewish quarter: the remains of the city wall, gate ways, and the re-development as of the 1960’s of the “Jews Alley“ along the original course of the street make it possible to physically experience the past atmosphere in the small street. Worthy of mention are also the historical cellar vaults below some of the newly erected houses, many of which have been assessed as part of conservational measures. These traces of the medieval and modern life in the “Jews Alley” could be visualized in the future for the public or even made directly accessible. These are important remains although not relevant for the UNESCO-application.
The Jewish Quarter, ca 1760
What survived, concealed from the destruction of the Shoah, was the mikveh, donated in 1185/86. The underground ritual bath was created as a close adaptation of the one in Speyer, although a bit smaller, and is therefore an outstanding monumental mikveh. In the future the ritual bath will be assessed and secured in the course of conservational measures. Since November 2016 the ritual bath is closed for grouops and individual visitors due to renovation works. A website informs you about the Mikveh and its renovation: www.schumstaedte.de/mikwe-worms
The Worms’ synagogue in the Jews Alley or rather, at the Synagogue Square, is – as a monument and as a memorial room - of highest significance for the Jewish heritage and ShUM. The medieval-like Synagogue, reconstructed after the Shoah, reflects various layers of Jewish and non-Jewish history, across different eras and centuries. With this a place has been created in and around the Worms Synagogue, singular in Germany in Europe that holds and reflects Jewish traditions and narrative, but also behavioral patterns of the non-Jewish majority society through the ages.
The synagogue, consecrated in 1034, severely damaged during the pogroms in 1096, was replaced in 1174/75 by a new synagogue at the same site. A women’s synagogue was added to the structure in 1212/13. After the destruction during the plague pogrom in 1349 and the rebuilding that followed, new vaults were added. Following anti-Jewish riots in 1615 the structure had to be repaired anew; in the same time period, the community decided on expansions. The core component here was a niche (Apsis) in the form of a half-circle, which, since the 18th century, had gained fame, even legendary status, as Rashi-Schoolroom or Rashi-Yeshiva. Rashi never taught there, but it is the spirit and wisdom of Rashi that find a place there. War and rebuilding in the 17th century led to the structure’s appearance as recognized around the world, until its deliberate destruction in the November pogrom 1938. The ruins after the fire from 1938 were torn down from the endof 1939 up to 1941.
After the Shoah, the significance of ShUM remained unbroken. Jewish survivors who were eagerly waiting in camps for Displaced Persons to be able to emigrate from Europe visited Worms, to honor these sites of historical Judaism. But ShUM was also a personal affirmation that Jewish remembrance of scholarship, traditions, and history outlasts any worldly destruction.
The old synagogue is located between the Rashi-House, built in the 1980’s, and the “Haus zur Sonne”. Right across from the reconstructed Synagogue stands a residential building at the site of the Levy Synagogue, inaugurated in 1875. This synagogue's inside was vandalized in 1938, but, because of the proximity to the surrounding houses, the building was not set on fire. In January 1945 during an airstrike attack it suffered additional destruction; in 1947 the city removed what was left of the ruins. A small commemorative plaque is a reminder of the synagogue.
In the 1950’s the city, state, and federal governments decided to rebuild the synagogue. Construction plans, photos, and reports served to ensure the highest possible historical accuracy. Original structural elements which had been salvaged as well as the donor’s inscription for the first synagogue from the 11th century could be re-used, as could the legendary Chair of Rashi. The foundation walls, visible today, originated from the years 1175/75.
The new consecration followed in 1961. The fact that Jewish emigrants and survivors reacted very differently to the reconstruction after the Shoah is understandable. Some of them approved of the reconstruction, others rejected it.
The rebuilding of the synagogue could not, and cannot make up for what the community had suffered after 1933. More than 70 years after the end of the Shoah, however, Jewish life has made room for itself in Germany – and the old synagogue in Worms is a part of that. Like the mikveh, it belongs to the Jewish community Mainz-Worms.
The Worms Synagogue conveys a lasting impression of the unbroken relevance of the attraction and significance of the ShUM-city of Worms. It summarizes history and the present.
Also located on the Synagogue square is the “Haus zur Sonne“, which belonged to the Jewish community, housed a Jewish school after 1935 until it was closed in July 1942. Today the offices of the Jewish Community Worms as well as the administration offices of the ShUM-Cities Association are located there, but the building does not belong to the UNESCO application.
Also near the synagogue is the so-called Rashi-House. Until 1971, the Community's House of Teachings, Dance, and Weddings, which was also the hospital and retirement home, stood on the same spot. After the last of the deportations from Worms to the camps it had makeshift use, for example as a place for the homeless, but continued to deteriorate and was torn down in 1971. The city erected the new building above the authentic cellar vault in 1980/82. The City Archives and the Photo Archives are housed there, as well a Judaica Museum which has existed since 1982, making this a contact point not only for scholars and scientists, but also for genealogists and descendants of Jews from Worms. These cellar vaults dating back to the 13th century are of importance for the UNESCO-application as in Europe only few are known and they are integral part of the community's ground.