»Heiliger Sand«/»Holy Sands«: the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe

The Jewish cemetery in Worms is the oldest preserved in situ in Europe. Tombstones seen here are dated back to 1058/59. Graves of significant scholars are found here as well as those of martyrs or ordinary community members - and half of them were placed here for women. The tradition of travelling to the graves of scholars is known since the 14th century.
Among those buried in Worms are:

  • Malka bat Chalafta, Cabnor (died 1228),

  • Jochewed bat Jechiel ben Ephraim (died 1287),

  • Rabbi Meir von Rothenburg, called MaHaRam (died 1293),
  • Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen (died 1307),
  • Rabbi Nathan ben Isaak (died 1333),
  • Rabbi Jakob ben Moses haLevi, called MaHaRil (died 1427),
  • Rabbi Meir ben Isaak (died 1511),
  • Elia Loanz, a Baal-Shem (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, accompanying 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, a clear impression of the urban planning situation and thus of the course of the medieval Jewish quarter is possible. Remains of the city wall, entrance gates, and the rebuilding of Judengasse along the original course of the street from the 1960s onwards make it possible to experience the former atmosphere topographically and atmospherically. Also worthy of note are the historic cellar vaults under some of the newly built houses, many of which have already been examined by the Historic Preservation Society. The houses 11/13 can be traced back to the 13th century. They are important testimonies of the past - although not relevant for the UNESCO application.

© City Archives Worms

The Jewish Quarter, ca 1760

What survived, concealed from the destruction of the Crusades, Pogroms and even 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. It has been the subject of architectural and historical research for years, and methods of restoration and careful restoration have been researched. On the basis of this research, the mikvah will be secured and carefully restored. The mikveh is closed to visitors and groups since November 2016. A website informs you about the Mikveh and its maintenance: Mikveh 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 Synagogue, rebuilt 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.

© City Archives Worms
© City Archives Worms
© City Archives Worms

The synagogue, established first in 1034, severely damaged during the pogroms in 1096, was replaced in 1174/75 by a new synagogue which was erected close to the first base. 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. One 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.
The women's school received a vestibul - the »Judenratsstube« where the Jewish council met, on the first floor with a foyer to the women's shul. This front is the first impression for visitors today when they enter the synagogue square.
War and rebuilding in the 17th century led to the compounds 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 in 1939. The remains were up to 1,80 m in height and preserved throughout teh war in the rubble.
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.
Right across from the rebuilt 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 non-Jewish initiative to rebilut the Synagogue after the Shoah is understandable. Some of them approved of the reconstruction, others rejected it as no Jewish community existed back then in Worms.

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 synagogue in Worms is a part of that. The Jewish community Mainz-Worms is proprietor of the Mikveh and the Synagogue. 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 present as layers of history.
Anna Kischner, Head of the Jewish Community of Mainz, welcomed participants to a conference who visited the Worms Synagogue in April 2018: »The time-honored synagogue in Worms, although rebuilt after the Shoah, is not only a place of remembrance for us Jews in Mainz and Worms, but also worldwide , The synagogue, as modest in its dimensions and features as it is, reflects for us Jews the light and dark eras of the history of the Jews in Germany. We are the owners and see in the house far more than a historically significant monument. We perceive it as a living memorial to the changing history of Jews on German soil. And at the same time it is our synagogue for us, which is finally filled with Jewish life again.«
Also located on the Synagogue square is on its righter side a building from the 1860s, which belonged to the Jewish community. It 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 is not integrated into the UNESCO-application. Near the synagogue one can visit the 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 deportations from Worms to the Nazi-camps it got into ownership of the City and was totally reused, for example as a place for the homeless. It deteriorated 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 Jewish Museum which exists since 1982. The cellar vaults dating back to the 12th/13th century and a wall with Pietra Rasa comparable to that in the Mikveh, are spectacular. They are integrated into the new exhibition of the Jewish Museum Worms.
Website on the new Exhibition