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Monday, August 3, 2015

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Strasbourg: the city at the crossroads of Europe

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Strasbourg, an enchanting historic place in the Alsace region of France, is a city of contrasts: the language is French, but the architecture, food and wine are mostly German as, over the centuries, Alsace changed back and forth between French and German hands.

Strasbourg’s neighbourhood of La Petite France, with its lovely 16th-century houses reflecting in canal.  [Robert Shechter photo]

The name of Strasbourg – meaning “town at the crossing of roads” – is of Germanic origin: “stras,” from Strasse (street), and “burg,” from town or citadel.

Strasbourg has an especially well preserved historic centre, the Grande Ile, which was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. Also within the Grande Ile is the neighbourhood of La Petite France, with 16th- and 17th-century half-timbered houses and lovely canals.

There are other “firsts” for this town rich in history: the first book printed by Gutenberg saw the light here around 1440; also the sounds of the Marseillaise, then named Chant militaire pour l’Armee du Rhin, were first heard here in 1792.

More than 1,000 years ago, Strasbourg was the capital of the first European Union under the emperor Charlemagne, whose empire spanned a region resembling that of the founding states of the current European Union. History was repeated when Strasbourg, at the “crossroads of Europe,” was chosen as the headquarters of the Council of Europe in 1949, and eventually as the seat of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament.

My visit to Strasbourg started with a surprise. And it was not a pleasant surprise.

Strasbourg, an 18th-century architectural gem, has a rich Jewish history. Benjamin of Tudela, the Sephardi traveller who chronicled the Jewish world of his time, wrote that Jews were living in Strasbourg already around 1170.

Like Jews in the rest of Europe, the Jews of Alsace suffered through persecutions, blood libel accusations, having to wear distinctive identity tags, and forcible baptisms. After the French Revolution, all the French Jews were emancipated and granted civil rights.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Jewish population of Strasbourg had reached 1,000. Recovering from the devastation of the German occupation and the Shoah, Strasbourg is now home to about 16,000 Jews.

But let’s return to my unpleasant surprise. Armed with this historical knowledge and a good map of the city, my husband, Robert, and I proceeded to explore the old medieval Jewish quarter, which used to cover a few streets not too far from the Notre Dame Cathedral. I was looking especially for the rue des Juifs (street of the Jews), clearly marked on my city map, which was one of the oldest streets in the city and the heart of the old Jewish quarter, built over the ancient east-west Roman road.

We located the intersection where the street started and looked for the street sign. No sign whatsoever. Undaunted, we walked to the end of the street looking for maybe another street sign there. Again, no sign, but we could see the discoloured place on the wall where that sign has been.

I went into a store, a papeterie, and asked the owner what the name of the street was. “Rue des Juifs,” he answered. He proceeded to tell me that the signs were taken down, he did not know by whom, including a prominent street sign on a post at the corner. And the city had not replaced them as yet.

Continuing to look for vestiges of this medieval community, I found at #15 on this “no-name” street, written on glass on top of the entrance: “Cour Du Bain Des Juifs” (“the Court of the Bath of the Jews”), meaning the mikvah. Next to it, a plaque on the wall read: “Dans ce secteur se trouvait le centre de la communaute juive medievale. Avant le massacre de 1349, la synagogue se situait au #15, puis au #30, et le bain rituel au #19” (“the centre of the medieval Jewish community was situated in the area. Before the 1349 massacre, the synagogue was at #15, later at #30, and the mikvah at #19”).

Robert and I photographed a few more buildings, some of them beautifully half-timbered, one which used to house the community bakery – now a clothing store, another two on the adjacent rue des Charpentiers that used to be, respectively, a mikvah and a butcher shop. Full of nostalgia for a long gone past, I was pleased that, at least, people were still reminded that at one time there was a vibrant community here, even if someone had decided to suppress the name of rue des Juifs.

Trying to overcome my unpleasant feeling about this, we moved on to other interesting spots. The one-spired Notre Dame Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic art completed in 1439 and, until the 19th century, the highest building in Europe, attracts most tourists with its delicately ornamented façade, richly stained windows and the 1842 Astronomical Clock. Under the clock I came upon an entrance flanked by two statues: Ecclesia and Sinagoga, dated from around 1230. Ecclesia represents Christianity, smiling in triumph over her enemy, Sinagoga, representing Judaism who, with a broken staff, her head bowed, and blindfolded, cannot see the truth of Christianity.

After this new interesting piece of history, I was ready for something fun. Well, I found it in the world-famous foie gras, the pride and joy of the city of Strasbourg. This gastronomical marvel started with the Jews who mastered the technique of fattening and preserving the liver, according to some sources, since their departure from Egypt. Next, the Romans introduced the goose into Alsace. Finally, in 1780, the chef Jean-Pierre Clause perfected the recipe of the foie gras. We tried to buy some, but decided that we could not afford it on our current income.

As I was saying goodbye to the photogenic cobblestone streets and the half-timbered houses of Strasbourg, I thought that maybe on my next visit, if I am careful with my finances, I might be able to taste some foie gras. And maybe the rue des Juifs signs will be back where they belong.

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