ERFURT, Germany – The oldest synagogue in central Europe, which dates back to the 11th century, was successively a warehouse, a restaurant and a dance hall before it was rediscovered about a decade ago and converted into a museum in a blaze of local pride.
The Alte Synagoge, or Old Synagogue, constructed in three stages from 1094 onward, was a house of worship until a savage pogrom in 1394. Touched off by groundless accusations that Jews had poisoned the city’s wells, this spasm of violence resulted in the destruction of Erfurt’s medieval Jewish community.
The shul, sold to a merchant, was reconfigured for different purposes, and from the 17th to the 19th century, much of its facade was concealed by newly-constructed buildings.
During the next century or so, the building decayed to such a degree that even the Nazis left it alone. But in the late 1980s – before the Berlin Wall fell and when Erfurt was known as the Silicon Valley of the now-defunct Communist state of East Germany – art historian Rosita Peterseim began investigating the site.
Armed with a medieval map of Erfurt, she “discovered” the Old Synagogue. Her efforts were complemented by Elmar Altwasser, a historian who would write a book on the shul.
After the Old Synagogue was bought by the city from a private trust fund, the nondescript buildings that had obscured it were summarily demolished. Reconstruction commenced, a process that took almost a decade to complete, said Ines Beese, the director of the Old Synagogue.
As it was being renovated, construction workers elsewhere stumbled upon the Erfurt Treasure, a fabulous 28-kilogram cache of beautifully handcrafted silver and gold jewelry, coins, pendants, beakers, bowls, button clasps, cups, belt buckles, dress ornaments, ingots and a cosmetic set.
Not realizing what they had found, the workers butted out their cigarettes in a silver bowl, one of the items they had excavated, said Beese.
Further investigations revealed that the Erfurt Treasure had belonged to a Jewish banker, Kalman von Wiehe, who had buried it as the 14 th century pogrom unfolded.
The Erfurt Treasure, a rare find of its kind from the Middle Ages, is displayed in all its splendor in the Old Synagogue, which opened to the public in the autumn of 2009. It is now Erfurt’s top tourist attraction.
Indeed, Exhibit A in Erfurt’s bid to attain UNESCO World Heritage status is the Old Synagogue, said city official Sarah Laubenstein. “We in Germany have a special responsibility to raise awareness about Jewish history,” she explained.
The Erfurt Treasure, exhibited in glass cases in the basement that was once a bowling ally, consists of 3,141 coins from Frankfurt, France, Holland and Sicily, 14 silver ingots and literally hundreds of pieces of Gothic jewelry. By far the most extraordinary item of jewelry is an oversized and amazingly intricate Ashkenazi gold wedding ring studded with precious jewels, adorned with a gothic tower and engraved with six Hebrew letters that spell out mazal tov.
Embedded into a concrete wall in the courtyard of the Old Synagogue are fragments from 13th and 14th century tombstones, all engraved with faint Hebrew lettering.
The gravestones were taken from a medieval Jewish cemetery, which was plundered and leveled during the pogrom, when upwards of 900 members of Erfurt’s Jewish community were murdered.
During the 15th century, my guide told me, a wheat storage building was erected on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery. Today, the weathered building on St. Michael Strasse stands abandoned and forlorn, with plans afoot to convert it into a garage. As for the tombstones, they were used as building materials.
Within earshot of the Old Synagogue is a 13th century mikvah, discovered six years ago. Jews were permitted to return to Erfurt about five years after the pogrom, but were expelled yet again in 1453. With their expulsion, the mikvah was converted into a cellar.
The deeply-entrenched antisemitism of the Middle Ages graphically manifests itself in an oak carving in St. Mary’s cathedral, the oldest church in Erfurt. The carving, portraying a German knight on a horse facing off against a Jew wearing a typically peaked Jewish hat and sitting on the back of a pig, speaks volumes.
Being barred from Erfurt until the early 19th century, Jews, in 1840, built what today is referred to as the neo-classical Small Synagogue. When it was no longer big enough for the community, a far larger Moorish-style synagogue replaced it in 1884.
It was destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in November 1938. To add insult to injury, they demanded that the cost of dismantling and fencing off the ruins should be borne by Jews.
Sold to a merchant, the Small Synagogue was by turns a storage facility and a residential building. Twenty one years ago, after having been listed as a historic monument, it was turned into a venue for interfaith meetings, lectures, exhibitions and concerts. A permanent exhibit in the basement contains a wealth of Jewish religious articles ranging from kippas to pages from a Torah scroll.
Erfurt’s third synagogue building, the New Synagogue, was completed in 1952, and was the only shul built during the entire Communist era. It serves the mainly Russian-Jewish community today.
Erfurt, twinned with Haifa in 2000, is one of the loveliest cities in Germany. Its old town core, described by the German-Jewish journalist and novelist Arnold Zweig as “a picture book of German history,” is truly remarkable.
One of its most enchanting sights, the Kramerbrucke, is the longest bridge in Europe containing houses and shops. Traders have been selling their goods here since the Middle Ages. And Erfurt, of course, is inextricably associated with the German theologian Martin Luther, who studied and served as a monk here in the 16th century. Furthermore, the Social Democratic party was founded here in the late 19th century, in an ornate building that currently functions as a theatre.
Throughout Erfurt, orange globes mounted on stainless steel beams remind residents that Jews were deported from Erfurt during the Holocaust. Many Jews managed to leave Erfurt, but the rest were murdered in extermination camps.