Old Synagogue in Erfurt
The Old Synagogue in Erfurt is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe that has survived complete with its roof.
Until the late 1990s, only the tips of two gables of the Old Synagogue were visible, projecting out of a tangle of buildings. After some neighbouring houses had been demolished, an architectural historian was able to clearly identify four building phases, of which the oldest is dated at around 1100. The building dating from 1270, with the west façade that is now visible with a tracery rosette, was extended to the north. Traces of burning in the brickwork indicate that there was an earlier building, which probably went up in flames during a pogrom.
The synagogue was used for worship until 1349, when a barbaric plague pogrom wiped out Erfurt’s first Jewish community. The city of Erfurt then sold the building to a merchant, who had it converted into a storehouse. To do this, the high room was divided with raftered ceilings and a wider entrance made where the Torah shrine had stood. Cellars were also built under the synagogue. On the ground floor, there are still some traces of the building’s original use, such as evidence of a light cornice.
The ground floor with its mighty Gothic raftered ceiling and the cellar are today used as a museum, together with the upper floor, which bears witness to the dancing tradition of the 19th century. Anyone entering this hall today is reminded of the former world of tangos and foxtrots, with governesses as chaperones. The walls are decorated with screen painting and some remaining wallpaper.
The main focus on the ground floor is the building’s architectural history, while the cellar houses the “Erfurt treasure”, consisting of coins, vessels, Gothic jewellery and the Jewish wedding ring. In the hall, there is a display of a collection of Hebrew manuscripts which belonged to the Erfurt Jewish community. They are today kept at the Berlin State Library. They can be admired in Erfurt alternately in the original and as facsimiles.
So, with the Old Synagogue and a Gothic mikwe found in 2007 by the Merchants’ Bridge, which is still in the course of archaeological investigation, Erfurt is proud to possess unique and fascinating reminders of the still little known history of a medieval community.