Old Synagogue in Erfurt
The Old Synagoge near Erfurt’s Town Hall is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe that has survived completely and has been preserved up to its roof. Until the late 1990s though, only the spires of two gables were visible, rising above the maze of many town houses.
Some constructional surveys confirmed the existence of the largely intact synagogue. After some neighbouring buildings had been demolished, an architectural historian was able to clearly identify four construction stages, of which the oldest dated around 1094.
As the Jewish community grew, the synagogue was extended and enlarged. However, the synagogue was used only by the first medieval community until 1349, when the plague provided an excuse for pogroms against Jews throughout Europe; and wiped out Erfurt’s Jewish community.
The city of Erfurt then took possession of the building and sold it to a merchant, who had it converted into a warehouse. The high room was divided with raftered ceilings and a wider entrance was built where the Torah shrine once had stood. Also, cellars were 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.
From the late 19th century, a huge amount of work was undertaken to convert the building for the use as a tavern. All of these changes and modifications of the building and neighbouring houses left the synagogue hardly recognizable as such.
After its rediscovery the synagogue was ultimately restored from 1999 to 2009 and opened as a museum.
Today’s exhibition is located in all storeys and illustrates the history of the Jewish community in Erfurt. The upper floor bears witness to the dancing tradition of the 19th century. Anyone entering this hall 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. Maps of the area show the situation around the synagogue before the pogrom in 1349 and the changes after this turning point. One focus is on the original furnishings of the synagogue interior which are indicated partly with the help of surviving remnants and partly with projections. Another exhibit of great interest is the “Erfurt Jewish Oath” dating from the 12th century. It is considered to be the oldest surviving Jewish Oath in German language.
Another focus of the exhibition are the Erfurt Hebrew manuscripts, which are evidence of the lively intellectual life of the Erfurt community. Gravestones from the destroyed medieval cemetery can be seen in the courtyard.
Most impressive exhibition piece is displayed in the cellar of the Old Synagogue: the Erfurt treasure.
In 1998, a treasure of gold and silver was discovered during excavation work in Erfurt’s Old Town, only a few hundred metres away from the Old Synagogue. It is unique in size and composition – more than 3,000 silver coins, 14 silver ingots of very different sizes and more than 700 examples of Gothic goldsmith’s craft were found under the wall of a cellar entrance. The treasure weighs 28 kilograms altogether.
The most outstanding item is undoubtedly a Jewish wedding ring made of gold dating from the early 14th century. The craftsmanship of the miniature Gothic architecture on the ring is outstanding. Arcades with pointed arches support a roof with the Hebrew inscription “masel tov”, meaning good luck. A gold ball inside the building on the ring produces a soft chime when moved. There are only two other medieval rings of this kind to be found worldwide.
The treasure was hidden before the pogrom in 1379 and its owner was most likely the Jewish money trader Kalman von Wiehe, who owned the property at the time. There is evidence that he did not survive the pogrom.