Jewish Culture in Thuringia - Middle Ages
Traces of Jewish culture in Thuringia go right back to the High Middle Ages, Although the first records of Jews in Thuringia date from the 12th and 13th century, buildings bearing witness to Jewish life in Erfurt are even older. For centuries, the Jewish communities were an integral part of city society. Nevertheless, the Jewish communities were repeatedly attacked, culminating in the "plague pogroms" in the middle of the 14th century. Only a few years after this disaster, Jewish communities became established in Thuringian towns again. In the mid-15th century, the Jews were driven out of the larger towns. In some places, nothing has remained except the name of a street, a memorial plaque or a gravestone. Today, the most impressive indications of the early blossoming of medieval Jewish culture are the surviving aund, in some cases, rediscovered buildings in Thuringia's capital city of Erfurt.
Old Synagogue in Erfurt
The Old Synagogue in Erfurt is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe that has survived complete with its roof. The building near the City Hall dates back to 1094. As the Jewish community grew, the synagogue was extended and enlarged in various construction phases. But it was only the place of worship of the first medieval community until 1349. After the pogrom, it was used as a storehouse from the 14th century and then a large amount of conversion work was undertaken to make it suitable for use as a tavern. As a result of these changes and the construction of neighbouring houses on all sides, the synagogue was ultimately hardly recognisable as such. It was not until after 1990 that construction surveys confirmed the existence of the synagogue, which had largely survived and was then redeveloped between 1999 and 2009 and turned into a museum.
The exhibition in the Old Synagogue today illustrates the history of the first Jewish community in Erfurt. One particular item is the "Erfurt Jewish Oath" dating from the 12th century. It is considered to be the oldest surviving Jewish Oath in German. Also of great interest is the "treasure" discovered near the synagogue, buried by a Jew during the pogrom in 1349. Visitors can view the exhibition individually with a video guide or join a guided tour.
Further information available at www.alte-synagoge.erfurt.de
Only a few hundred metres away from the Old Synagogue, a hidden stack of gold and silver was discovered in 1998 during excavation work in Erfurt's Old Town. It is unique in size and composition - more than 3,000 silver coins, 14 silver bars of differing sizes and more than 700 items crafted by Gothic goldsmiths were hidden under the wall of a cellar entrance. The outstanding item in the treasure, which weighs 28 kilograms, is undoubtedly a gold Jewish wedding ring dating from the early 14th century. There are only two other medieval rings of this kind to be found in the world. The treasure was hidden from the pogrom in 1349 and its owner is presumed to have been the Jewish money dealer Kaiman von Wiehe, who owned the property at the time.
Mikwe in Erfurt
Directly behind the Krämerbrücke (Merchants' Bridge) on the banks of the river Gera is a mikwe, which was first mentioned as a community facility in 1248/49. It has a vestibule which was used for dressing and undressing and there are steps leading down to the pool. At the river's medieval level are several layers of sandstone blocks. On one of the blocks, which is embedded upside down and was hidden under mortar when the bath was in use, there is a decorative head just under 30 cm in size with a crown of lilies. It is today still not clear what this can be interpreted to mean. In line with religious rulings, the ritual bath was supplied with "living" water, in this case ground water. The mikwe was rediscovered in 2007 and excavated by 2010.
The cleansing pool of the medieval mikwe can be seen through a window in the top of the protecting structure at any time. The inside can also be visited on guided tours held regularly.
Further information at www.alte-synagoge.erfurt.de
Mikwe in Sondershausen
The history of the Jews in Sondershausen goes back to the beginning of town development in about 1300. The earliest evidence of Jewish life is the medieval mikwe discovered in the Old Town during archaeological excavation work in 1998/99. The pool fed with ground water was located in the basement of a house which was built before the town walls were constructed and probably destroyed during the plague pogrom in 1349. The mikwe was later used as a well. There is no further evidence of a Jewish community until the end of the 17th century. In 1699, the Jewish cemetery by Spatenberg Hill to the south of the town was established and still exists today. The synagogue built in Bebrastrasse in 1825/26 was severely damaged when the town was bombed in 1945 and demolished in about 1960. A memorial plaque today commemorates its location.
The mikwe and the Jewish cemetery can be visited on guided tours.