Photo: Christian Seitz © Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfal
Worms Synagogue compoundPhoto: Christian Seitz © Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfal
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Jerusalem on the Rhine

Preserving the history of three German cities that loom large in Jewish history: Speyer, Worms, and Mainz

Elisabeth Becker
December 06, 2021
Photo: Christian Seitz © Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfal
Worms Synagogue compoundPhoto: Christian Seitz © Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfal

In July, three cities along the German Rhine—Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, collectively promoted as “the cradle of European Jewry”—were together declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jews have been present in this region, today part of the German Rhineland Palatinate state, since the ninth century, with Jewish communities established in the 10th and 11th centuries. In the grassy fields of Worms, moss-covered gravestones leaning left and right mark the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. In Speyer, stone steps lead into the pool of the oldest surviving mikvah in Europe. And in Mainz, fragments of an Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery founded around the same time as that in Worms—time and again desecrated—remain. Although relatively small cities—Speyer home to approximately 50,000 inhabitants; Worms, 83,000; and Mainz, 218,000—together they loom large in Ashkenazi history.

Speyer and Mainz are 60 miles apart, with Worms roughly halfway between the two. They are known collectively as the “ShUM cities,” an acronym uniting the letters of the cities’ medieval Hebrew names: shin (Sh), vav (U) and mem (M). Shum also means “garlic” in Hebrew. Sixteenth-century drawings of Jewish merchants from the region portray a sprig of garlic in one hand, to signal geographical origin, and a yellow circle emblazoned on their robes, to signal Jewish identity. ShUM was not a garlic-growing region; this linkage emerged from the Hebrew meaning of the acronym paired with antisemitic associations, i.e., the “stench” of garlic associated with Jews.

These Holy Communities—they came to identify themselves as “Jerusalem on the Rhine,” with the 11th-century building of the Worms Synagogue including replicas of two pillars from the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem—have long been recognized as the bastion of Ashkenazi Judaism, beginning a millennium ago and continuing to influence Jewish culture, architecture, religious practice, and religious thought to this day. Gaining World Heritage recognition, however, entailed an arduous effort to document centuries of contributions that led to the flourishing of Jewish life on the Rhine and its influences far beyond the borders of Germany.

The seed for this idea was planted at the beginning of the 21st century by then-mayor of Worms, Michael Kissel, together with the then-chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Mainz. With the support of the local Jewish communities, the Rhineland Palatinate state, and city representatives, the association submitted an application for inclusion on Germany’s list of potential UNESCO sites in 2012. Placed on UNESCO’s “tentative list” of recognized World Heritage sites in 2014, the three cities formally founded SchUM-Cities Speyer, Worms, Mainz—an association (using the German spelling of SchUM) tasked with tracing the contributions of the cities to Jewish heritage and culture; it submitted a full application to UNESCO in 2020.

While a collective effort of research and communication in which state, city, and Jewish community representatives documented lasting innovations in, and influences of, the three cities, historian Susanne Urban—today the director of the SchUM-Cities association—stands at the forefront of the push for recognition.

“You have 1,000 years of history here, everything, every layer of German Jewish history, from the darkest to the brightest times,” Urban told me when we met recently in her office, which overlooks the reconstructed black-roofed, red-stone Worms Synagogue. “It shows the resilience of Jews, with Jewish people in ShUM the subjects of history, not the objects of history.” She described the recognition of ShUM cities as a World Heritage Site as “closing a circle.”

David Maier, culture coordinator of Worms, echoes this sense of closure, but at the same time suggests that the designation is an opportunity to represent and support Jewish life on the Rhine today. Although the Jewish population is lower than it was before the Holocaust, when approximately 4,200 Jews lived in the area, there are still Jews in the ShUM cities today—about 1,550 of them. “We have not only monuments here, we have a vibrant Jewish community. So we do not only work with stones, we work with people,” Maier said. “Getting this status does not mean that something is done. It’s more of a start—maybe not a start because we were engaged before. Now it’s a new obligation, a new commitment.”

Cultural historian and professor Frank Stern said that while it is impossible to resuscitate the German Jewish past, World Heritage recognition guarantees the protection of these important Jewish spaces. “You know the graveyards, houses of life, they are safe now,” he said. “There are hundreds of formerly Jewish places all over Germany and Austria, where you have parking lots, supermarkets, malls. Living spaces—all these spaces are lost—lost from memory.”

Speyer Jewry-Court and Synagogue
Speyer Jewry-Court and SynagogueJürgen Ernst © Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz

With the goal of making such memory both visible and legible to the general public, Urban curated an ongoing exhibition in Worms, ShUM on the Rhine from the Middle Ages into Modernity. This exhibition is housed in the Rashi House, itself a site of the “darkest and the brightest times” in German Jewish history: It was used as a dance hall in the 15th century, a synagogue in the 18th century, and a holding place for Jews purged from their homes before deportation to the extermination camps during Nazi rule in the 20th. Today, the “voice” of the house is played over loudspeakers in a darkened exhibition room, speaking of these haunting and transformative moments that have together shaped German Jewish history. The exhibition contains ritual objects, architectural remnants, artistic representations, individual and familial stories in written and recorded form, and photographs from ShUM across the ages.

Historian Matthias Preissler cautions in his book Die SchUM-Städte Speyer-Worms-Mainz that the linked histories of the three cities are not only stories of Jewish flourishing but also, like those of all European Jews, marked by many periods of persecution. Perhaps most notable among these were the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, the Black Death persecutions that began in 1347—culminating in massacres of Jewish communities blamed for spreading the plague—and the Holocaust. Mainz, in particular, has been a site of relentless Jewish persecution, a fact that reveals itself in its few remaining pre-modern Jewish structures.

While paying dues to the cyclical persecution of German Jewry, the exhibition in Worms specifically highlights the innovation—in architecture and religious praxis, scholarship, and culture—that occurred in the cities’ early Jewish communities, soon spreading across the globe. For instance, it showcases through photographs how the Worms synagogue served as a model for synagogues later built in Regensburg, Krakow, Vienna, and Prague. It also reveals the role of the ShUM cities as an intellectual hub of early Ashkenazi thought. Among the renowned rabbis who hailed from this region, Gershom ben Judah—known in Hebrew as “light of Diaspora,” and recognized for his Talmudic commentaries—resided in Mainz during the 10th and 11th centuries. Other notable rabbis include Jehuda Chassid of Speyer, Rokeach of Speyer/Mainz, MaHaRam of Worms, and MaHaRiL of Worms; their commentaries and codifications of religious observance continue to be studied and lived in Ashkenazi communities worldwide. A popular legend recorded in the 13th century attributes the composition of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer to a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. As Urban noted of this endurance of the cities’ Jewish heritage: “It’s not only monuments, tombstones, but also there is something tangible and very lively behind it. The liturgy and prayers from ShUM are still spoken in Ashkenazi synagogues around the world.”

Reflecting this tradition of Jewish life passed down through written treatise, at the center of this exhibition lies the Jewish word: in the form of a golem carved from Hebrew letters by Jewish American artist Joshua Abarbanel, the golem’s neck encircled by a metal chain that ties him to the floor. An aleph (the Hebrew letter signaling the oneness of God) has been carved from his heart and used to weigh down the chain affixing him to the earth. Abarbanel describes the feeling that this golem, now in Worms, “connects me to a whole history and tradition of Jewish life in Germany” and also “embodies the power of creation” in the Jewish tradition. It is not only a golem—the handmade, unpredictable, mystical creature that lies at the heart of so many rabbinical tales—but a whole Jewish history, where tradition and creation intersect, that can still be seen in this city, as well as in Speyer and Mainz. The Jewish word, and the vessels, both human and stone, that have preserved it, and therefore today’s Jewish world, have been shaped by these three cities.

'New Section,' Old Jewish Cemetery, Mainz
‘New Section,’ Old Jewish Cemetery, MainzJürgen Ernst © Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz

Jewish Ashkenazi innovation spread from these cities across the globe through migration and exile. On a journey at the center of the recently released documentary What Are 1,000 Years? From Kalonymos to Kalmanovich, Israeli-born, Berlin-based rapper Ben Salomo visited the ShUM cities to connect with his ancestors by the name “Kalonymos”—the line of rabbinical scholars and poets who established the first Jewish community in Mainz. Like the Kalonymos family, the life of these cities extends beyond the geographical borders of Germany and Europe, carried by those who migrated east and west, fleeing persecution.

The remains of this deep and enduring past, its cycles of destruction through persecution and rebuilding, is clearly visible in the ShUM cityscapes, a conglomeration of surviving and rebuilt structures from other times. Worms is home to the Holy Sands Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in situ in Europe, with gravestones dating back to the 11th century; the high walls of a 12th-century mikvah; and a synagogue destroyed myriad times and fully reconstructed after WWII. In Speyer, another 12th-century mikvah (the earliest and longest lasting of its kind), high walls of a 12th-century synagogue, and those of a 13th-century women’s shul remain. Most Jewish sites in Mainz were defiled during repeated periods of Jewish persecution from the early Middle Ages forward, although some of the earliest Jewish gravestones in Europe still stand there today. From the Middle Ages forward, the Judengasse (Jewish quarters) historically held such key sites of Jewish life. While some original buildings of the Judengasse remain in Speyer and Worms, they were entirely destroyed in Mainz through the ongoing persecution of Jews and WWII.

“Here, to see Jewish history—1,000 years of it—is not abstract,” said Urban. “You have this resilience after each and every destruction, the Crusades, pogroms, city fires, the Shoah (which is something else), every time they rebuilt, and they asserted, ‘We belong to ShUM.’ Jews are no strangers. They felt at home, and they are rooted here.”

Stern echoes this determination of the three cities to root themselves in spite of persecution. “If I go down to the mikvah [in ShUM], I keep crying because this is splendid, beautiful. It was rich because people worked and worked and worked and did something against all the discrimination. They created something that remained for hundreds of years. This will remain for the future.”

While commemorations, such as the placing of Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), mark the loss of Jewish life in the ShUM cities, new Jewish life is also being breathed into them: from the construction of modern Jewish spaces, to Yiddish poetry evenings and Jewish music ensembles. Behind this new life stands a migration from the East, as it is largely Russian Jews who emigrated at the end of the 20th century. This new Jewish life does not and cannot replicate the past; so much of German Jewish culture—so much German Jewish life—has been irrevocably destroyed. Yet it is not entirely disconnected from the region’s past. Urban recounts the story of a Worms Jewish community member whose ancestors fled the region after the 14th-century Black Death pogroms, and who migrated to Germany in the post-Soviet era: another instance of a circle completed in the ShUM triangle.

Today, the largest Jewish community of the three is located in Mainz (with about 1,000 members), where a new synagogue was built in 2010. This synagogue stands where the 1912 synagogue, burned by the Nazis during the November 1938 pogroms, once stood—not replacing, but rather reemplacing new Jewish lives in a region that has, for 1,000 years, shaped Jewish culture, practice, and thought. A description of the new synagogue’s form on the city’s website reads: “[architect] Manuel Herz closes the arc from the Middle Ages to the present.” Yet in this synagogue, made of green tiled metal carved with the Hebrew word for blessing “Kadushah,” the arc does not close at all. The arc opens to Jewish life on Germany’s Rhine—ebbing and flowing, but somehow never ceasing to rise again.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referenced Rabbi Mannon of Mainz; the correct name is Rabbi Amnon of Mainz.

Elisabeth Becker is a sociologist, currently the Freigeist Fellow at Heidelberg University.