Thuringian Synagogue west facade © Thuringia Tourism Board/Florian Trykowski CCBYSA 4.0

Erfurt: A Testament to Jewish Heritage

Erfurt boasts a handful of buildings from the Middle Ages, bearing witness to the city’s Jewish heritage. Additionally, a remarkable treasure from 1349 narrates the tale of Erfurt’s first Jewish inhabitants, a story paralleled by the Jewish Manuscripts housed in Berlin

The Old Synagogue

Old Synagogue in Erfurt. Source: Wikipedia
Old Synagogue in Erfurt. Source: Wikipedia

The Erfurter Synagogue, with its oldest parts dating back to the 11th century, stands as the oldest fully preserved synagogue in Central Europe. The building’s origins are traced to 1094 through dendrochronological analysis of a timber piece. Details of the 11th and 12th-century appearances remain elusive, but it is likely that this site served as a significant meeting point for the Jewish community within a city that hosted at least five imperial diets by Frederick Barbarossa (1122 – 1190). Most of the present structure, featuring five lancet windows, can be attributed to circa 1270. Subsequently, an additional floor was added, possibly for women or as a school for boys within the community. After the 1349 pogroms, the building came into the possession of a local merchant who repurposed it as a warehouse. In the 19th century, it transformed into a local café and ballroom, preserving the building’s fabric amid the tumultuous 20th century. Only in 1992 did the building’s study and history truly come to light.

In 2009, an exceptional museum emerged within, shedding light on Erfurt’s Jewish history. The Old Synagogue’s exhibition delves into the city’s first Jewish community and the structure itself. Courtyard tombstones from the medieval cemetery lay testimony. Below, the basement safeguards a treasure discovered near the synagogue, hidden by a Jew during the 1349 pogrom. The Erfurt Hebrew Manuscripts’ tale unfolds on the upper floor.

The Mikveh

Around 2007, the medieval mikveh surfaced north of the Merchant’s Bridge. Mentioned in 1248-49, this well-constructed structure exhibited sturdy walls. Alongside the synagogue and cemetery, the Mikveh, or ritual bath, remains accessible. Fed by flowing water from the nearby Gera River, the basin’s water supply remains functional, although the water level has receded since the Middle Ages. Upon entering, visitors encounter an alcove for clothes, and to the East, a basin complete with a staircase for full immersion, as prescribed.

Mikveh references stretch back to the mid-13th century. These documents indicate the Jewish community’s obligation to pay taxes for the bath and property, initially to the bishop and later to the city of Erfurt. Medieval tax records reveal a densely populated area around the mikveh.

The Stone House

Evidence of coexistence between Jewish and Christian residents emerges throughout the Jewish Quarter. In the historic city center’s Benediktsplatz 1, a medieval stone structure endures, tracing Erfurt’s medieval history from its 1150 construction. Presently, the main building, constructed in the 13th century, exhibits a roughly plastered exterior, variously sized windows, and a walled-up lancet arched doorway. The building also showcases portals, a beamed ceiling, the original gable, and a wooden roof. Distinctive across Europe is the upper-story room, featuring a lighting niche, well-preserved outer walls with scored joints, and a 1241-42 painted beam-ceiling adorned with a wheel motif and diverse ornamentation. The Stone House stands as a testament to late medieval secular construction culture, likely tied to Jewish owners from the late 13th century onwards. Thus, it complements the Old Synagogue and the mikveh.

The Stone House: The Ancient Tombstones

Jewish Gravestones deposited in the basement of the Stone House. Source: Wikipedia
Jewish Gravestones deposited in the basement of the Stone House. Source: Wikipedia

Years ago, over twenty Jewish gravestones resided in Erfurt’s heart in Thüringen; the oldest dates to 1259, erected in memory of “Mrs. Dolze, daughter of Mr. Asher.” Dolze or Dolce was a prevalent name at the time. In total, Erfurt boasts 58 Jewish gravestones or fragments, a significant heritage considering the abandonment of the Jewish graveyard following the Jews’ eviction in 1453. Sandstones were repurposed for construction, while the plot became a communal barn and grain depot foundation. The graveyard served a broader region, including Arnstadt, Weimar, and Gotha. Only Erfurt held the necessary license for a cemetery. Although the majority of burials succumbed to destruction in the 15th century, some intact graves endure east of the grand warehouse. This plot remains untouched, as a Jewish graveyard is regarded as an eternal sanctuary, to be forever protected.

The Museum: The Treasure

Erfurt. Treasure from 1349. Source: Wikipedia
Erfurt. Treasure from 1349. Source: Wikipedia

In 1998, Erfurt underwent a revitalization, leading to the demolition of dilapidated buildings near the renowned bridge. Archaeological excavations brought forth an unexpected treasure in one of the neighboring old houses. During the hanging of planches, a wall crumbled, revealing a splendid cache of gold and silver, likely secreted by Kalman von Wiehe, one of the Jews slain in the 1349 pogrom. This treasure now graces the Old Synagogue, meticulously displayed. Visitors are equipped with magnifying glasses to discern intricate brooch, ring, and buckle details. The treasure, weighing around 28 kilograms, encompasses 3141 silver coins and 14 varied-sized silver ingots. Most significant are the 700 Gothic art pieces, handcrafted by Jewish goldsmiths. A highlight is a golden Jewish wedding ring from the early 14th century. Brooches, belt buckles, robe trimmings, silver dishes, and cups add to the collection’s splendor.

The Museum: The Jewish Manuscripts

Erfurt’s treasure trove also includes eighteen manuscripts, likely relocated from the Synagogue post-1349. Presently preserved are three Hebraic bibles, a Pentateuch, four Toras, a small Masora, a Tosefta, a Machsor, two Raschi commentaries, Halacha texts, and Aesop’s fables. The manuscripts primarily date from the 13th to 14th centuries, with one Hebraic Bible dating back to the 10th or 11th century and the Tosefta from the 12th. These manuscripts were initially confiscated by the council and stored in the library until the 17th century. Subsequently, they found their way to the Royal Prussian Library in Berlin during the 19th century, where they remain. While some manuscripts reached private collectors, comprehensive study of the entire collection, revealing its role within Erfurt’s Jewish community, has been notably absent. Now, intensive research is underway at Freie Universität Berlin to delve into the collection’s palaeographic and codicological facets.




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