When threats of destruction to property and life follow and linger over a group of people through no fault of their own over centuries, there’s something to be said about an eternal need to keep a watchful eye. Words like Verfolgung, Vernichtung, and Vertreibung1 have been etched into memory. I have all this in mind as I explore Jewish history in Germany as part of my need to answer the following question:
How did a nation of people which fostered composers Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Strauss; and writers Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Heine, Hesse, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and Schiller sink to the worst depths of human atrocity and depravity in the first half of the 20th-century?
It’s easy to forget Jewish people have lived in what is now Italy and southern Europe since the middle of the 2nd-century BCE and inhabited southern Germany from the late 10th-century AD/CE2. During the High Middle Ages, three important bishopric (and cathedral) cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz along the Rhine river formed an important league or federation of Jewish communities (Kehillot) from the end of the 10-century to about the mid-to-late 14th-century. The word שו”ם or ShUM (SchUM in German)4 is an acronym consisting of the first letters of the Hebrew names for the three cities:
• Shin (ש), Sh for Shpira (שפירא) → present-day Speyer;
• Waw or Vav (ו), U for Warmaisa (וורמש) → present-day Worms;
• and Mem (ם), M for Magenza (מגנצא) → present-day Mainz.
The ShUM cities became centres for learning, training, religion, culture, and trade within medieval Germany (Ashkenaz3) and throughout Europe. Today, the three ShUM cities establish key destinations for historical travel, provide rich examples for continuing research on medieval Jewish life, and add up to a comprehensive project in recognizing an important chapter of the history of Jews in Germany.
Germany has presently over 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but none of them relate to the long-standing Jewish history in the country. The German federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate) submitted the ShUM cities for national consideration in the summer of 2012. Having passed the rigours of internal ranking among other worthy candidates within the national committee, the application entered the UNESCO’s tentative lists for World Heritage Sites in 2015. In 2020, the German Foreign Ministry will submit to UNESCO all documentation relating to the nomination, says Susanne Urban, Managing Director of the ShUM-Cities Association. Urban adds that a final decision by UNESCO regarding the ShUM cities as a new World Heritage Site is not expected until 2021.
The Judenhof (Jewish courtyard) is home to the remnants of the city’s Synagogue, inaugurated in 1104 AD/CE and one of the oldest Jewish places of worship from the Middle Ages in Europe; women’s synagogue (c. 1150); and the Mikwe (c. 1126), one of the oldest intact ritual baths in Europe. For people with “Shapiro” and their variants as surnames, their earliest predecessors would’ve likely originated in Speyer5.
The “little Jerusalem on the Rhine” was one of the longest continuously functioning Jewish communities in Europe, beginning about 1000 AD/CE and ending with National Socialism in the 1930s-1940s. Particularly noteworthy in the city are the synagogue (c. 1034), women’s synagogue (c. 1212), Mikwe (c. 1185), and the Jewish cemetery “Heiliger Sand” (Holy Sand), considered the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. The oldest grave in the cemetery whose markings are still legible go back to 1058-1059.
One of the most visually striking pieces of architecture is the Jewish Community Centre and the new Synagogue. With the five Hebrew letters forming the word ‘Kedushah’ (holiness) inscribed onto the building, the new centre was inaugurated in 2010 and built at the site of the 1912 synagogue which was burned and destroyed on the Pogrom night in 1938. In the city’s cemetery, the oldest known Jewish gravestone north of the Alps was found and dated to 1049 AD/CE; the original gravestone is now a part of the Judaica collection in Landesmuseum Mainz.
Worms can be reached from Speyer, Mannheim, and Heidelberg within 30, 25, and 50 minutes, respectively, with regional trains.
Click on the arrow-window icon at the upper-left corner of the map below for locations of the three ShUM cities.
1 “Verfolgung”: persecution, pogrom; “Vernichtung“: extermination, annihilation; “Vertreibung”: expulsion, forced migration. All three ShUM cities encountered major and minor periods of persecution, extermination, and expulsion (to eastern Europe), including the Rhineland massacres (First Crusade) of 1096 and the Plague pogroms of 1348-1349.
2 “The Illustrated History of the Jewish People”, by Nicholas De Lange and Jane S. Gerber, Harcourt Brace (1997).
3 “Ashkenaz” (אשכנז) for “Jewish medieval Germany”; see the description here. For the present and future posts, I use “Ashkenaz” in the historical context of the area around the ShUM cities along the Rhine river in what is now the German federal state of Rhineland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate).
4 Hebrew is written and read right-to-left. “Shum” also happens to be the word for “garlic” in Hebrew.
5 See also “A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History”, by Benzion C. Kaganoff, Rowman and Littlefield (1996).
• ShUM-Cities Association
• “Jews in the Medieval German Kingdom”, A. Haverkamp, University of Trier (2015).
• Epigraphy and historical inscriptions of Jewish gravestones, in English and German.
• “Uncovering ancient Ashkenaz”, RNS (2016).
• “The Origins of Ashkenaz”, Forward (2008).
• Die drei Gemeinden, SchUM Städte.
• “Hoffen auf die Anerkennung als UNESCO-Welterbe”: Katrin Kühne, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 6 März 2015.
• “Alte jüdische Zentren am Rhein: die SchUM-Städte Speyer, Worms und Mainz”, SWR2 Wissen, 26 April 2013. Radiosendung auf Deutsch, auch auf ARD.
• “Jüdisches Erbe, romanische Dome und eine alte Eisengießerei: Rheinland-Pfalz stellt drei Anträge auf Erteilung des Unesco-Welterbestatus”, RLP-Gästbeitrag von Andreas Pecht.