Worms, Germany: An old town rich with Jewish history and landmarks
Worms today is a quietly charming town with a rich past of both mythic heroes and religious milestones. It was also one of the three major Jewish towns in Germany in the Middle Ages. Known as the ShUM (Shin for the community of Speyer, Waw for Worms and Mem for Mainz), the cities were centers of Jewish theology and learning.
While it is possible to explore Jewish history independently in some German cities, for a deeper appreciation for the history and the lives of the people of Worms, the best approach for individual travelers would be a guided tour . Traudel Mattes conducted me around the city, and highlighted the Jewish history and the stories behind the historical places.
Jewish History in WormsThe Jewish presence in Worms can be traced back to 1034 when the community built its first known synagogue. While the existence of the cemetery probably dates back to that time, the oldest known tombstone reaches back to 1076.
But in only 20 years, the peace was broken by the First Crusade. Between the Crusaders, accusations that the Jews had caused the Black Death, various social unrests, and wars, the Judengasse (Jewish Quarter) was regularly destroyed, and rebuilt.
It wasn’t until 1801 that the Jews were free to leave the ghetto and take up residence anywhere in the city. But by 1945, the entire Jewish community in Worms had been destroyed. The only remnant left was the cemetery.
For a sense of the often tragic history, start with the Judengasse. The charm of this popular and reconstructed area belies its sad history. But the willingness of the city to recreate and honor the memory of the community makes the area a place of hope as well as remembrance.
The Jewish CemeteryAlthough time and the elements have taken their toll on the tombstones, the cemetery survived the war fairly intact. The oldest surviving gravestone is that of Jacob Bahur who died in 1076, making it the oldest Jewish cemetery of Europe still in existence.
As a major center of learning, the cemetery of Worms is also the final resting place of many Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages. So many are buried there that there is even one section affectionately called the Valley of the Rabbis.
But one of the most affecting stories concerns a pair of tombstones a bit atilt but still sitting side by side. At the end of the 13th century, the Emperor imprisoned Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, popularly known as Maharam of Rothenburg. Emperor expected that the Jewish community would pay the high ransom to have their rabbi, a leading authority on the Talmud and Jewish law, released. And the community started to collect money, but Rabbi Meir would not permit it. He died seven years later, still imprisoned in one of the castles. But that did not end the situation. The King refused to release the body for burial. Finally, 14 years later Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen paid the ransom and his only wish was that he be buried next to the rabbi. And so there the tombstone sit, honored by visitors with burning candles.
The cemetery has two levels, the oldest part from 11th century to about 1700. A second, newer section contains graves from 1700 to 1938. At that point the cemetery was filled and no further space was available. A newer cemetery was then built outside town.
The Rashi HouseDuring the Middle Ages the building that is known today as the Rashi House after the beloved Jewish Talmud scholar, Rashi, was originally a Jewish community center, dance and wedding hall. During the war the building was heavily damaged and eventually collapsed. The city government wanted to remove it but the citizens of Worms wanted to reconstruct the house as far as possible, and to make it a museum. When it was rebuilt the community remembered that this has been the place where Rashi walked nad perhaps prayed, and they wanted to honor the spirit they felt was still present.
Today, the Rashi House is the site of the city archives, and the Jewish museum, documenting the history of Jewish community in Worms, as well as religious and everyday life. All items have some connection to the Jewish community of Worms. There are videos, lectures, special exhibitions, along with the permanent displays, including the charming dioramas by Hanns Herbert of Jewish family life.
SynagogueAlthough there are almost no Jews living in Worms today, the city has rebuilt and reconsecrated the building into a functioning synagogue. It is officially owned by the Jewish community of Mainz and is used for services.
The building consists of a Men's Synagogue, and a smaller Women's Synagogue. There’s also a Talmudic study room known as the Rashi Chapel. A few steps is even a medieval mikveh (ritual bath) dating from 1186.
Here, too, there are stories of bravery and heartbreak. Herta Mansbacher was a teacher for many years. When Nazis came all Jewish teachers had to leave the German schools, so Herta Mansbacher became a teacher in the Jewish school. Very aware of what was going on and that the Jews of Worms needed to leave, she worked to prepare the children for immigration, staying in Worms as long as there were children. Friends urged her to leave, saying it was too dangerous to stay. Instead she started a diary writing down who left the city, where they went, what happened to the Jews who stayed and even noted those who in their despair committed suicide. In 1942 she was deported and died in a concentration camp in Poland in 1943. For years it was thought that her diary had been lost, however, in the early 1970s it reappeared in Jerusalem at Yad Hashem. A copy is in Worms today for those wishing to trace the story of the city, and the people who lived there.
The area once known as the Judengasse is today a recreated area that is a true tribute to its Jewish past.
Learn more about Jewish sites in Worms, Germany and about the other attractions of Worms, Germany