History of the first Jewish ghetto in Europe

In 1462 the Jewish community of Frankfurt was forced to move to a newly created quarter: The Judengasse was the first Jewish ghetto in Europe. By the early seventeenth century its population had grown to around 3,000. Frankfurt developed into one of the most important Jewish centers in Europe.

The Jews in the Judengasse governed themselves. There were synagogues, ritual baths and various institutions of religious life. The volunteer leaders of the Jewish community organized the coexistence of its members and collected taxes. Charitable societies supported the poor. The rabbis of Frankfurt were respected for their learning far beyond the city’s borders. The residents of the Judengasse spoke Yiddish. They followed Jewish tradition and the Jewish calendar.

The Museum Judengasse is built upon the foundations of the former Jewish ghetto. In 1987, the foundations of almost twenty houses of the Judengasse were unearthed during construction work. When the council decided to push on with its building plans, opposition began to form.

Various political groups and organisations joined the citizen’s movement. Their demand: The relicts should be preserved and made accessible as a living history experience. The so called Börneplatz-Konflikt can be seen as a major event in German-Jewish relations. As a compromise, the building plans were revised in favour of a new museum on the ground floor, and the foundations and cellars of five buildings were rebuilt to the original blueprints.

Today, these ruins are at the heart of the Museum Judengasse, which opened in 1992. It reopened in 2016 with a modernized permanent exhibition that highlights Jewish life and religion in the Judengasse in the early modern period.

Images in the Judengasse
Images of biblical scenes play a central role in both Judaism and Christianity. The spread of printmaking led to an increase in the number of images in Jewish and Christian spheres, created by Christian craftsmen and Jewish artists. Images also played a role in the Judengasse. Hebrew manuscripts were illustrated; paintings and prints decorated even the humblest dwellings. Ritual objects were also embellished with human and animal figures.

Besamim boxes in the shape of towers have a long tradition in Judaism. They are used in the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Sabbath. What is unusual about this one is the combination of silver filigree and enamel, which was common in Christian ritual objects such as crucifixes. The Jewish client who commissioned this tower was evidently aware of such Christian works.

The eight images on the tower’s two levels come from well-known biblical stories and show a variety of scenes.

Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:11–19).

Jacob wrestling with the angel and acquiring the name Israel (Genesis 32:25–28).

A Passover Haggadah contains the prayers, verses and Biblical tales for the Passover festival, which commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The festival begins with the seder attended by family members: The ceremony of celebration with specific food and activities is described in the Haggadah.

This Passover Haggadah belonged to the Frankfurt merchant Jakob ben Michael May Segal who wrote and illustrated this Passover Haggadah by hand.

Illustrated Esther scrolls have existed since the seventeenth century. The biblical story of Queen Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia, is read on Purim holiday.

This scroll is richly decorated, featuring miniature scenes from the story surrounded by flowers and animal figures.

Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which falls in November or December. During the festival, one of eight lights is lit every evening until all are burning. The celebration commemorates a historical event that took place in 164 BCE after the Jews’ Greek rulers desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem.

This nobel Hanukkah lamp features a great many decorations. It stands on four lion’s feet and has four winged angel’s heads on the base of its shaft.

Little bells mounted under the oil lamps. Squirrels, stags, eagles and pelicans stand above.

Biblical figures are also depicted: the warrior Judas Maccabeus in the center and Judith with the severed head of Holofernes at the top. The candelabrum was handed down as a family heirloom over several generations.

This splendid Hannukkah menorah is designed like a columnar shrine, and set on four cast lion’s feet. The element for the little oil lamps is missing.

The main focus of the lamp’s design is an architectural setting alluding to the Temple in Jerusalem. The double columns on either side frame the sanctuary, which has small silver figures of Moses and Aaron set in front. Behind them stands the Ark of the Covenant.

The pediment relief depicts a spreading army camp. The sides of the main tent are drawn apart to reveal Judith holding Holofernes’ head in her left hand, while her right hand still grasps the sword she used to behead him. The story of Judith and Holofernes is recounted in the book of Judith which, although not part of the Hebrew Bible, is traditionally associated with Hanukkah.

Professions in the Judengasse
The residents of the Judengasse pursued various professions. Many of these were necessary to preserve the social and religious order, including judge, rabbi, and synagogue cantor, as well as ritual butcher, teacher, scribe, midwife and female mikvah attendant.

Many money changers worked in the Judengasse. Because the value of coins was based on the weight of the metal, scales were the money changers’ most important instrument. Because Jews often worked in professions dealing with money transactions, they were generally very familiar with the various types of money in circulation. For a fee they would weigh the foreign coins and convert them into the required currency.

According to Jewish tradition, every newborn boy must be circumcised at the age of eight days by a circumciser. This is a religious obligation and signifies the boy’s acceptance into God’s covenant with the Jews. Circumcisers were sometimes given the surname Mohel, from which the names Mohler, Mehler and Müller were later derived.

In the house Sperber (The Sparrowhawk”) lived the widow Rösel who traded in used clothes around 1700. This occupation was not uncommon among the poorer residents of the Judengasse. Her work would have involved restyling and retailoring clothes, a fact proven by the sewing utensils found during excavations in the Judengasse.

Court Jews and Jewish Upper Class
In the age of absolutism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, princes and kings employed so-called court factors; if they were Jews they were also called court Jews. They were responsible for loans and financing the court and the state, sometimes supplying jewels and other luxury items for the palaces. Court factors belonged to the Jewish upper class and were frequently very well educated. They were often the secular leaders of their communities and interceded with princes and rulers on behalf of their fellow Jews. Within the Jewish community they acted as patrons and established charitable religious foundations. They assisted the poor, for example, by furnishing poor orphan girls with a dowry.

Süßkind Stern was a merchant and entrepreneur, a money changer and banker and also traded in pearls and operated salt mines. He was highly esteemed in the Frankfurt Judengasse for his charity, and he was elected to numerous honorary offices. This painting is the oldest known portrait of a resident of the Judengasse. He doesn't show himself in a representative way, in the contrary, he wears a simple coat and a hat that was usually worn at home.

Holidays and festive clothing
It is a centuries-old practice in Judaism to perform religious duties with beautiful and valuable objects. Rabbinic scholars discussed this idea as early as the second century. Chiddur mitzvah – the beautification of religious commandments – refers both to a person’s inner attitude and the objects used to fulfill the commandments.

Havdalah is the Jewish ritual performed at the end of the Sabbath to mark the transition from the holy day to everyday life. After the wine and spices are blessed, a blessing is recited over the light. A Kiddush cup is filled to the brim with wine and the Havdalah candle is extinguished in it, causing it to overflow.

An especially eye-catching feature of this lamp is the male figure supporting it. He wears the dress of an eighteenth-century Frankfurt Jew, including a cape and a lace collar. In accordance with religious law, he has a beard. He holds a besamim tower and a Kiddush cup in his hands.

Only a few examples of textile objects have survived from the Judengasse. The embroidered vine and floral ornaments on these hats worn on holidays are made from gold-plated metal threads and show that even men were fond of decoration.

Jews and Christians
The Frankfurt Jews were long forced to live in a walled-off quarter – the Judengasse. Despite the strict spatial separation, many points of contact and a complex web of relations existed between Jews and Christians. Lots of exchanges took place that went beyond mere business transactions. This is exemplified by the ritual objects that were crafted in Christian workshops but used for Jewish rituals. Jews and Christians were familiar with each other’s worlds. They borrowed each other’s ideas and concepts and adapted them to their own traditions.

Rötger Herfurth, a Christian silversmith, made this Chanukkah lamp for a Jewish purchaser. It follows a specific style that was created in Frankfurt and proved particularly popular.

Four lion’s feet support a rectangular tray that holds cups of oil and is closed with a lid. The backplate is decorated with a seven-branched menorah in the center that is recalling the candelabrum in the Jerusalem Temple. The lions stand for the tribe of Judah.

A Torah shield is placed in front of the Torah mantle that covers the scroll stored inside the Torah Ark in a synagogue. This Torah shield was manufactured by a Christian silversmith from Frankfurt, because Jews were not allowed to work as silversmiths. This typical local baroque-era piece combines the specifications of the Jewish clients and non-Jewish design ideas.

Kiddush is the blessing spoken over wine on holidays. Kiddush Cups are usually not made specifically for the ritual, but selected primarily based on their style and the value of the materials. In most cases they do not differ from the vessels used for non-Jewish purposes, aside from the occasional Hebrew inscription.

Literature in the Judengasse
A rich variety of literary works were produced in the Judengasse. In addition to religious writings in Hebrew, many books were printed in Yiddish, the vernacular spoken by Jews in central and eastern Europe In the eighteenth century, Frankfurt was one of the most important printing centers for Yiddish works. The remains of books sometimes reflect violent attacks against Jews and their communities. Especially Hebrew writings on religious topics were repeatedly looted and stolen during pogroms. The paper and the valuable parchment were often cut up and reused as material for book covers.

This manuscript was probably stolen from the Frankfurt Judengasse during the Fettmilch pogrom of 1614, then cut up and reused. Christian bookbinders often sold large quantities of stolen parchment to purchasers in other cities. This page was used to make the cover of a medical work that was printed in Ulm in 1651.

A unique historic ensemble
In the immediate vicinity of the Museum Judengasse there are other places and testimonies of Jewish history in Frankfurt: a memorial that commemorates the former synagogue and the deportation of the Frankfurt Jews in the Nazi-era, and a Jewish cemetery. Together with the museum, they form a unique historical ensemble.

Eighteen steps lead down to the former ritual bath of the Judengasse: the mikveh, built in 1717 and used for ritual immersion. It was located 4 metres below the cellar. Following the religious regulations it was supplied with water from a “natural source”. The plot for the bath had to be dug deep enough into the earth to reach groundwater levels. Traces of the water level can still be seen on the stones.

The imposing Börneplatz synagogue was built on the southern edge of the Judengasse. At that time, the area around the old Judengasse was being completely redeveloped. The square was named after Ludwig Börne, a Jewish publicist and champion of democracy who was born in Frankfurt’s Judengasse in 1786. In 1938, the synagogue was destroyed by gangs of Nazis during the November pogrom. In 1939, the council ordered the removal of the ruins. A multi-lane road was constructed here after 1945.

Almost all traces of Jewish culture in Frankfurt had thus vanished from this site - except for the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery on Battonnstraße, established in the thirteenth century, is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe.

Most of the grave stones have a house mark engraved – a typical thing in Frankfurt. They show in which house the deceased or their ancestors lived. Over two thousand gravestones have remained. The vast majority were destroyed by the Nazi city government in the 1940s.

Right next to the Museum Judengasse and the Jewish cemetery lies the Neuer Börneplatz Memorial Site. It commemorates the destruction of the nearby synagogue in 1938. At the cemetery wall are set nearly 12.000 blocks, inscribed with the names of Frankfurt Jews who were deported and murdered.

Credits: Story

Objects and photos:
Jewish Museum Frankfurt
Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt
Historisches Museum Frankfurt
Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt
private collections

Text and curation:
Eva Atlan

Editing and implementation:
Korbinian Böck

This online presentation is based on the permanent exhibition of the Museum Judengasse, reopened in March 2016 under the
curatorial direction of Sabine Kößling.

Literature:
Fritz Backhaus / Raphael Gross / Sabine Kößling / Mirjam Wenzel (Ed.): The Judengasse in Frankfurt. Catalog of the permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt. History, Politics, Culture. C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2016.

Museum Judengasse

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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