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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Objects and photos:
Jewish Museum Frankfurt
Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt
Historisches Museum Frankfurt
Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt
Text and curation:
Editing and implementation:
This online presentation is based on the permanent exhibition of the Museum Judengasse, reopened in March 2016 under the
curatorial direction of Sabine Kößling.
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.