I’m standing on the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne and feel as though I’m watching 2000 years of Jewish history of the area, flow down the Rhine River. My visit to Germany includes seeing to see a few cities and to try to retrace the richness of Jewish like here.
In Cologne, located between Dusseldorf and Bonn, there was once a large slice of Jewish life, which was vibrant, prosperous and educated. Cologne is documented to be the oldest Jewish settlement in Germany. Records show that Jews were here as early as 70 AD. A synagogue is recorded to have been built in 1012 and Cologne was regarded as “Jerusalem on the Rhine”. The reduction of the Jewish population was the first fact to hit hard. From a hefty 70,000 before the war, there is now a mere 5,000, mainly Russian immigrants.
Here in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, there is a vigorous attempt to re-establish, without revision, the Jewish history.
In the shadow of the great Gothic Cathedra, the medieval Jewish quarter once existed. I walk by the Rathaus (the City Hall) and pass a glass pyramid on Town Hall Square. It’s so reminiscent of architect I.M. Pei’s architectural success, the pyramidal structure at the Louvre in Paris, I don’t notice a bronze plaque inlaid into the concrete. However, I return later and read “In this spot, on ruins of the Roman governor’s palace, from the l0th century stood the synagogue until it was rebuilt in 1426 and become the Chapel of St. Maria in Jerusalem”. The glass and steel construction is the cover of the mikvah (the ritual bath) dating back to the late 12th century and the center of what was once the curved, narrow Jewish quarter.
This mikvah lay undiscovered for 500 years until it was excavated after World War II. When I enter, a large group of German school children, some sitting on the steps, others at concrete openings in the circular shaft, listen to their professor who has descended the vaulted stairwell, 50 feet (16 meters) below. When they leave, I walk down and stand beside the sandstone basin, which is fed by ground water. In accordance with religious law, the pool must be filled with “living water”. The mikvah was opened to the public in l979 and as with many Jewish monuments and memorials, there’s a new generation of Germans learning about the history and rituals of the Jewish people.
Another sign of former Jewish presence is the square near the Opera House, named after one of the city’s Jewish legends, composer Jacques Offenbach, who was the son of a cantor.
The next stop is the Orthodox, Roonstsrasse Synagogue, built in 1899; a majestic beige stone building on traffic filled main street. The city was 99% destroyed during the war, but this “shul” suffered earlier during the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 10, l938. I felt a great sense of pride as I stood across the street trying to conjure up the enormity of its reconstruction, which had taken place in l959.
For security reasons, when I enter a glassed in holding area, I’m asked for identification. From here I’m able to see the Moorish influenced foyer. Off to one side is a long narrow area contains antique Judaica – a Torah saved during Kristallnacht, a Yad (Torah pointer, ritual Passover plates, evocative photographs, ornaments. About 25 Germans are on a tour at the same time. They are among the 10,000 non-Jewish German visitors who come here annually, to hear and learn more about the part of their history that for so long was never discussed. “They want to see for themselves,” the guide tells me.
Up the stairs, the room is dark, the walls and floors are black. The only light is from a small Kaddish candle. This is the Memorial Hall. One side is dedicated to the 6 million who died during the Holocaust; the other has names in memory of the 11,000 Cologne residents. And how do they know the names? Apparently, the ‘tax man’ kept excellent records of all Jewish inhabitants.
The fine renovations of the synagogue hark back to the past elegance for which German Jews were noted. Large round blue and white stained glass windows brighten the large area, and upholstered grey seats look new and elegant under a huge dome in a stark white unembellished room. Since all the original Torahs were destroyed, the ones in use date back only from 1945. Although the synagogue has a membership of 4000, most are Russian immigrants who “want to be guided back to Judaism”. The synagogue continues to be financially independent. In Germany 9% of all income tax goes to religious institutions. The only wish, I’m told by one of the members, is to find a permanent German speaking, Orthodox rabbi, obviously a very difficult combination.
A train ride to Frankfurt, mostly along the Rhine, is tranquil. I arrive just before Shabbat (the Sabbath). I take my seat in the upper balcony of the Westend Synagogue. There are only four women in the section. I look down and count 20 men below. But even with this small showing, there is enthusiasm as they recite the prayers, which echo through the striking blue, aqua and gold detailed hall. I have a difficult time inputting the fact that per ratio, Frankfurt once had the largest Jewish population in German. After services, I ‘m invited to a Shabbat meal at Sohar’s, located in the synagogue and the only kosher eatery in Frankfurt. I eat a typical meal…gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, chicken. So as they say, what’s new? Sitting at the table is concentration camp survivor, Trude Simonsohn, an activist and former member of the council of the Jewish Community. “I came back eager to build a Jewish community in Frankfurt”. Does she forgive? “It’s not for me to forgive that for 6 million people,” she answers passionately. Today under sunny skies, I see Jewish life from another but not kinder era at Frankfurt’s Museum Judengasse (Jewish Alley) – the rigid customs of religion, their dress code, the acceptable fabrics used for their clothing e.g. only covered buttons, small collars which were a giveaway to being Jewish. The foundation of five houses and two mikvahs in the ghetto remain and have been preserved. I’m able to walk among the lane and touch the bricks. The “streets” were only three metros wide. So cramped were the original 190 houses that there was seldomly any light. “People were hiding and happy about being hidden,” says Christian, my non-Jewish guide. Christian is candid about his relations with his parents who have never discussed their involvement during the war. He and his peers have learned every aspect of Jewish life before, during and after the war. “We lost our culture and our liberal thinking and we’re struggling to get them back. It’s a bit loss for our generation. And happily, revisionism is against the law.”
I begin to think of the state of awareness as a cultural sandwich. The older generation doesn’t want to remember, the younger generation feels it happened too long ago and has no relevance for them and Christian’s generation, the middle, want to feel, learn and know everything.
My travelling companion’s family came from a little village and he is keen to see it first. hand. Kippenheim, located between the Black Forest and the Rhine River, isn’t a name that tumbles off the tip of your tongue when you think about Jewish communities but from the mid 17th century until 1939, there was a small active group of Jews living here. Typical of the area are colorful houses with bright flowers cascading down from window boxes creating a wonderful palette of color. The serenity makes it hard to believe that friends were led away while their neighbors watched.
The stark and badly damaged synagogue built in 1850, was a grand edifice in the Neo-Romanesque style. However, on Kristallnacht, l938, the interior and ritual objects were destroyed. After various ownership’s, in l983, the town council purchased and renovated the exterior to the original but the inside’s wounds remain untouched, only to be a reminder of the cruelest era. No Jews live in Kippenheim today. Photos, kept hidden for years, are exhibited in the front foyer and show the terrible occurrences. Although never a large community, it should have been all the more reason for closeness and assistance. The world went wrong. even here.
One evening some locals who, in 1996, founded The Patrons Society, gathered in Kippenheim’s Town Hall to discuss their feelings about the past and their town’s Jewish history. What strikes me is the 12 men and women are between 35 and 50. Most admit that their parents would never discuss the war years or the town’s Jews. Although the children of these Kppenheim families were invited, apparently, they weren’t interested in joining us.
“It’s up to us to educate the younger generation,” a young psychoanalyst says. In the group were teachers, a school principal, homemakers. “It’s our goal to demonstrate that Jews are welcome. We want to promote links between Israel and German.” The idea that I would come away form Germany with a positive feeling would never have been possible to anticipate. Perhaps there’s a chance to have a closer tie with a country that wants the opportunity to show Jews from around the world what they’ve learned form the horrific past and for Jewish travelers to see this Germany for themselves.
For travelers, the booklet, Germany for the Jewish Traveler, can be obtained at The German national Tourist Offices. Sonar’s Kosher Restaurant. Savignystrasse 66 Tel 69 75 23 41. Kippenehirm Synagogue Schmieheimer Strasse 112 Tel 07825-14883