Archeological Dig in Cologne Unearths Ancient Jewish History - and Exposes Layers of Prejudice

The citizens of Cologne, known as a city of churches, were happy to have an excavation in their town - until it started turning up evidence of a first century Jewish quarter.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

COLOGNE − “We are fighting over history here,” said Dr. Sven Schuette, as we toured an archaeological dig in this city in western Germany in late March. “They claim the Jews fell from the sky, that they are merely guests here, who came and left. But what can you do, the findings we discovered in the field prove otherwise,” he added excitedly, as he pointed out the ancient synagogue and ritual bath that were uncovered in the heart of the city in recent years.

Schuette, 60, specializes in the archaeology of the Middle Ages for the city. From his office in the oldest section of Cologne, he oversees the excavation that has had both local residents and elected officials in an uproar for several years. At the center of the controversy is opposition both to use of public funds for the project and to the extended digging that it has entailed in the heart of the city.

Schuette believes that those opposed to the excavations are motivated also by latent anti-Semitism, of the sort he says that’s common in Germany. “They think it would be more appropriate to build a nice plaza here, rather than a Jewish museum,” as is planned, he adds. Some people have tried to sabotage the dig and have left suspicious items − such as a suitcase that was feared to have had explosives inside − at the entrance to the excavation; others send him threatening letters. “They are not neo-Nazis, just foolish people who do not understand history,” Schuette says.

The project has a budget of 52 million euros, “less than [the cost of] one subway station,” he notes, “but still there are those who say it would be preferable to build another kindergarten.”

If all goes according to plan, in 2017, a one-of-a-kind Jewish museum will open on the site of the excavated ruins, covering 10,000 square meters. “This is not going to be another Holocaust museum, not another monument to Jews,” Schuette declares, “we are going to build here a museum to a 2,000-year-old Jewish culture.”

Not a word about the Jewish quarter

Until now, the city had warmly embraced its Roman past, even as it avoided dealing with its Jewish aspects.

“As early as 1950, Jewish artifacts were uncovered here, but there was no interest in them,” Schuette says. “A decade ago as well, when the preservation plan for the site was being drawn up, they talked about setting up a museum of Roman architecture, with not a word about the Jewish quarter.”

Some of the artifacts that were discovered at the Cologne dig.
Photos courtesy of Stadt Koeln, Archaeologische Zone / Juedisches Museum
One of the artifacts from the Cologne dig that indicate a Jewish presence dating back to the first century.
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Some of the artifacts that were discovered at the Cologne dig.Credit: Courtesy of Stadt Koeln, Archaeologische Zone / Juedisches Museum
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Photos courtesy of Stadt Koeln, Archaeologische Zone / Juedisches Museum
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One of the artifacts from the Cologne dig that indicate a Jewish presence dating back to the first century. Credit: Photos courtesy of Stadt Koeln, Archaeologische Zone / Juedisches Museum

But everything looks different now. On a recent visit to the archaeological site, it seemed that the work to preserve and uncover Cologne’s Jewish past was in full swing. At the center of the site were remains of a synagogue that was destroyed in the pogrom against the town’s Jews in 1349, beneath which were discovered floors of structures from earlier periods, including the remnants of the oldest Jewish synagogue north of the Alps to be identified to date. But whereas the earliest known written sources for the institution dated it to the 11th century C.E., the excavations allowed its age to be extended by more than 200 years, to sometime before the year 800.

“This is the largest group of Jewish structures preserved in Central Europe,” Schuette says. “We are pouring new life into the oldest Ashkenazi Jewish site in the world.”

On March 27, 10 stones with Hebrew inscriptions were found there, and were to be sent for deciphering. Schuette’s team never rests, and continues to seek and to find evidence of Cologne’s ancient Jewish history. Each stone is numbered, cataloged and deciphered. To date, the excavation has yielded 250,000 artifacts since it began in 2007. Some of them show traces of the 1349 attack on the Jews, which destroyed the synagogue at the site. Other stones attest to terrible earthquakes that befell the city in the course of history.

As for Schuette, he is not Jewish, but says that a genealogical study revealed “a Jewish grandmother” in his family at the beginning of the 19th century. “I have the privilege of not having been born into a family with a Nazi history. My father was a communist, but that is coincidental. I might have easily found myself the grandson of an SS officer,” he says.

“We are basically showing that the Jews lived here continuously from as early as the first century C.E. What this means is that they were part of our people and an integral part of the history of this city, of Germany, and of Europe as a whole. They were not a separate people,” he says, and adds: “What does that say about the Holocaust? That we killed our own people?”

In 2011 archaeologists uncovered a surprising inscription, one that still makes Schuette grin today. On a lintel stone in the basement of a private home adjacent to the synagogue, they found a Hebrew inscription that reads: “This is the window through which excrement is removed,” which was meant to explain to residents how to deal with the issue of waste disposal from the home’s cesspool ‏(see also “When the lingua franca was Hebrew,” Haaretz, Jan. 25, 2013‏).

“It is a very amusing story, it is our attraction,” he says with a smile. “At first we thought it was an important religious or rabbinic inscription, and so we were surprised when we were told that it says ‘excrement’ there ... We assumed that next to the synagogue there would be only serious things.” Researchers have already published scholarly articles on the inscription. They have claimed that it bolsters the theory that Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages used Hebrew as a daily language. Schuette concurs, but adds that he believes the inscription is actually a Jewish joke. “After all, the wealthy householders did not need to write instructions in Hebrew for their Christian workers, who cleared away the trash,” he says.

Just a few meters away stands Cologne’s old town hall, which now serves largely as a museum. Schuette skips up the steps to a lavish room that houses an unusual sculpture, dating from 1320. Side by side stand King David, the Maccabees, Augustus and Julius Caesar. “People from antiquity and Jews with the Jews in the center of the statue,” Schuette notes.

And what about the dark chapter of the Holocaust? In 1925, there were 20,000 Jews living in this city; more than half were deported and murdered in the Holocaust. Today, there are some 5,000 Jews living in the city. Schuette says that Holocaust survivors from Cologne, who are invited to visit the city annually, are surprised when they see the remnants of the synagogue. “They feel that now they are once again part of the history, after having been excised from it.”

Schuette is aware that there are people today who would like to stop the excavation. “But we’ve already outlived two prime ministers, four ministers in charge, and two mayors,” he declares. “We have to carry on. This site must not be missed.”

Staff cataloging findings from the dig in Cologne, led by archeologist Sven Schuette. Credit: Ofer Aderet

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