UNESCO Adds Jewish Sites in Germany to Its World Heritage List

In a first in Germany, vestiges of Jewish communities in three cities are recognized by the United Nations agency

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The Speyer synagogue.
The Speyer synagogue.Credit: Ernst, Jurgen / Generaldirektion
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

UNESCO has declared a number of Jewish historical centers in Germany as World Heritage Sites. The sites are in the cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state, along the banks of the Rhine River.

The three Jewish communities in these cities – known collectively as the ShUM cities, for after an acronym from the initial letters of the medieval names of Speyer, Worms and Mainz in Hebrew: Schin (Sh) for Schpira, Waw (U) for Warmaisa und Mem (M) for Magenza – have left behind both physical remnants as well as a broad religious and cultural heritage.

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Ephraim (Effie) Shoham-Steiner, a professor of medieval Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said the decision was “very exciting,” calling it “a very important measure that should not be taken for granted.”

This is the first time that UNESCO has recognized Jewish sites in Germany for its World Heritage List.

In explaining its decision, the World Heritage committee said it recognized that the Jewish communities represented the cradle of Jewish civilization in Europe and were worthy of their title “Jerusalem on the Rhine.” The panel also noted that the communities served as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity.

The structures that have survived and the religious and cultural heritage were the prototype for Jewish communities throughout Europe and elsewhere, said the committee.

“The four component sites tangibly reflect the early emergence of distinctive Ashkenaz customs and the development and settlement pattern of the ShUM communities, particularly between the 11th and the 14th centuries. The buildings that constitute the property served as prototypes for later Jewish community and religious buildings as well as cemeteries in Europe,” UNESCO said in its announcement.

The sites include four separate compounds: the ancient Jewish complex in Speyer, with its remnants of a synagogue and an underground mikveh from the 12th century; the ancient Jewish cemetery of Worms, with gravestones from the 11th century and on; the reconstructed synagogue in Worms in the middle of the Jews Street, with the men’s and women’s sections, the remnants of the community hall – known as the Rashi study hall – and an underground mikveh from the 12th century; and the remains of the ancient Jewish cemetery in Mainz.

The declaration of the new World Heritage sites not only provides important international recognition, it also makes available funds for preservation.

Germany has other medieval Jewish sites that have survived, which historians think they also deserve recognition as heritage sites. They include the old Jewish quarter of Cologne; the synagogue, mikveh and Jewish homes in Erfurt; and the archaeological vestiges of the Jewish quarter in Regensburg.

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