Erfurt, in eastern Germany, has a rich Jewish history, dating from medieval times, and Jewish heritage is integrated in the promotion of the town to both tourists and local people.
In an interview published recently in The Forward (and sponsored by the German National Tourist Board) Dr. Ansel Hartinger, Director of the History Museums of Erfurt, discusses how this is accomplished, and how Jewish heritage sites — particularly the medieval Old Synagogue — are managed. The Old Synagogue, parts of whose structure date from the 11th century, has been restored and is now a Jewish museum, and there are also other Jewish sites in town: an informative web site provides history and images.
The synagogue is one of the most visited sites in the state of Thuringia. Every year we get between forty and fifty thousand visitors. We have an audio guide in English, and if a Jewish group is interested we can give a tour in Hebrew. We try very hard for a modern experience for Jewish groups and all our visitors. We have close links with Jewish community of Erfurt. Together we prepare talks and lectures.
The synagogue houses the so-called “Erfurt Treasure” — a cache of 28 kilograms of gold and silver coins and object that archaeologists discovered in 1998, after it had lain hidden away for probably 650 years in a cellar in what had been the medieval Jewish quarter. Archaeologists believe the cache belonged to a mid-14th century Jewish merchant. The treasure includes what is believed to be a golden wedding ring, engraved with “Mazel Tov” and shaped with a miniature tower that possibly represents the Temple in Jerusalem.
Because Erfurt is a very old town with a complex history, everything somebody does there has to be supervised by archaeologists. On the next corner of the next street [from the Old Synagogue] workers were doing refurbishments. They were working on the wall of a cellar and they found the treasure by chance. We know in 1349 there was a pogrom in Erfurt, and we know from documentary evidence Jewish residents tried to hide their treasures. Some have been found and turned over to the state and some have been stolen. This was hidden so well nobody could find. It’s a once in a lifetime finding. Normally all archeological findings go to state but they made the great decision to show it in Erfurt. It was a wise decision because we are on the next corner the next street.
Hartinger notes that the synagogue had already ceased to function as a synagogue in the 14th century. Its rediscovery and display were part of the rediscovery of Jewish heritage and history after the fall of communism and reunification of Germany.
After the pogrom of 1349, a Christian merchant bought it and used it as a storage room. In the 19th century it was a pub and a dance hall. This was actually good because during the Fascist era, the Nazi era, nobody knew it was the old synagogue. Maybe some scholars knew, but they didn’t make it public. Because if it was known it would have been destroyed. After German reunification, we discovered real value of the place. After finding the treasure, we had this wonderful convergence, where we could put them together. The Old Synagogue is at the core of our complex, is our most famous and best frequented museums.
In addition to the Old Synagogue, Erfurt has two more recent synagogues — including one used by the active Jewish community; a medieval Mikvah (discovered in 2007 and now open to the public); a Jewish cemetery dating from 1871 and still in use; and the site of the destroyed Old Cemetery. Several dozen preserved gravestones from the medieval Jewish cemetery are displayed in the Old Synagogue museum.