Jewish Heritage Europe

Jewish spaces, German obligation, World Heritage?

Rebuilt men's synagogue, Worms. Photo: By Ilsemarie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Rebuilt men’s synagogue, Worms. Photo: By Ilsemarie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


ShUM is an acronym of the first letters of the medieval Hebrew names of three cities in Germany: Shin (Sh) = Shpira = Speyer; Vav (represented as U) = Warmaisa = Worms; and Mem (M) = Magenza = Mainz.

Susanne Urban, the director of the Association of ShUM  Cities on the Rhine — Jewish World Heritage, writes that ShUM is more than an abbreviation, and is certainly not simply a way to link the names of three cities. She describes the different narratives related to these cities, their history, their place in world heritage, today’s tourism — and today’s reviving Jewish communities.

Jewish spaces, German obligation, World Heritage?

Reflecting (and Reflecting on) 1,000 years of German-Jewish History in remains from the Medieval Era

By Susanne Urban

Here, sitting in my office, looking down at the medieval synagogue in Worms, I can see a small monument to Rashi, the great Jewish sage who lived from 1040 to 1105 and spent part of his youth studying in the once-renowned yeshiva in Worms. I love this statue and how the wisdom seems to flow out of the very coat of this scholar. Here I sit, in Worms, one of the so-called ShUM cities, and can feel the fascination that this era inspires.

ShUM is an acronym of the first letters of the medieval Hebrew names of three cities: Shin (Sh) = Shpira = Speyer; Vav (represented as U) = Warmaisa = Worms; and Mem (M) = Magenza = Mainz. ShUM is more than an abbreviation, however; and it is certainly not simply a profane linkage of the names of three cities. Many Jews, and most mediaevalists with knowledge of Jewish history of that period, either carry a clear image of what ShUM means today and what it meant in the past, or they derive from the acronym a number of associations regarding the Jewish experience in the Middle Ages: from life in medieval ghettos, to Crusaders-era and other pogroms, to Jewish spaces that saw the evolution of paradigmatic architecture as well as Jewish scholarship.

ShUM was one of THE places to be for Jews in the Middle Ages. Someone who learned, taught, and disputed in ShUM shuls and synagogues and linked himself with ShUM scholars belonged to the Jewish elite. ShUM formed a community that had a profound influence on the culture, religion, and jurisdiction of the European Jewish Diaspora. Today, stone witnesses – synagogues, cemeteries, and ritual baths – together with the religious accounts and commentaries that are still avidly studied in 2016, illustrate even now the immense and enduring significance of the ShUM cities.

But how do these stone witnesses “speak” to the thousands of visitors – Jews and non-Jews alike — who flock to these sites now as tourists?

In Speyer, they admire the ruins of the 11th century synagogue, the adjacent women’s synagogue and the monumental mikveh, where the light falls in blue waves through the architecture, leaving an unforgettable impression.

In Worms, they visit the destroyed-and-rebuilt synagogue and wander through the Jewish cemetery, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. This cemetery is unique; it reflects 1,000 years of Jewish existence despite the fact that, time and again over the centuries, German history refused to let the Jewish dead rest in peace. This cemetery has survived, however: despite their depredations, the Crusaders and the Nazis did not.

As in Speyer and Worms, the tourists who visit the Jewish cemetery in Mainz and regard the memorial stone there for the 11th-century scholar Gershom ben Jehuda can’t help but recognize that Jewish history in Germany is founded on a thousand-year-old-tradition.

That is all well and good. But the narratives fashioned for tourists and other visitors often reflect a skewed perception of history. ShUM is distant. The descriptions of the Crusades from the 11th century or the pogroms in the 14th century seem far away in space and time; their horrors are overshadowed by the Shoah.

I feel there is a crossroad here, where we can clearly appreciate the divergent ways of viewing history.

For example, the story about the reconstruction of the medieval Worms’ synagogue in the late 1950s (after it was burnt down in November 1938 and finally destroyed in 1941-42) is often recounted as a success story of early post-World War II German-Jewish reconciliation. But there are other aspects to this story, which in my eyes are equally important: they tell about the Jews who opposed this reconstruction because nothing would ever be the same again after the Shoah and pretending otherwise would be a sham.

Rubble of the destroyed synagogue in Worms
Rubble of the destroyed synagogue in Worms

These opponents did not prevail, and the Worms synagogue is “whole again.” But for decades it was a deracinated wholeness. The Jewish space in the ShUM synagogues and mikvaot, the landscape around the monuments and within the cemeteries in Worms and Mainz were long presented as primarily a historical, ethnographic space, administered by cities, tourism offices, archives, and other professional institutions.

There are no doubts about the well-meant interest in preserving the remains, educating students and let tourists stroll there. There are no doubts about honest efforts in researching Jewish history and researching the life of Shoah victims and survivors. But…but…. sometimes these efforts ended in a sort of self-referential “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, or “coming to terms with the past,” without much contact or connection to – or even, I would say, interest in — the living Jewish present.

“Learning from history” was the headline. But the reconstruction and preservation didn’t mean that Jewish spaces were filled again with Jewish life. These spaces for decades were transformed into — and are still used and seen as — what Eszter B. Gantner has described as an overall “symbolic topography” that coexists on a separate level with the concrete connection many Jews feel when visiting the ShUM-monuments and spaces.

But I think this separation is changing.

Today, the German State of Rheinland-Pfalz, the cities of Worms, Speyer, and Mainz, the Jewish communities in Mainz and Rheinpfalz, and the State Association of the Jewish Communities in Rheinland-Pfalz are endeavoring to have the paradigmatic monuments and cemeteries in the former ShUM-cities inscribed in the roster of UNESCO World Heritage.

I believe this is a legitimate goal. I don’t say this solely because I have served as the Managing Director of the ShUM-Cities Association since November 2015, but rather because these efforts have started to change something in the way Germans – Jews and non-Jews, tourists and officialdom – think of these places.

In a sense, the process of researching and writing the application to UNESCO has created a new space, a space where Jewish topography on German soil is newly interpreted. Rethinking German memorialization politics, getting involved in disputes about space and heritage, discussing the cities’ and state procuration of Jewish spaces and the resulting impact of letting Jewish spaces be Jewish are necessary and much needed processes.

Under the World Heritage Convention, to be recognized as world heritage, monuments must express uniqueness, authenticity, and integrity and also exhibit an “outstanding universal value.“ The ShUM monuments and cemeteries certainly embody these values according to scholars and experts. But, I believe, it is just as important that they embody intangible elements of authenticity and integrity – when respected as living Jewish spaces and not such spaces that have been “conquered” or coopted for German commemoration politics.

Over the past 25 years, new living Jewish communities have been established in the ShUM cities – thanks to immigration from the former Soviet Union. These newly established Jewish communities and their roleas owners of the monuments in Mainz and Worms have led to a strong involvement by the living Jewish community and therefore to a greater awareness of Jewish traditions and religion.

I will cite just one example, one that may seem a minor detail but in fact speaks volumes about changing mindsets and attitudes about Jews and Jewish heritage. For decades the Jewish cemetery in Worms was open to tourists on Shabbat and on the High Holidays. A few months ago, however, new opening hours were implemented. They are hours that respect Jewish religious tradition and reflect the space’s origin. To me, this is, indeed, a significant step – a step in “recapturing” the cemetery space as part of a living Jewish reality.

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Contact Susanne Urban at:

3 comments on “Jewish spaces, German obligation, World Heritage?

  1. This beautifully written piece by Susanne Urban brings the stories of the stone witnesses to life again. This place of such important history deserves UNESCO’s recognition for its “outstanding universal value.” We must remember and treasure such unique places on our earth with the spirit of our past they bring forward.

  2. Dear Ben Franken,

    the comment is very kind. My opinion is only one and I think that debates are important to interprete and root Jewish Heritage in the future. By the way, and this is for all readers: the ShUM-Cities Association Website in English and German will be online from the 7th of June on!

  3. Jewish spaces in history :
    The essay by Susanne Urban highlights concise a long long history .Really enjoying the last sentence !
    ‘T will never be the same ….

    Not that long ago I read an article :Geschichte von Gedeih und Verderben ,Das Frankfurter Museum Judengasse erzählt von jüdischem Leben in der Stadt-und von,seiner Auslöschung[NZZ,Internationale Ausgabe ,02.05,2016].

    Thanks ,many thanks for another perception .
    Sincerely yours ,
    Ben Franken

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