(JHE) — UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body, has added the Jewish heritage of the so-called “ShUM cities” — Speyer, Mainz, and Worms — to its list of World Heritage sites. The three cities, all near each other on the Rhine river, combined to form a major Jewish center in the middle ages. Surviving today are archaeological vestiges, as well as Jewish cemeteries and matzevot, mikvaot, and reconstructions of medieval structures dating back 1000 years.
The listing marks the first time that UNESCO has so recognized Jewish heritage in Germany and represents one of the relatively few examples of Jewish heritage on the UNESCO world heritage roster.
The UNESCO announcement said the ShUM 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.
ShUM is an acronym of the first letters of the medieval Hebrew names of the three cities: Shin (Sh) = Shpira = Speyer; Vav (represented as U) = Warmaisa = Worms; and Mem (M) = Magenza = Mainz.
Worms is home to the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe in situ, the “Holy Sands,” whose oldest gravestones date from the med-11th century — nearly 1000 years ago. It also is the site of a synagogue that was built in the middle ages (with a women’s synagogue added to the structure in 1212/13), destroyed in WW2, and totally rebuilt from rubble after the war.
Adjacent to the synagogue there is a 12th century mikveh.
In September 2020, a new exhibit called ShUM on the Rhine – From the Middle Ages to Modernity, opened in the Jewish Museum in the Rashi House, a building next to the Worms synagogue constructed in the early 1980s on the site of the medieval Jewish community house that was demolished in 1971.
In Mainz (which has a modern synagogue that marked its 10th anniversary last year), Jewish gravestones dating back to the 11th century are arranged in a memorial cemetery.
The Jewish sites in Speyer are entered around the remains of the Jewish courtyard. There is a monumental mikveh from around 1120; the remains of the synagogue built in 1104 and a women’s shul, dating from the middle of the 13th century. The foundations of the yeshiva, excavated in 1997/98, have been preserved as an archaeological site.
The UNESCO listing is the culmination of a years-long campaign led by the State of Rhineland-Palatinate, in cooperation with the cities of Worms, Speyer, and Mainz, the Jewish communities in Mainz and Rhineland-Palatinate, and the State Association of the Jewish Communities in Rhineland-Palatinate.
“After more than five years of intense work on the nomination dossier and the management system, night-long corrections and new insights on the monuments and their history we were thrilled that Unesco has inscribed the ShUM-Sites of Speyer, Worms and Mainz as World Heritage,” Susanne Urban, who has served since 2015 as Managing Director of the ShUM-Cities Association – Jewish World Heritage, a body established to campaign for the UNESCO recognition, told JHE.
Personally, some tears welled in my eyes when Unesco decided. These monuments and cemeteries are really unique and their stones bear so many stories and tell about the brightest and darkest eras of Jewish history in Germany and Europe. A Jewish World Heritage [listing] embraces Judaism and Jewish culture and makes clear: Jews belong to Germany and Europe since centuries. This is also an important position in times of rising Antisemitism.
Urban had elaborated on the place of the ShUM cities, the campaign for UNESCO recognition, and what such recognition would mean in today’s Germany in a Have Your Say essay she wrote for JHE in 2016. In a statement to JHE, she has reiterated and expanded on her essay:
“ShUM was one of THE places to be for Jews in the Middle Ages,” she writes.
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 architecture, 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 […] illustrate even now the immense and enduring significance of the ShUM cities.
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 and also the Jewish world. But, I believe, it is just as important that they embody intangible elements of authenticity and integrity – when respected as living Jewish spaces andspaces of commemoration and memoria. They shall not be develop into spaces mainly for German commemoration politics.
Over the past 25 years, a new living Jewish community has been established in Speyer and the existing community in Mainz was revived – thanks to immigration from the former Soviet Union. The Jewish community in Mainz as 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. It is also an offer for the immigrants to reroot themselves in Germany.