In December 2021, Dr. Susanne Urban moved to the university town of Marburg to take up the position as Head of the Reporting and Documentation Center on Antisemitism in Germany’s Federal State of Hessen. Previously, she had successfully accompanied the campaign to have the ShUM-Sites Speyer, Worms, and Mainz listed on the UNESCO world heritage roster because of their medieval Jewish tangible heritage. Eager to see the traces of Jewish history in Marburg, she and her partner took “Jewish Walks,” following an eight-stop itinerary promoted through a (downloadable) leaflet from the city’s Tourist Information sector. The Jewish presence in Marburg dates back to the 13th century. The community flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but in the interwar period, Marburg was also a center of the antisemitic movement. Many Jews fled the city after 1933. Those who remained, along with the Sinti, were deported to Riga, Sobibor, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz. After 1945, Jewish survivors, mainly Displaced Persons (DPs), attempted to re-establish a Jewish community in the city. But only in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to immigration from the former Soviet Union, did the community really revive; around 300 Jews live in Marburg today.
In this personal essay, Susanne recounts what she saw (and what she didn’t see) on “Jewish walks” around the city.
Marburg and its Jewish Stories
By Susanne Urban
September 15, 2022
Many tangible (and intangible) traces of the centuries of Jewish life remain in Marburg, and our “Jewish Walks” through the city took us to them.
At today’s “Schlosssteig” (the name that in 1933 replaced the historic old name “Judengasse”), we saw the archeologically secured remains of the medieval synagogue. A first synagogue, built around 1280, was destroyed in a fire in 1319. A new synagogue was erected after 1320 on the same site but it was destroyed during the persecution of the Jews in 1348/49.
This all lay buried until 1992, when the city started construction works and discovered the synagogue’s foundations. Archaeological excavations continued until 1997, and the remains are now classified as an architectural monument of extraordinary rank.
I had read that the synagogue had been about seven meters high and covered with a six-pointed vault. Today, walls up to a height of four meters are preserved and are protected by a large glass cube erected above ground.
Through the glass we looked down and saw a stone slab floor and other remains. (See the cover picture above.) One surviving keystone of the vault shows a star shaped ornament. A niche – the Ark where the Torah scrolls were placed – is recognizable.
The synagogue was rectangular, but there is an adjacent space – to me, this appeared to be a women’s shul, smaller, but similar to those in Worms and Speyer.
There is much more to discover here, I thought.
A few weeks later – my wish came true. During events this spring marking the 800th anniversary the city, a digital reconstruction of the synagogue was made accessible . Visitors could use virtual reality data glasses to „tour“ it.
The virtual reconstruction shows the modest beauty of the medieval synagogue and evokes its environment. For example, market noises can be heard when “entering” the virtual place of worship, lit by virtual flickering candlelight. Striding (virtually) through the old walls, the visitor arrives at the Torah ark. This glimpse into history is wonderful; a sensual experience.
But what about the synagogues after the 14th century? Does anything remain? Is anything remembered?
When Jews were permitted to return to Marburg in 1532, after suffering expulsion, Judengasse and Wettergasse again became their quarter. We know that a prayer room was opened in the 16th century in a residential building (today Schlosssteig 6). In 1720, a synagogue was established at what today is Langgasse 7, and a century later, on August 14, 1818, a new synagogue opened in Ritterstrasse 2.
These places today are residential buildings, and they are not marked with plaques. The only way you can identify the buildings as the sites of former synagogues is by using the “Jewish walk” leaflet.
In September 1897, a large new synagogue was consecrated on Universitätsstraße. It was designed in neo-Romanesque style by the architect Wilhelm Spahr and could seat 230 men and 175 women. Spahr was well known in the region, responsible for many buildings and a devoted monuments preservationist. But only 41 years after it was inaugurated, the synagogue was burned down on November 11, 1938 in the November Pogroms. The property was taken over by the university, but after 1945 came into the possession of the state of Hessen.
On November 10, 1963, a memorial stone was dedicated at the site. Excavations begun in 2008 revealed the foundations of the synagogue, and today the site is the so-called Garden of Remembrance, a sort of land art memorial dedicated in 2013.
A concrete border frames the footprint of the destroyed synagogue, and through a glass window set in the ground you can see parts of the mikveh. Also set in the earth are glass boxes in which quotations are placed. These are changed regularly by engaged associations or the Jewish community itself – to remember, and to show what antisemitism leads to. Much of the Garden is planted with roses, and in summer an overwhelming scent of roses drifts over the space…
We approached the Garden of Remembrance from the upper city, walking down many steps and en route passing by the former home of a kosher butcher named Katz, at Untergasse 17.
Katz was famous for his “red sausage” that non-Jews also loved to buy – – for pea soup. The Katz family also rented rooms; in 1916, the father of one of my favorite poets, Mascha Kaleko, lived with them for four months. Katz had to close his shop at the end of 1933; he died 1936; his wife and daughter stayed and were deported in 1942 to Riga. Son Walter fled with his wife to Amsterdam, where his daughter was born in 1940; they were all deported to Sobibor and murdered. Today, Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones) memorials outside Untergasse 17 commemorate the family.
What about the cemeteries? When coming home from shopping we often pass by a Jewish cemetery that looks not medieval but more like the 19th century.
After some research I understood: There was a first Jewish cemetery in Marburg in the Middle Ages roughly where the cemetery is now. The cemetery was no longer used after 1349 and the area was converted into farmland.
A new Jewish cemetery was established in the same area at the beginning of the 18th century. The oldest tombstones date from 1712 to 1801/02. In this cemetery we can also find graves of post-war DPs who died in the Marburg area between 1947 and 1949. Since the reestablishment of the Jewish community in Marburg, the cemetery has again become the burial place used by the community.
The experience of the DPs fascinates me, partly because it is largely unknown (or ignored). I often wonder why Jewish DP or general DP history is so rarely remembered in Germany. There were Millions of DPs in 1945 in Europe and then tens of thousands of DPs in West Germany. So many DP-Camps, so many places and spaces of starting a life anew. For Germany, it is somehow a separate history, not seen as part of our “own” aftermath of WW II.
Here in Marburg, I wondered where they had settled and prayed, and I found traces and spaces. In Schulstrasse 14, a wonderful 19th century building, the DP community’s administration had their offices – no signage recalls this layer of history today, however, although there were between 300 and 274 Jews in Marburg between January 1946 and May 1948.
Jewish DPs studied at Marburg university – I found a list in the Arolsen Archives; they even had a football team (Makkabi Marburg) and published a Newspaper (“Jüdische Rundschau”).
DPs also established synagogues. The first DP synagogue was in Lutherstrasse, and the next one was established in Landgraf-Philip-Straße exactly opposite where the Jews had established their synagogue in 1818. It was opened on February 3, 1946, in what was originally a student’s fraternity building; today, the building again houses a fraternity. In 1950, when the DPs number had dwindled, the remaining Jews moved and prayed in Schulstrasse 7. Neither of these buildings is part of the official “Jewish walk” or bears signage denoting its Jewish history.
Late summer 2022: we head home after having a glass of wine in the upper city; we pass the well marked medieval synagogue, but we know that the DP-Synagogue from 1946 is located right around the corner. We walk near the Katz’ house and then pass the cemetery. There’s a new synagogue in Marburg, too, used by today’s Jewish community – a modern refurbishment of a building from the 1920s.
The Jewish Walk leaflet traces the way, but to my mind all these places and spaces should – and could — be much more connected and made visible. How? Certainly by more signage and memorial plaques. And maybe an app? Much to do, everywhere!
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Dr. Susanne Urban is the Head of the Reporting and Documentation Center on Antisemitism in Germany’s Federal State of Hessen. From 2015-2021 she was Managing Director of the ShUM-Cities Association – Jewish World Heritage. This is her second Have Your Say for Jewish Heritage Europe. Click to read her 2016 essay, Jewish spaces, German obligation, World Heritage?