Erfurt is best known to faith travelers for its connections to Reformer Martin Luther. The Augustinian Monastery is where Luther lived as a monk for 17 years, and the 14th century cathedral in the center city is where Luther was ordained and celebrated his first mass.
But there’s something else for Luther trail takers not to miss in this culture city. The dazzling trove of Jewish medieval art and architectural treasures that has been uncovered only in the past two decades is absorbing testimony to the centuries of Germany’s pre-World War II Jewish history that is often obscure.
A thriving Jewish community lived during the Middle Ages in the heart of Erfurt, which was located along a major central European trade route. A pogrom in 1349 wiped out the community, but its architecture and gold remained but hidden.
Treasure on display
The exterior walls and Romanesque and Gothic windows of the synagogue Erfurt Jews built in the 11th century survive today at the Old Synagogue site, now available to visitors as a museum.
Exhibits tell an interesting story about the building’s construction and function, but the museum’s centerpiece display is of treasure discovered in the walls of a nearby house. Found during 1998 excavations of the district, the dazzling trove of 3,140 silver coins, silver ingots, 6,000 works of goldsmithery from the 13th and 14th centuries were stashed in the walls of a medieval house. Scientists assume the treasure was concealed during the time of a 1349 pogrom which wiped out the community.
The star of the array is an intricately worked wedding ring of the period. The ring with a bezel has openwork Gothic tracery, capped by a facetted steeple. Crafted in the 14th century, it is one of few existing medieval Ashkenazi wedding rings. Six engraved Hebrew letters that spell out mazal tov, meaning “good luck,” inscribe the tower’s roof. In accord with Jewish tradition, the ring is made entirely of gold – no stones added.
Garment appliqués are also in the trove. These small, solid silver sequins in various shapes were sewn into garments. They were the fashion in 14th century Erfurt, but when fashion changed, they were melted down. The few surviving examples are almost all part of ecclesiastical textiles owned by churches. Erfurt’s collection offers rare evidence of use of such ornaments in secular clothing.
More Erfurt Jewish sites
In 2007, archaeologists discovered a medieval mikveh (ritual purification immersion) bath which the Jewish community built in the 13th century, according to surviving written documents. It was connected to the Old Synagogue by a lane that’s had covered the site.
Why did it take so long to discover?
The Old Synagogue, the Small Synagogue and two Jewish cemeteries form a network of historical buildings and sites which portray Jewish life in Erfurt many centuries ago. The Old Synagogue’s walls were obscured by centuries of other use buildovers, such as warehouses and a dance hall which was frequented by Nazis during the WWII era. Erfurt guides love to tell visitors they were literally dancing on Jewish synagogue walls, gold and graves and never knew it.
Erfurt’s Luther and Jewish sites are a good focus for a day in this city of beautiful architecture and heritage. Visit here (erfurt-tourismus.de) for more information and planning.