Jewish Heritage (11th City Walk)
— Aileen Becker (ORCID 0000-0002-9400-0516)
At the beginning of the 2023/24 winter semester, we organised our eleventh city walk, which was dedicated to the topic of “Jewish Heritage”. The occasion was the recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the persecution of urban groups with religiously divergent identities. The Jewish-Medieval heritage in Erfurt was conferred the title of World Heritage Site on 17 September 2023. This was decided by the responsible UNESCO Committee at its meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Old Synagogue, the Mikvah and the Stone House, a historic residential building, in Thuringia’s state capital are thus the 52nd World Heritage Site in Germany. However, Erfurt’s Jewish history is not only marked by the coexistence of Jewish and Christian neighbours, but also by pogroms and expulsion.
The city walk started at the Kleine Synagoge/Small Synagogue, where museum educator Katharina Pecht guided us through the building’s history and presented the newly conceived permanent exhibition which covers the history of 19th and 20th century Jewish life in Erfurt, rather than beginning with the local, Medieval progroms. As she explained, the synagogue, consecrated in 1840, only served as a place of worship for the Jewish community for a short time until the Great Synagogue was built on what is now Yuri Gagarin Ring in 1884. The prayer room with a Torah shrine, the women’s gallery and a mikvah have been preserved. Today the synagogue is a place for concerts, readings and seminars.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Jews had the opportunity to become citizens of the city of Erfurt for the first time since the Middle Ages. Since then, the number of Jews in the city rose steadily. For the new permanent exhibition Katharina Pecht was particularly interested in depicting the proudly growing community, its will to assert itself and the development of the Jewish community that shaped the city. As curator, she decided to focus on the history of everyday Jewish life, for example, the celebration of festivals which structure the Jewish year. That is why the exhibition also includes testimonies of the Purim costume festival and photos of Hanukkah balls. Jewish club life, intensifying at the same time as the rise of anti-Semitic convictions in German society, strove to secure and foster Jewish identity; objects from this area of Jewish life feature prominently in the small exhibition in the basement of the Small Synagogue.
After the small synagogue, we went to the decentralized area monument of the so-called “DenkNadeln” to talk about commemorating the persecution and murder of Jewish fellow citizens during National-Socialism.
The “DenkNadeln” project began with an open artistic competition in 2008. This was followed by an exhibition of the ten submitted competition designs on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the 1938 November pogroms in the Old Synagogue in Erfurt, which had not yet opened as a museum at the time. The jury selected the three best entries, and the entry “Punctuation” received first prize. The overall DenkNadel project is integrated into the “Jewish Life Erfurt” network. It is accompanied by educational and mediation work to make the names of the victims and the places speak out. But the project has long been controversial.
The memorial pins, often described as “ice cream cones,” were often not recognized as memorials and became objects of vandalism. A year-long discussion about forms of commemoration arose, in which the city also asked Erfurt residents about their ideas for forms of commemoration in urban space. It has recently been decided that the “Stolpersteine” initiative should now also be implemented in Erfurt.
The “Stolpersteine” are a project by the artist Gunter Demnig that began in 1992 and have become the most famous decentralized monument in Germany. The small memorial paving stones with a brass covering (Stolpersteine) bear he individual name, date of birth and (if known) date and place of death of those persecuted in National-Socialist Germany. The sontes are laid in the ground at the last known adress of the person commemorated. They commemorate the fate of the people who were persecuted, murdered, deported, expelled or driven to suicide in by German National-Socialists. This well-known project marks the beginning of a new era of remembrance in the urban area of Erfurt.
Above: Three Stolpersteine laid in Weimar, approx 15 km east of Erfurt. They mark the last residences of Susanna Appel, Richard Kohlmann and Wally Goldschmidt. All three images: public domain)