The medieval Jewish heritage of Erfurt—the capital of the central German state of Thuringia—was recently named to the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The newly designated and largely forgotten Jewish sites include a synagogue, a mikvah (ritual bath) and a house.
Erfurt’s old town “is home to exceptional testimonies to the Jewish community from the period between the end of the 11th century and the mid-14th century,” per an executive summary on the UNESCO site.
“With its oldest structural components originating from around 1100, the Old Synagogue is the best-preserved Jewish prayer house in Central Europe with the beginning of construction dated during this early period,” it adds.
The summary notes that the 13th-century, barrel-vaulted mikvah was “built at a high technical standard” on a River Gera bank; and the stone house—built around 1200 and redesigned about half a century later—“is a unique example of a medieval secular building under Jewish ownership with its Gothic structural forms and its painted wooden ceiling on the first floor.”
The three structures “are testimonies to the early heyday of Central European Jewish culture and to its abrupt end as a consequence of the far-reaching wave of pogroms during the mid-14th century,” according to the UNESCO site.
The former synagogue may owe its survival during the Holocaust to its repurpose as a warehouse, restaurant and dance hall. The mikvah was apparently used as a cellar.
Alan Bern, artistic director of the culture program Yiddish Summer Weimar, told German media that the UNESCO recognition “shines a light on how Jews truly lived, loved, created and passed on their religion and culture from generation to generation for more than 900 years.”
Erfurt Jews had been under the protection of Thuringian kings prior to being placed under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Mainz in the 12th century. (Mainz is about 160 miles away.)
By the 1300s, local municipalities were responsible for Jewish protection; several violent pogroms took place in the following century. Erfurt’s Jewish community disappeared in the late 15th century.
The new designation of Erfurt is the second German Jewish UNESCO site, after the Rhine region cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, which the U.N. body listed in 2021, and include intact and partial synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, a yeshivah and a mikvah.
The list, according to UNESCO, recognizes sites of “outstanding universal value.” Those on it are eligible for World Heritage Fund conservation funding, per the U.N. body’s site.