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Alan Elsner

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Worms, Germany: Centuries Of Jewish History Distilled

Posted: 11/09/11 08:15 AM ET

A visit to the German city of Worms prompts interesting thoughts about the sweep of Jewish history while offering insights into a very contemporary Israeli dilemma.

Worms, an easy hour-long drive from Frankfurt International Airport, vies with Trier and Cologne for the title of Germany's oldest city. The Jewish presence there dates back at least as far back as the 10th century and it became one of the preeminent centers of Jewish learning in medieval Europe. It was also the site of two terrible pogroms -- in 1096 when Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land massacred some 800 Jews and again during the Black Death epidemic of 1348-4, when Jews were accused of poisoning wells and killed in great numbers.

The two main reason Jewish visitors still find their way to Worms are the Jewish cemetery, dating from the 11th century, believed to be the oldest in Europe, and the 11th century synagogue -- about which more later.

The cemetery is a peaceful, evocative place with old, weathered gravestones leaning gently in the shady precincts, their Hebrew inscriptions eroded by centuries of wear. The most famous belongs to Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg who was born in Worms around the year 1215 and became the leading authority of his day on the Talmud and Jewish law. As can be seen by the pile of pebbles placed on his gravestone and the many printed prayers left beside his burial place, it is still a place of pilgrimage.

In 1244, Rabbi Meir personally witnessed the ritual burning of 24 wagon loads of Talmudic manuscripts in Paris by the Church after a fake judicial proceeding in which Judaism itself was put on trial. He wrote a famous dirge mourning the event which is still recited on the Ninth of Av fast day in many communities

Rabbi Meir returned to Germany the following year and established a famous yeshiva or house of learning in Rothenberg. However, in1286, responding to yet another threatening upsurge of antisemitism, he decided he had no choice but to take his family to the Land of Israel. While passing through Lombardy, he was captured by the archbishop of Mainz and imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim where he was held for ransom.

Jews from far and wide gathered the vast sum of 20,000 marks to buy his freedom but the Rabbi strictly forbade his followers from paying the ransom, arguing that it would just encourage more hostage-taking of other rabbis and Jewish leaders. He spent the next seven years in prison until his death in 1293.

The issues raised by this story are eerily reminiscent of the debate that raged in Israel recently around the release of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel released over 1,000 terrorists to secure the release of this one soldier who had been held by Hamas for five years. Opponents of the deal argued that paying this steep price would only encourage terrorists to try to capture more Israelis and Hamas leaders made it clear they indeed intended to do so if they could. Supporters of the prisoner exchange conceded that this was a grave and serious danger but argued that Israel has a fundamental commitment and moral responsibility to redeem all those who serve in its defense.

After he died, Rabbi Meir's body was still not handed over to his loved ones until 14 years later, when a Jew named Alexander Suskind Wimpfen paid a substantial ransom to reclaim it. In return Alexander requested only that after his own death his body should be laid to rest by the side of the saintly Rabbi. His wish was carried out and in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Worms the two tombstones still stand side by side to this very day.

The other notable Jewish site in Worms is the Rashi synagogue, which dates from 1175 and is named after the famous medieval Torah commentator who spent a part of his career there. In the adjoining museum devoted to the history of the Jews of Worms, there is a chilling photograph of the synagogue going up in flames during Kristallnacht in 1938 when much of the Jewish Quarter was destroyed. The local fire brigade is on the scene and firefighters can be seen aiming their hoses directly away from the synagogue to protect nearby German homes and buildings. The photograph shows townspeople watching attentively as the building that had stood in their midst for almost 800 years burns to the ground.

That was effectively the end of the Jews of Worms. Those who could not get out of Germany were eventually deported to death camps.

It's nice that the synagogue with its adjoining mikve (ritual bath) and circumcision room have been so faithfully reconstructed -- but the buildings stand more as a reminder of what used to be than a living center of worship, scholarship or communal life.

There is a grim postscript to the story. On May 17, 2010, the Associated Press reported that the synagogue had been fire bombed. Eight corners of the building were set ablaze, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a window.Notes left at the scene read, in badly worded German: "As soon as you don't leave the Palestinians in peace, we won't let you in peace."

Fortunately there were no injuries and this time the fire brigade put out the flames -- however one can't help reading this news and reflecting on the fate over the centuries of Jews in Germany in particular and the Diaspora in general.


 

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