The Jewish Traveler: Frankfurt
Rising from the devastation of World War II, a rich Jewish life is once more flourishing in this historic German city.
In 1987, as excavation for the Municipal Utilities building got under way at the Börneplatz in Frankfurt, workers uncovered the foundations of buildings of the Judengasse, the cramped ghetto demolished at the end of the 19th century where Jews had lived for more than 400 years. The city, wrestling with the question of how to preserve the archaeological foundations and how to bear witness to the city’s Jewish heritage, ultimately opted to remove the ruins and later reconstruct the foundation walls of five houses, two mikves, two wells and a canal in the Museum Judengasse, which was built on the Börneplatz tucked into the Utilities building.
Here begins the story of Frankfurt Jewry and the tale of two unique communities: the first, whose history stretches back to the 12th century, flourishing in the Judengasse and then expanding throughout the city until the rise of the Nazis, and the second that rose from the rubble of World War II. The original Jewish Frankfurt, whose population soared from 2,700 in 1660 to some 30,000 in 1925, is visible through the artifacts that remain in the city’s museums, cemeteries and other memorials. Today’s Jewish community of 7,000, drawn originally from DP camp survivors who had not previously lived in Frankfurt, refugees from Eastern Europe and most recently immigrants from parts of the former Soviet Union, centers its cultural life in Frankfurt’s Westend and is the second-largest Jewish community in Germany.
The first Jews came to Frankfurt around 1150 from Worms and other towns, likely drawn by the trade fairs. They settled between the Church of St. Bartholomew and the Old Bridge, where they lived side by side with Christians. However, in 1462, following periods of unrest punctuated by the devastating pogroms of 1241 and 1349, the Jews were resettled in the eastern part of town, where the Judengasse was enclosed by locked gates.
The community thrived as Jews in other parts of present-day Germany were expelled from their homes and flocked to Frankfurt. Since Jews were restricted to the ghetto, residents subdivided houses, added on stories and built back extensions. Another pogrom swept through the community in 1616 and fire destroyed the Judengasse in 1711. But each time the populace returned.
After the uprising of 1616 new restrictions were drawn up, including limiting the number of Jewish households to 500 and weddings to 12 a year, but Jews were guaranteed imperial protection. In the early 20th century Alexander Dietz compiled family histories of many of these residents in the Stammbuch der Frankfurter Juden (Family Tree of the Frankfurt Jews) and a glimpse of some of that research, which included the origin and history of 625 families and their life from 1349 to 1849, can be seen in English online at www.judengasse.de/ehtml/findex.htm.
One of those families was Rothschild, whose name derived from the red shield (zum roten schild) at the house by which it was identified. Mayer Amschel Rothschild was born in the Judengasse in 1744 and died there in 1812. Starting as a struggling coin dealer, he and later his five sons built a great European banking house. By the time of Rothschild’s death Jews were no longer compelled to live in the Judengasse, and the Jewish community was moving out.
It is one of the surprises of Frankfurt history that the European Central Bank with its outsized Euro sculpture that dominates the landscape at Willy-Brandt-Platz is within walking distance of the remains of the Judengasse and the Rothschild house.
In the early 19th century Frankfurt became a center of Reform Judaism and the movement thrived until World War II. In 1851 a group of Orthodox rabbis set up a parallel community. The two entities, one known as the Israelite (composed of both Reform and Orthodox Jews) and the separatist group known as the neo-Orthodox Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft (Israelite Religious Society), coexisted until 1939, when the Nazis forced their merger.
As the 20th century got under way Frankfurt’s Jews were at the peak of their influence. They were bankers, brokers, manufacturers, retailers, lawyers and doctors. They fought in World War I under the Kaiser and Frankfurt became a center of learning in the Weimar Republic. Jewish Frankfurters were active in politics, and in 1925 Ludwig Landmann became the city’s first Jewish mayor.
Following Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when stores were looted and synagogues burned, hundreds of Jewish men were sent to the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. In 1941 most of the remaining Jews were deported to ghettoes in Poland and Russia, then directly to concentration camps; the Simon Wiesenthal Center puts the population at 602 by 1943.
After the war a few prewar Frankfurt Jews returned and the new Jewish community began.
Come the Sabbath the Westend Synagogue at Freiherr-vom-Stein-Strasse 30, with its vaulting stone arches, massive cupola, stained-glass windows and art deco and Mediterranean touches, hums with the sounds of Jews praying. Once the home of the Reform Jewish community and the one synagogue to survive World War II, it is now the central worship place of the Orthodox. Details on the services at Frankfurt’s synagogues, including the Westend, are available by checking the monthly Jüdische Gemeindezeitung Frankfurt, the magazine of the Jewish community of Frankfurt, or checking with the Jewish Community Center (telephone: 011-49-69-768-0360). For Reform Judaism there has been no similar revival.
Walk from the synagogue through the streets of the Westend, and you’ll pass through a neighborhood of postwar apartment buildings and stately homes that survived Allied bombing. The old Gestapo headquarters on Lindenstrasse still stands; it now houses the private Löbbecke bank. At Savignystrasse 60-66 and Westendstrasse 43—two separate buildings that are connected—is the heavily guarded Jewish Community Center that offers an array of services, including cultural programs, activities for seniors and youth and a kindergarten. At one side, stretching from the ground to above the roof is a blank tablet with cracks to symbolize the break between the German and Jewish people. (The names of the Jews who were deported to concentration camps were compiled in a list laid in the foundation stone below the “broken” tablet.) Be forewarned: Security is very tight, and you’ll be questioned about the reason for your visit, screened in a metal detector and asked to show a passport.
With 40 percent of the Jewish community today having arrived since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, swelling the Frankfurt community by some 2,500, the focus of the community center has been on providing social assistance and help in navigating government agencies. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has been active, opening the Lauder Midrasha for female high school and university students from all over the country at Zeppelinallee 25 (49-69-713-7460). Check with them as well about community activities.
Founded in 1804 by Siegmund Geisenheimer with the backing of Mayer Rothschild, the Philanthropin in the Hebelstrasse was originally a school for poor Jewish children, but by the 1930’s it was educating more than a thousand students from throughout Germany. A model of German enlightenment, the Philanthropin closed its doors as a Jewish school in 1942.
The day is not distant then until those children of the Nazi era who were educated at the Philanthropin but fled Germany will enter its halls and find school once again in session. For Frankfurt runs annual returnee trips open to those born in the city or who lived there for at least five years before their emigration and were persecuted during National Socialism. And while the program is expected to end within the next five years, there’s still time to sign up. (Descendants of eligible Frankfurt Jews are also welcome, although the city will not pay their expenses. Check the city Web site at www.frankfurt. de/sis/English.html).
The Jewish Museum, which opened in 1988 in the former Rothschild Palais, a home that Baron Mayer Carl von Rothschild bought in 1846 that sits along the Main River at Unthatermainkai 14-15 (www.juedischesmu seum.de; 49-69-212-35000; open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 5, Wednesday 10 to 8, closed Monday). It offers a program on the history of the Jews in Frankfurt until 1950; a display of religious artifacts, including the illuminated Frankfurt Haggada from 1731; Torah shields and Hanukka lamps and a bookstore; a small café and changing temporary exhibits. Circle around the detailed wooden model of the Judengasse on the first floor, built on a scale of 1:50, which depicts house by house the ghetto as it was after the great fire of 1711 when 3,000 people lived within its walls. Exhibits are in German and English speakers are handed a heavy binder that’s unwieldy to use. Purchase the small and portable English-language catalog that discusses both this museum and the Judengasse Museum annex. If you’re planning on visiting several museums, purchase the two-day discount Museumsufer ticket available at Frankfurt museums.
At the Judengasse Museum (Kurt-Schumacher Strasse 10 (49-69-297-7419; Tuesday to Sunday 10 to 5, Wednesday to 8, closed Monday), wander through the excavation site below street level. See the reconstructed cellar walls of the Steinernes Haus (Stone House), the Sperber (Sparrowhawk), Roter Widder (Red Ram), and Weisser Widder (White Ram) houses and the Warmes Bad. The Stone House served as a home for community officials and had amikve (whose six stone steps remain). The Sparrowhawk, Red Ram and White Ram contained living quarters, shops, and storerooms.
In the Warmes Bad was one of the Judengasse’s largest houses, and a public well that served the community was in front of it. Exhibits explain daily life and customs and illustrate the archaeological discoveries. Check the museum’s Web site before you visit as its infobank (www.judengasse.de/ehtml/page812.htm) provides an excellent introduction.
Outside the museum, behind the Municipal Utility Company building, is Neuer Börneplatz with its Holocaust memorial. A plaque and special asphalt surfacing commemorate the Börneplatz Synagogue that the Nazis burned on Kristallnacht. More than 11,000 small metal blocks, each engraved with the name, date of birth, date and place of death of those deported from 1941 on, are set into the walls surrounding the old Jewish cemetery. The locked cemetery, whose oldest gravestone dates from 1272, served the community until 1828. It was devastated by the Nazis, but scores of tombstones, including that of Mayer Rothschild, still stand. You can obtain an entrance key from the Judengasse Museum if you leave behind your passport.
A few blocks away is a World War II air-raid bunker (Hochbunker Friedberger Anlage 5/6; ask at the Judengasse Museum for details; www. juedischesmuseum.de/wechselaus stellungen/ostend2.html). Constructed on the site where Frankfurt’s largest synagogue stood, the Jewish Museum and the November 9 Initiative have installed an exhibit that focuses on the Eastend community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Learn about the Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft (IRG), the schools, welfare organizations and people of the Eastend who in 1895 made up 40 percent of Frankfurt’s Jewish population.
Walk across the Untermain bridge over the Main River after visiting the Jewish Museum and head to the Städel art museum (Schaumainkai 63; 49-69–605-098-200; www.staedelmu seum.de; Tuesday and Friday to Sunday 10 to 5, Wednesday and Thursday to 9, closed Monday). German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s famous depiction of the Börneplatz Synagogue (Die Synagoge in Frankfurt am Main 1919), one of the painter’s first Frankfurt cityscapes, hangs in the first-floor modern art gallery. Look also for German Jewish Impressionist Max Liebermann’s Der Hof des Waisenhauses in Amsterdam.
Admirers of Anne Frank (who read German) may wish to go off the beaten museum track and visit the Jugendbegegnungsstätte Anne Frank (Hansaallee 150; 49-69-560-0020; www. jbs-anne-frank.de), which has an exhibit “Anne Frank. A Girl from Germany” (Friday to Sunday, 2 to 6). Frank was born in Frankfurt on June 29, 1929, and lived there until the spring of 1933.
For a change of pace visit the beautiful Palmengarten in the Westend (Siesmayerstrasse 63 near the Jewish Community Center; 49-69-212-36689; www.palmengarten.frankurt.de/in dex.htm) with its vast Tropicarium complex of greenhouses, its 1869 Palmenhausten and its 50 acres of flowers. The house of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Frankfurt’s famous literary son, offers insight into the lifestyle of Frankfurt’s well-to-do 18th-century Christian citizens far from the Judengasse walls. Goethe Haus is at Grosser Hirschgraben 23-25 (49-69-138-800; www.goethehaus-frankfurt. de/willkommen.html). The Römerberg—the historic city center and traditional market square with its reconstructed half-timbered façades—is just a short stroll from the Judengasse Museum, as is the historic Gothic Church of St. Bartholomew known as the Kaiserdom, where the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned.
The 2002 German Oscar-winning film Nowhere in Africa, which recounts the experience of a German Jewish family that flees to escape Nazi persecution, is based on the novel of Frankfurt resident Stephanie Zweig (University of Wisconsin Press, available in English).
Among those born in Frankfurt or who worked there in the early 20th century were philosophers Herbert Marcuse and Theodor W. Adorno, theologians Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, psychology pioneers Erik Erikson and Erich Fromm and Nobel prize-winning physician Paul Ehrlich.
The fictional Daniel’s Story (Scholastic) by Carol Matas, published in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and based on its permanent children’s exhibition, tells the story of a Frankfurt child and his relocation to Lodz, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
In the Westend the small, moderately priced Hotel Liebig (Liebigstrasse 45; www.hotelliebig.de; 49-69-241-8299-0) and Hotel Mozart (Parkstrasse 17; www.hotelmozart.de; 49-69-156-8060) are within walking distance of the synagogue.
On the higher end, the Dorint Sofitel Savigny Frankfurt (Savignystrasse 14-16; www.sofitel.com; toll-free: 800-SOFITEL) is near the Jewish Community Center but a longer walk to the synagogue.
The monumental Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof in downtown Frankfurt (Am Kaiserplatz; toll-free 800-223-5652 or 49-69-215-02; www.srs-worldhotels.com) combines Old World charm with first-class luxury.
Sohar’s Restaurant in the Jewish Community Center at Savignystrasse 66 (49-69-752-341) serves kosher food Tuesday through Friday 12 to 7:30, Sunday 12 to 7, and Saturday 1 to 3, closed Monday. If you want a Sabbath meal, pay in advance as no money is accepted on Saturday. A passport is required for entrance to the building. It’s recommended that you contact the restaurant in advance to confirm hours and other arrangements. For a kosher grocery, go to Aviv (Hanauer Landstrasse 50 in the Eastend; 49-69-43-30-13; Monday to Thursday 9 to 5:30; Friday 9 to 3:30).
As Frankfurt has become ethnically diverse, vegetarian restaurants have proliferated. Apple wine is the local liquid specialty.
In season, white asparagus, smothered in butter or hollandaise sauce, is not to be missed. Chefs create special asparagus menus so be ready to sample some great concoctions.
Lois Gilman is a freelance writer who lives in New York. She traces her family back to the 17th-century Judengasse.