The Story of Erfurt’s Synagogue and Its Treasure

The oldest synagogue in Europe is tucked behind a labyrinth of narrow streets in downtown Erfurt. The capital of Thuringia, in the former East Germany, was little damaged during World War II and still has typical German medieval buildings. Erfurt was the birthplace of Max Weber in 1864 and its university was attended by several celebrities, including Martin Luther in the 1500s. The recently-restored synagogue was reopened to the public at the end of 2009 as a museum. The building dates back to 1100. Over the centuries it has had several different uses: in addition to being a place of Jewish worship, it was also a restaurant, a ball room and a barn. In the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler came to power, almost everybody had forgotten that the building was a Jewish Temple. Therefore, it managed to survive the Crystal Night and the Nazi period. The synagogue is certainly worth a visit, not only because of its amusing mishmash of architectural styles, but because of its permanent exhibition which boasts a 600-year-old treasure, discovered by chance in 1998. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, downtown Erfurt underwent a radical restructuring. As the city managers decided to replace telephone and electric lines, an excavator working in the Michaelis Strasse suddenly hit a ceramic vase. Its content was breath-taking: 28 kilos of silverware, jewels and gold coins (some of which carry the image of Louis IX of France). The treasure dates back to 1349. Historians believe it belonged to a rich trader, Kalman von Wieke, who decided to hide it in a cellar during one of the numerous pogrom of that period. It was left untouched for seven centuries. Its fortuitous discovery reminded me of how the paleolithic caves of Lascaux were found in 1940 by a group of French teenagers who had lost their ball in a hole which in actual fact was the entrance to an extraordinary prehistorical complex with paintings estimated to be 17,000 years old.

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