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In breathtaking find, Medieval Jewish gravestones discovered inside wall in Mainz, Germany

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The 18 headstones were discovered in the cities Old Town and may date back to the 11th Century

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Construction workers in the German city of Mainz were shocked recently to discover 18 Jewish Medieval gravestones that were built into a wall.

According to Germany’s Ministry of Culture, the gravestones were used in the walls as fillers in the cities Old Town and may date as far back as the 11th Century. 

Minister of Culture Prof. Konrad Wolf explained that “Mainz, together with Speyer and Worms (ShUM), formed an important center of Jewish life throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.” 

“One of the unique testimonies of the three ShUM communities is the memorial cemetery, which was opened in 1926,” Wolf said. “Numerous medieval tombstones that were rediscovered in the course of construction work were placed at the cemetery and play a unique role in understanding life during that time.”

The memorial cemetery has become a central monument at the ‘Mainz Judensand’ Jewish Cemetery, “within the framework of the ShUM World Heritage application for recognition by UNESCO,” he added.

The Jews were expelled from Mainz in 1438 and “large numbers of the medieval tombstones from the ‘Old Jewish Cemetery in Mainz’ were misused,” Wolf said. “This also applies to the gravestones that were just rediscovered.” 

He stressed that the gravestones are centuries-old evidence of profound “Jewish roots and tradition in Mainz.”

Adding to this, Markus Nöhl, the spokesman for Germany’s Ministry of Culture, told IsraelNewsStand that “after the expulsion of the Jewish population by the municipal council of Mainz in 1438, the Old Jewish Cemetery came into municipal hands, temporarily, against the will of the archbishop who claimed the protection of the Jews in Mainz for himself.”

Interestingly, Nöhl said that a section of the cemetery site was even leased out as a vineyard and as a result, headstones were removed in large numbers and re-used as building materials. “Many medieval headstones that were used as building material were rediscovered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, among other things, during works to regulate the Rhine River, during the construction of the Hessische Ludwigsbahn in the south of the city, and in connection with the de-fortification of the city,” he said.

He emphasized that this also applies to the headstones that were recently rediscovered. 

“They are centuries-old evidence of Jewish roots and tradition in Mainz,” he added. 

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Mainz is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the former “Ashkenaz region,” which was made up of the Rhineland valley and neighboring France.” 

As a result of the Crusades between the 11th–13th centuries, the Jews migrated eastward to Slavic lands like today’s Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. 

Until the year 1300, the Jewish cemetery in Mainz was the largest and is still considered an extremely important landmark for Jews today.

Nöhl said that “the rediscovered headstones are of great historic and religious significance” because they give more information and insight into “the medieval Jewish community and the Jewish history of the medieval Mainz.”

Asked about the inscriptions on the headstones, he said that many were written in Hebrew and that the information on them provides “valuable information about the deceased as well as historic events.” 

“They hold alive the remembrance of charitable men and women, famous scholars and martyrs who died for their faith,” he said. “The inscriptions of the headstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery Worms and the Memorial Cemetery in Old Jewish Cemetery Mainz emphasize scholarship, communal patronage and martyrdom as identity-forming characteristics.”

Some of the stones found also have eulogies for community officials, scholars, benefactors and martyrs, “both men and women, and they offer a uniquely precise insight into the internal structure of the ShUM communities.” 

He also pointed out that the text and designs represent “outstanding evidence about the social and cultural history and the role that women played in the ShUM communities.”

According to Nöhl, the rediscovered headstones, as well as the community centers and cemeteries in the ShUM Communities, are significant evidence of the long history of Judeo-Christian encounters and violent persecution.

Discussing what will be done with the newly rediscovered headstones, Nöhl said they have been moved to a depot at the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage for further processing and that the next step will be the scientific research.

Concluding, he said that in the near future, “the headstones will be examined and discussed in an interdisciplinary workshop, which will be organized in close cooperation with the Jewish Community [of] Mainz.”

*Featured Image – Minister of Culture Prof. Dr. Konrad Wolf, together with Dr. Marion Witteyer, Head of State Archeology Mainz, the Deputy Chairwoman of the Mainz Jewish Community, Joanna Wroblewska-Nell, and Rabbi Aharon Vernikovsky. (Photo Credit: MWWK / Piel – with permission)

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