Basel’s Zionist legacy
“At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.” Theodor Herzl wrote those lines in his diary in 1897, at the end of the first Zionist Congress, which he organized. Visit sites associated with this remarkable moment in Jewish history today: the concert hall in the Municipal Casino, where the convention was held, no longer exists, but Les Trois Rois, Basel’s oldest hotel, certainly does; Herzl had a corner suite in the hotel, and it’s likely he penned those famous words there. The connection between Switzerland and Israel runs deep: Israelis came to Switzerland to study its citizen militia and based its army on that model; modern-day Basel’s Israel Park has a lovely grove of 40 trees presented by Israel’s sixth president. The city does not have a traditional Jewish district, but your tour will include stops at the Great Synagogue, which dates to 1868, and the Jewish Museum, as well as a look at Les Trois Rois. Basel welcomed a new synagogue in 2012—the first to be built since 1929—which stands at the heart of a resurgent Jewish community.
Alsace’s Jewish past
Strasbourg’s Jewish community was first noted by Benjamin of Tudela, the remarkable medieval traveler and writer who mentioned the Jewish scholars of Strasbourg in 1165. Strasbourg’s Jews, like many others in the area, were driven from the city during the Black Death but remained in the area throughout the centuries, a presence reflected in the many synagogues that still stand (not necessarily in use) and in the community’s unique dialect, Judeo-Alsatian. Explore the living history of this heritage with a stroll through Strasbourg’s old town, beginning at the cathedral, where the medieval Christian view of Judaism is made clear: a statue—Synagoga—is blindfolded, indicating that she has not seen the light of Christianity. The neighboring museum courtyard contains some medieval Jewish headstones, relocated from a lost cemetery on the Place de la Republique. As you head down Rue des Juifs, one of the oldest streets in the city, you’ll see the location of the community’s oldest house, built in 1270, and 13th-century bakery and, at the end of the lane, the synagogue; restoration work on the mikveh, around the corner, has just begun. Visit the Alsatian Museum for a look at the Judaica collection and its model prayer room, and, if you like, attend a service at the Synagogue of Peace, built in 1954 to replace the one destroyed by the Nazis and the heart of the thriving modern Jewish community.
Excursion to Worms
Will you leave a pebble on the headstone of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg? The great medieval scholar was born in Worms and is buried there, in the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Germany. In his day, Worms was one of three important centers of Jewish learning and trade in the Middle Ages, along with Mainz and Speyer, and was known as “little Jerusalem on the Rhine.” Rabbi Meir taught in Rothenburg for 25 years and died a prisoner in Alsace—and his reasons for refusing to allow anyone to ransom him were cited in discussions in 2011 when Israel exchanged 1027 Hamas prisoners for a single Israeli soldier. Today when you visit Worms’ ancient cemetery, with headstones dating to the 11th century, you’ll find a peaceful place that bears testimony to the long history of Jews in the region. Your tour will also include the re-created 12th-century synagogue and mikveh, which were destroyed on Kristallnacht.
Frankfurt Jewish Museum and the legacy of the Rothschilds
The Rothschild family fortune began in Frankfurt, along with the family name—taken from the red shield on the family home on Judengasse, the quarter-mile-long street where all of Frankfurt’s Jews were required to live between 1462 and 1811. It was a crowded but prosperous community (it had to be prosperous, since the only way Jews enjoyed imperial protection was by paying enormous fees to the emperor). Mayer Rothschild started as a coin dealer, expanded into dealing antiques, and by 1792, he was a wealthy banker with an international clientele. His five sons followed in his footsteps, extending the family business throughout Europe and lending their names to a raft of famous enterprises—and to numerous cultural and charitable institutions in Frankfurt and elsewhere. The Frankfurt Jewish Museum, located in a former Rothschild home that was recently renovated, offers a fascinating look at the family’s saga. Though none of the houses on Judengasse are still standing, you can see the foundations of some of them when you visit Museum Judengasse., which outlines the history of Jews in Frankfurt and their relations with the Christian community through the centuries. It abuts the Jewish cemetery and the memorial to victims of the Shoah, listing the names of 12,000 Frankfurt Jews who died in the death camps.
Cologne’s Jewish Quarter
It's a short walk from the cathedral—where the protections granted Jews in 1266 are etched in stone—to Cologne's ancient Jewish quarter. Jews crossed the Alps with the Romans and were part of Cologne's history from the beginning: Emperor Constantine signed an edict allowing Jews to be elected to the curia in 321. No one knows for sure what happened when the Romans retreated south—did Jews remove with them or remain to form the nucleus of the substantial community that flourished in Cologne a few centuries later? The earliest physical remains of the Jewish community date to the 11th century. The medieval Judengasse, the synagogue and the mikveh were all close to the town hall. An archaeological excavation is slowly revealing the elements of this neighborhood, which is wonderfully well documented, but only the mikveh is open to the public at this time. Cologne is once again home to a thriving Jewish community, centered on the synagogue on Roonstrasse, the only synagogue of the six destroyed by the Nazis to be rebuilt after the war.
Visit to Portuguese Synagogue and Jewish Museum
Anyone who has read The Diary of Anne Frank knows what happened to Amsterdam’s Jews under the Nazis. But not everyone knows that the Jewish community began in the city when Sephardic Jews fled Spain and Portugal after 1492, a group of successful merchants and professionals who in turn sponsored Ashkenazi migrants fleeing Central Europe in the 17th century. Visit the Jewish Historical Museum, with its meticulous re-creation of the Great Synagogue, compelling exhibit called “Friday Night” and lively children’s area, and the nearby Portuguese Synagogue, before strolling through the former Jewish Quarter (Rembrandt lived is in this neighborhood, and he often asked his Jewish neighbors to pose for his Old Testament scenes; his house is now a museum and is one of the few original houses still standing in the area). Today’s Jewish community is largely centered in Amstelveen, where some 15,000 Jews live, work and worship in one of the largest and most vibrant communities in Europe.