Rediscovering The Jewish and Christian Past In Worms, Germany
Norma Felsenthal Gerber
© Copyright 2023 by Norma Felsenthal Gerber
Painting by Emile Delperée (1850-1896) at Wikimedia Commons.
In my travels I have felt drawn to visit places in Europe where Jewish people once lived. As a child I grew up with my parents’ sense of loss. They were forced to leave Germany in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution. I have visited their former hometowns. I have also explored the ghetto of Venice, the Jewish quarter of Vienna near Freud’s home, the area near Rembrandt’s home in Amsterdam and the Jewish section of Prague.
Most recently, I decided to explore the city of Worms in Germany, I thought it was of special historical interest when I read it had been one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Germany with Jews living there as long as 800 years ago. An added incentive for visiting Worms was that I learned it was especially known for its connection with Martin Luther, and this year Germany was celebrating the 500th anniversary of the preacher’s birth.
I arrived in Worms at twilight, and after checking into my hotel I wandered a bit about the city. However, it was soon too dark to really see the places of interest so I put off my sightseeing until the following day.
As I ate breakfast in the small dining room I noticed a portly, but neatly dressed, elderly man smiling excessively at me across the room. He got up and handed me his German newspaper, saying perhaps I would enjoy it. I thanked him but he didn’t stop to introduce himself. Soon thereafter I went out to see the city.
I first entered the Dom of Worms, across the market square from my hotel. A mass was being celebrated by a roomful of blond children. I heard a deep voice next to me explaining that such a mass was usual to bless the new school term. I turned and was surprised to find the man who had given me his newspaper standing beside me. His bold checked suit and puffy, pink cheeks stood out brightly in the darkness of the church.
Mr. Reinholz introduced himself as a salesman who traveled often to Worms and asked if he might show me around. He was polite, and I was glad to have a guide after having become somewhat disoriented trying to locate a few sites in the dark the night before. He pointed out that the huge stone cathedral had exterior carvings and inscriptions referring to the legendary Queen Cunegunde and the Niebelungen epics.
Then we visited a far smaller church, the Evangelical Dreifaltigkeitskirche, and then the church named for Luther, the Luther Church. Mr. Reinholz told me something of the history of Luther in Worms: that in 1521, when he was called to the Diet of Worms, he refused to recant what he had written in any of his books. “He had attacked the abuses of the Church and asked for a Reformation, but many people wanted to burn him. He was lucky that he was only ordered to leave Worms.”
Mr. Reinholz told me that he had learned that the actual place where Luther had been questioned, the Bishofshof, no longer existed and on its spot was an art museum, the Kunsthaus Heylshof. We toured a special exhibit of famous artists of Worms from the 15th to the 17th centuries, works by Hans Folz, Conrat Meit, Anton Woensam. There were paintings as well as crafts of glass, ceramic, silver and bronze.
Then we went to an exhibit commemorating Luther’s birth. On display was an extensive monument to Luther, a sculpture of figures connected with the Reformation, built in 1868 by Ernst Rietschel. In addition, there was a huge display from the Luther Library collection of 1883, with hundreds of printings of Luther’s writings.
I expressed appreciation to my guide for his interesting information and the kindness he had shown in taking the time to show me the Christian and artistic highlights of the city. He asked me if I was interested in seeing anything else in Worms.
At this time I first explained to him that I was Jewish, that my parents had once lived in Germany, but had to leave to save their lives. I told him I was very interested in seeing the landmarks of the Jewish side of Worms, especially the ancient Jewish cemetery.
He had never been there, he admitted, but knew where it was. As he was not averse to going there I ventured to ask him what his experiences of the war had been. With his thin, almost totally white hair, he looked old enough to have taken part. “I was only 13 when my hometown of Leipzig was bombed,” he claimed. “But my uncle, a general in Prague, invited my family to move there and we were glad to go,” he added.
As we entered the cemetery I felt very uneasy. I was in the company of a man whose uncle might have been involved in the murder of the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia! I tried to push this idea out of my mind as I found around me in the cemetery the most engaging, awesome tombstones, all askew, half sunken into the earth, the terracotta blocks covered with names in Hebrew letters. Here were the generations of 800 years ago. Row upon row of stones, so old, the writing on them was often severely eroded.
Yet there were 20th century Jewish gravestones too, with German names clearly seen, some high stones with arches reaching 20 feet into the air, majestic, noble structures. None of the plots, of course, had any flowers on them, and my companion remarked about this since Christian graves are not left so bare. I explained that Jews may permit plantings of leaves only and are allowed by Jewish law to leave only a small stone in remembrance.
I stopped abruptly to stare at one gravestone, noticing it was piled high across the top with perhaps 100 tiny stones. I was puzzled. How could one person’s grave have so many visitors? Then it occurred to me that since these stones could not have been left by only one person’s relative, each of the Jewish people who had visited the cemetery decided to leave a stone all in one place to mark the fact that so many had come here to honor all the dead.
Feeling a thrill of community with these unknown other visitors, I placed my stone beside theirs. As I did so, I had a sense of a strong connection and solidarity with Jews all over the world, as though all had met here and extended their hands in friendship.
As we left the cemetery, the German and I had to come down a steep incline. He extended his hand to help me down. We were walking now in the old Jewish quarter of the city where there was supposed to be an ancient synagogue, according to my guidebook. But Mr. Reinholz did not seem interested in walking anymore. He asked if he could drive me in his car to a picturesque spot near the river. I told him I was not interested in driving in the car of someone I had just met. He respected my decision and volunteered to help me locate the synagogue.
We found the bell of the caretaker, a few doors from the temple. I rang and a woman replied with annoyance, to wait for her before the temple doors.
As we waited outside another man and woman joined us. The caretaker arrived, turned her key in the old lock and we entered. The synagogue was clean and attractive, but there were places where benches seemed to be missing. We enquired and, as we expected, learned that there were no Jews in Worms to conduct a service. Immediately upon hearing this, the thin man who came in with us, unfolded a prayer shawl, opened a prayer book, faced the ark, and chanted the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. His voice rang out in the otherwise silent hall. It filled the space; it filled my heart up. I felt as though I were holding hands with the dead congregations across the ages.
My German friend asked the caretaker, “Are there many visitors to the synagogue? As he was asking, I and the other two Jews inscribed our names into the visitors’ book. Mr. Reinholz and I were stunned to hear the answer. The young woman said that over 2000 people visited almost every month. Then she added, in a weary tone, that it seemed that “more were coming every year.” I felt a strange triumph in hearing this, a strange pride bursting in my chest and tears brimming at my eyes. I felt a power, the power of those who endure, the children of survivors, who remember and honor their past.
The caretaker, who seemed to be carrying out her job as though it was a prison term someone imposed on her, conducted us next door to tell us about the old Talmud school where a famous Rabbi once gave instruction. All the little empty chairs still stood around the table.
Then the caretaker led us into the building that housed an ancient ritual bath, the Mikvah. The German had never seen such a thing. He was learning something new about Jewish people and expressed respect for those who practiced such fastidiousness and ancient rites. As we left, he politely tipped the caretaker.
Then he told me he had recently visited the state of Israel. I was amazed to hear he had gone there. It was almost as amazing to me as the fact that this nephew of a Nazi general had accompanied me to a synagogue. He said he had admired the young Jewish men he met in Israel. “They took such pride in their state and in defending it.” He said they had told him they no longer felt hatred about the past, now that they had their own land. He seemed relieved, as though Germany could now forget what had happened there. This was even more amazing.
We were both suffering from the extreme summer heat. Mr. Reinholz invited me for some refreshment, and we headed for the modern center of town with its lively conglomeration of shops and mercantile activity. In an ice cream parlor, he ordered us some lemon drinks. I thought this meant sodas, but instead we were served the bitterest lemonade I had ever tasted. I kept pouring sugar in my glass, but even after I had dumped in an immoderate amount, the drink was not sweetened.
The old stout German referred to his weight and refused to add any sugar to his lemonade. He actually managed to swallow the whole concoction. Once more I was amazed. I complimented him on this ability. “Either you have the most stoical constitution I have ever seen or the most masochistic,” I observed. He laughed and merely remarked that it was possible due to the practice of great self control and will power. He had just made up his mind not to consider how bitter it was. I took this bitter lemonade to stand for the bitter past, which like the drink I couldn’t swallow, would be impossible for me to forget.