Historical Tour: "Jewish Quarter of Trier"

Our historical circuit around the Jewish Quarter of Trier starts at the Jewry Gate at Hauptmarkt and leads to Stockplatz. The tour's five stops provide informations about the quarter's building history and about life in a medieval Jewish community.

Flagge Deutschland  Flagge Frankreich 

1st stop: Jewry Gate (Judenpforte)

The medieval Jewish quarter is located between the main market square (Hauptmarkt), Jakobstrasse, and Stockstrasse. By the 14th century, it had developed into the most densely built-up area within the city walls. Here, Jewish families, a total of up to 300 persons, lived in close vicinity to the city’s Christian population. They formed a community with their own synagogue and other institutions.

A Jewish quarter is no “ghetto.” Still, there was a certain separation between Jewish and Christian habitations. On the Sabbath the quarter became an „eruv“, and in times of danger it offered protection. In one such situation, in the year 1338, the Archbishop and the municipal authorities agreed that the doors and windows of the Jewish habitations “leading into the public streets of Trier” should be walled up. Back then, the number of entrances to the quarter was limited to three gates. The Minor Jewry Gate led into Jewry Lane (Judengasse), while the Major Jewry Gate (Grosse Judenpforte) led into Stockstrasse, and the Lower Jewry Gate (Untere Judenpforte) opened out from the quarter to Jakobstrasse. The gates were closed at night and open throughout the day.

The Minor Jewry Gate was built around 1219. It was possible to determine its age by dating the tree rings of the wooden beams (dendrochronology). Today we can still see the anchorage points for the barring chain on both sides of the gate.

Presumably the western transverse arches were added at the beginning of the 17th century, to allow for constructing the Renaissance half-timbered house above. At the end of the 18th century the gate was extended toward the market square in order to adapt it to the building line of Simeonstrasse.

Schnitt durch die Judenpforte. Zeichnung: Friedrich Kutzbach (1929)

Section through the Jewry Gate (detail).
Editor: Friedrich Kutzbach (Trier municipal archive)

Eruv (Sabbath boundary): Within the eruv enclosure Jews are allowed to do certain things otherwise forbidden on the Sabbath according to Jewish law. The eruv area is usually surrounded by walls or fences, sometimes also by symbolic boundaries, and considered a common home by all residents. Such an eruv chatzeirot allows for carrying things outside the house, otherwise forbidden on the Sabbath.

2nd stop: Judengasse 2

The oldest Jewish residential building in Germany. The house was built in 1235 along with three neighbouring houses in Jewry Lane. The ceiling beams of the house as well as the Gothic façade date back to the year 1311. By means of tree-ring dating (dendrochronology), it was possible to determine the exact year in which the trees were chopped down and then used as ceiling beams.

The façade of the Jewish building displays the typical features of Gothic architecture in Trier. A double door led from the gabled façade to the basement and the living area. The traced narrow window openings divided the street façade into three floors. On the courtyard façade there was a flue that protruded from the upper storey. There were also spouts on fluted stone corbels on the eaves. The stone house rests on a square basement with a groin vault and a central column. Originally, both the ground floor and the first floor had a large room with a beamed ceiling and centre column.

Later on the building was redesigned several times. The large rooms were divided by half-timbered walls, and a new fireplace in the centre of the house replaced the former Gothic fireside. In the 19th century additional windows were installed. Eventually, during the 1980s an essential renovation of the house took place.

The four houses on the south side of the lane were built in 1235 by four Jews from Trier: Daniel, Heilmann, Heckelin, and his son Jakob. In 1235 Heilmann leased four more houses on the opposite side of the lane from the canons of St. Simeon. The quarter expanded toward Jakobstrasse and the market during the 14th century. The prosperity of the medieval Jewish community abruptly ended with the pogrom of 1349. Shortly after that, individual Jews again lived in the city. In 1360 Master Simon, Jewish court physician of the archbishop, lived in this house.

When the community flourished in the first half of the 14th century, Muskinus was one of the most prominent Jews. Between 1323 and 1336 he worked as one of Archbishop Baldwin’s financial managers at court. As one of the community leaders he represented the Jews in legal matters. He had his own seal which displays a stylised tree. The seal was found in 1988 on Viehmarkt square where the ancient Jewish cemetery was once located. Muskinus owned several residential buildings near the synagogue, by the market, and in Jakobstrasse.

Judengasse in den 1950er Jahren. (Archiv der städtischen Denkmalpflege)

Trier’s Jewry Lane in the 1950s. (archive of the municipal department for the
preservation of historical monuments and sites)

Häuser in der Judengasse, Aufnahme von 1928. (Archiv der städtischen Denkmalpflege)

Houses in Trier’s Jewry Lane, pictured 1928.
(archive of the municipal department for the preservation of historical monuments and sites)

Keller im Haus Judengasse 2. (Archiv der städtischen Denkmalpflege)

Basement of the house in Judengasse no. 2
(archive of the municipal department for the preservation of historical monuments and sites)

Siegel des Muskinus, datiert vor 1336. (Rheinisches Landesmuseum)

Seal of Muskinus the Jew dating back to before 1336.
(Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier/archaeological museum)

3rd stop: Judengasse 4/4a

A mikvah is a part of the infrastructure of any Jewish community. During the Middle Ages, the mikvahs were almost always supplied with groundwater, and only in rare cases with water from a river. There are monumental mikvahs and basement mikvahs, depending on whether or not a separate building was dedicated to the task. The monumental mikvah in the city of Speyer, built in the early 12th century, consists of a long, barrel-vaulted staircase leading to a vestibule. From there the pool could be reached by walking down further steps. The smaller mikvah of Worms presents a similar construction. In the monumental mikvahs of Cologne (11th century), Andernach and Friedberg (13th century) the stairways lead down to the pool around a kind of well shaft. Mikvahs in basements are smaller and can also be found in private homes, as in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (15th century) and in Frankfurt’s Jewry Lane (16th century). In these cases, too, there were steps leading down to the pool. The depth of the mikvah building depended on the groundwater level and could amount to several metres. A full immersion had to be possible in any case.

There is quite a large mikvah hidden in the basement of Judengasse 4/4a. A long, barrel-vaulted stairway leads from the side of Jewry Lane to a basement beneath the rear building. The room, with a groin vault of two bays and a solid transverse arch, is almost 5 metres high. On the west wall of the large room there are two deep round-arched alcoves. The eastern wall is connected with two lower rooms that can be reached by steps. It is possible that their historical ground level beneath the present-day ground was as deep down as the groundwater.

The Mikvah was connected to the major Jewry Square (Grosser Judenplatz) and located in close proximity to the synagogue and the community hall. Its location and size suggest that it was an institution of the Jewish community. In a document from 1359 it is referred to as “the women’s cold bath” (der frauwen kalden bade).

Grundriss des Kellers im Haus Judengasse 4/4a. (R. Thelen, Rheinisches Landesmuseum)

Trier, Judengasse 4/4a, floor plan of the basement
(R. Thelen, Rheinisches Landesmuseum/archaeological museum)

Mikvah (ritual bath): Ritual immersion in “living” water (as opposed to scooped or stagnant water) is not meant for physical cleansing but for purifying the body and soul (tahara), for example after contact with a dead body or, for women, following menstruation or birth. The mikvah pool was normally supplied with groundwater, whereas adding warm water always used to be a controversial issue. Alternatively, it was possible to take the purification bath in a river or a lake. Until today, the principle of ritual immersion has barely changed.

4th stop: Jewry Square (Großer Judenplatz)

Even before 1096 there was a Jewish community in Trier, the members of which gathered in a synagogue. This synagogue is mentioned again in 1235. The source speaks of the “schools of the Jews,” using the plural form, which implies that presumably a smaller women’s section had already been attached to the synagogue building. The community hall was located on the square as well, first documented in 1315. While the guesthouse (hospitale) in the Jewish quarter is not mentioned in the written sources until 1422, it was clearly built in the first half of the 14th century. It provided accommodation to Jewish guests. There is also written evidence of a possible warm bath building. The buildings of the Jewish community no longer exist and cannot be precisely localised anymore. However, there is documented evidence of their existence.

The medieval Ashkenazic style of synagogue architecture had two basic types of construction: the single-naved hall building and the double-naved vaulted structure supported by central columns. The impressively tall single-storey buildings usually followed the regional Gothic construction style and were of modest outward appearance. In the east gable, a round window usually opened between two narrow lancet windows. Such an east window is mentioned in a 1311 document from Trier: The owner of the house next door was not allowed to add structures that would prevent the light from shining in. The entrance of the synagogue was usually situated in one of the side walls. The bimah (also called almemor) in the centre and the Torah ark on the east wall were the most characteristic elements of the interior. The ark (Aron ha-Qodesh) is the place where the Torah scrolls are kept. The bimah is a raised platform from where the Torah is read out. The builders of the synagogues adopted the regional architecture and considered themselves part of the urban society. They probably hired skilled experts who also worked for Christians.

The women in bigger communities gathered in adjacent women’s synagogues. These constructions were normally smaller and lower than the men’s synagogue. The interior was made up of plain equipment and included neither a Bimah nor an ark. Small wall openings connected the women’s section to the main synagogue and enabled the women to participate in prayer. The existence of a women’s synagogue provides information on the size of a community. The oldest preserved examples were built in the 13th century in the large communities of Worms, Speyer, and Cologne. In small communities the women followed the service from a mobile partition inside the synagogue. In modern synagogues the women’s section is often placed in a gallery.

The community hall was often named the “dance house” and provided a social meeting point of the Jewish community. It was the place where the members of the community, including numerous non-local residents, came together to celebrate weddings and public festivities. It is estimated that Trier’s Jewish community before 1349 numbered about 300 individuals, making up around 3 percent of the city’s population. This meant that it was one of the major communities in German cities. It lived under the protection of the archbishop of Trier and its existence was regulated by contracts with the municipal authorities.

Kartographische Rekonstruktion des Trierer Judenviertels. (A. Haverkamp, Arye-Maimon-Institut Trier)

Mapped reconstruction of Trier’s Jewish quarter
(A. Haverkamp, Arye-Maimon-Institut Trier)

Synagogue: House of assembly and of study, Beit ha-Knesset and Beit ha-Midrash. Prayer and Torah study are at the heart of Jewish religious life. Well into the 19th century, the readings used to be carried out exclusively in Hebrew or Aramaic. The synagogue represents a religious, social, and cultural centre for the community. Historical records often refer to it as the “Jews’ school”, and it is still called Shul in modern Yiddish.

5th stop: Stockplatz

Well into the 19th century, the area of today’s Stockplatz used to be densely built. The centre of the square was occupied by three big houses called “Zum Stock.” The alley leading round that block was called Hinterstegasse (“rearmost alley”). Along Jakobstrasse, too, there were large residential buildings originating from the Middle Ages until they were demolished at the end of the 19th century. Between them the Lower Jewry Gate (Untere Judenpforte) led the way out of the quarter. Up to the middle of the 14th century these houses were owned by Jews. Some were the property of the Jews Isaac Sandermann, Jacob Daniels, and Jacob the Scribe, who let them out to Jewish families.

The middle of the 14th century marked the beginning of the end for the Jewish community. After 1096, when Jews were persecuted in connection with the First Crusade, the Jews of Trier had lived in peace among the Christian population for 250 years. A pogrom in August 1349 brought that peace to an abrupt end. In numerous German cities the Jews were falsely accused of spreading the Black Death by polluting wells, and were killed. In Trier only few Jews could escape the catastrophe, which resulted in the Jewish community diminishing in significance and size.

From that moment on the archbishop disposed of the Jewish property. He let out their houses and synagogues to Christians. Only a few families returned to the Jewish quarter. The expulsion of the Jews from the city in 1418 marked the end of the medieval community in Trier. From that point onwards no more Jewish families lived in Trier until 1590.

The medieval Jewish cemetery once was situated on the premises of today’s Viehmarktplatz. It dated back to the 12th century. The oldest preserved Jewish tombstone of Trier also originates from that time. After the pogrom and the expulsion of the Jews, the site was leased to Christians and the tombstones were used as construction material. In the 14th century a chapel of St. Mary, today known as St. Anthony’s Church, was built in that area of the city, and in 1617 a Capuchin monastery was also founded there. The current name of Jüdemerstrasse is derived from the former Judenmauer (“Jews’ wall”) and refers to the cemetery surrounded by medieval walls.

Blick auf die Häuser in der Stockstraße und Judengasse in einer Zeichnung von Fritz von Wille aus dem Jahr 1876. (Archiv der städtischen Denkmalpflege)

View of the houses in Stockstrasse and in Judengasse in a drawing by
Fritz von Wille dated 1876.
(archive of the municipal department for the preservation of historical monuments and sites)

Blick auf das Haus Jakobsgasse 31 (nicht mehr vorhanden). (Aufnahme vor 1890, Archiv der städtischen Denkmalpflege)

House in Jakobsgasse 31 (no longer existing), pictured before 1890
(archive of the municipal department for the preservation of historical monuments and sites)

Haus in der Jakobsgasse, neben der Hausnummer 31 (nicht mehr vorhanden). (Aufnahme vor 1890, Archiv der städtischen Denkmalpflege)

House in Jakobgasse next to number 31 (no longer existing), pictured before 1890.
(archive of the municipal department for the preservation of historical monuments and sites)

Grabstein vom mittelalterlichen Judenfriedhof am heutigen Viehmarkt. (Th. Zühmer, Rheinisches Landesmuseum)

Tombstone from the medieval Jewish cemetery at today's Viehmarkt square.
(Th. Zühmer, Rheinisches Landesmuseum/archaeological museum)