The Jewish presence in Hegenheim seems to date back at least to the 17th century. 14 Jewish families were counted in 1689. Jewish life developed there, the community growing to more than 400 people on the eve of the French Revolution. One of the largest in Alsace at the time, the number of its faithful declined over time. Thus, in 1936, there were only 36 Jews left in Hegenheim.
On the Franco-Swiss border, Hegenheim cemetery, which covers over five acres, has tombstones dating from its establishment in 1673. It is the only cemetery to have preserved a wooden funeral slab. The original is now on exhibit in the Jewish Museum in nearby Basel. This busy Swiss trading town was long a magnet for local inhabitants and, since they were refused the right to reside there, Jews settled in the nearby areas of Alsace and, for two centuries, the cemetery at Hegenheim was used by local communities, including those across the Swiss border. It is now a moving historical site where you can walk among more than 7000 tombs and discover weathered stones overgrown with ivy or scattered among the overgrowth.
Once in an Alsatian town
“[One rue des Juifs] All one could see were tall, decrepit buildings, furrowed with rusting gutters: and from the dormer windows the whole of Judaea hung its stockings, dirty old petticoats, patched underwear, and frayed linen. At all the basement windows could be seen doddering heads, toothless mouths, noses and chins like carnival masks; you would have though that this people came from Nineveh, from Babylon, or that they had escaped from captivity in Egypt, so old did they look.”
Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, L’Ami Fritz (Friend Fritz) (Strasbourg: Édito, 1966).