The independent city of Frankfurt has welcomed Jews since 1150. However, from 1460 until their emancipation at the end of the seventeenth century, the Jews were confined to Judengasse (alley of the Jews), a ghetto that became quickly overcrowded.
In 1720, moneylender Meyer Amschel Rothschild, his wife, Gütele, and their eighteen children moved into one of the houses in the area. Meyer’s success and the dispersion of his large family across Europe gave rise to the powerful financial network of this celebrated family.
Unfortunately, the bombings of 1945 and the reconstruction of the city center after the war have wiped away all traces of this former jewish quarter. Out of the 11000 Jews that lived in Frankfurt before the Shoah, very few survived.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the municipality of Frankfurt decided to consecrate a museum to the history of the city’s Jewish population. It was installed in the Rothschild Palace on the banks of the Main River, a classical building erected in 1821 and designed by the Paris-trained architect Johann Friederich Christian Hess. The palace was acquired in 1846 by Baron Meyer Carl von Rothschild, head of the German branch of Rothschild banking. He had it renovated and redecorated to house his prestigious collection of furniture, paintings, and gold artworks.
In 2021, the Goethe University in Frankfurt inaugurated a department of Jewish studies, named after Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. The inauguration took place on the 143rd birthday of Buber, who had once taught at the university before being expelled by the Nazi regime.
When in 1987 the city of Frankfurt started to work on vast areas near the former Judengasse (“alley of the Jews”), it discovered many ancient houses belonging to the Jews who lived in what is considered one of the oldest ghettos in Europe. Founded in 1460, as many as thousands of Jews used to live behind those walls. Thus, the extension of the Jewish Museum was aptly named, after the heritage discoveries, the Museum Judengasse. The Judengasse presents a permanent exhibition “Mazel and Broche” covering this era.
The Jewish Museum is divided in two parts. First, the Judisches Museum, which opened its doors in 1988. The 30th anniversary of its opening was celebrated in 2018 with many events and cultural gatherings. It was renovated and expanded in order to welcome more people and events. The Judisches Museum reopened its doors in October, 2020. The historical Rothschild-Palais has been renovated and complemented with a new building erected by the Staab architects. Facilities at the museum include access to archives, a library and a café. Theater performances and concerts of Jewish music are also frequently held here.
The Museum has a new permanent exhibition on three floors: “We are now”. Its aim is to showcase the Jewish life and culture of this historic center that Frankfurt represents. You can see the evolution over time, the impact of historical events on daily life and Jewish practice.
By following individual journeys, such as that of the Anne Frank family and that of the Rothschilds, whose historical roots are in Frankfurt. Two families who have marked history in very different ways. But also the fate of artists and scholars such as Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Martin Buber, Samson Raphael Hirsch, as well as the great figures of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. An impact in both directions, since these artists, intellectuals but also Jewish actors in the economic and scientific life of the city influenced life in Frankfurt, even after the Holocaust.
The most spacious and prestigious synagogue of Frankfurt is the Westend synagogue, affiliated to the liberal movement. Its Majestic dome is an architectural masterpiece. Two years were needed to build it, as it was inaugurated in 1910. Quite rare at the time, women were not required to sit upstairs, but were seated on the same level as the men, each on one side of the ground floor.
The synagogue survived not only the pogrom of November 1938 (the only synagogue which did so among the four major ones of the city), but also the bombing of the city by the allied troops. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1945, Rabbi Leopold Neuhaus organized prayers with the few survivors and some American Jewish troops who were stationed in Frankfurt.
In 1948, the city, as well as the region, undertook to finance a vast renovation of the synagogue. Since 1950, prayers are conducted on a regular basis in the synagogue. It welcomes the Stibl, as well as the Beit Hamidrash of Westend. The latter following the hassidic rite. The place also hosts an egalitarian mynian under Rabbi Elisa Klapheck.
The Westend synagogue being thus an important example of different streams of Judaism practicising under the same roof. The second major synagogue of Frankfurt is the Baumweg synagogue. A few other synagogues welcome ponctual services.
Other curious aspect of Jewish life in Frankfurt, the city has 12 Jewish cemeteries. Three of them being connected today to the local community. The most ancient cemetery is located on Battonnstrasse, near the Museum. It enables to confirm the presence of Jews in Frankfurt since at least 1150. The old cemetery can be visited after a request at the Museum where a key is given in exchange for an ID card.