The history of the Jews in Speyer reaches back over 1,000 years. In the Middle Ages, the city of Speyer (formerly Spira), Germany, was home to one of the most significant Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire. Its significance is attested to by the frequency of the Ashkenazi Jewish surname Shapiro/Shapira and its variants Szpira/Spiro/Speyer. The community was totally wiped out in 1940 during the Holocaust. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 Jews again settled in Speyer and a first assembly took place in 1996.
A rich history
The first records of Jews in Speyer appear in the 1070s. They were members of the renowned Kalonymos family of Mainz, which had migrated a century before from Italy. Other Jews from Mainz had possibly also settled in Speyer.
The actual history of the Jews in Speyer started in 1084, when Jews fleeing from pogroms in Mainz and Worms took refuge with their relatives in Speyer. They possibly came at the instigation of bishop Rüdiger Huzmann (1073–1090), who invited a larger number of Jews to live in his town with the expressed approval of emperor Henry IV. In his privilege or charter (Freiheitsbrief) for the Jews, the bishop mentions a settlement for the community.
This settlement corresponds the former suburb of Altspeyer in the area to the east of today’s railway station. This walled settlement for Jews was to the north outside the walls of the city and it is the first documented ghetto.
The charter granted by bishop Huzmann went well beyond contemporary practice anywhere else in the empire. The Jews of Speyer were allowed to carry out any kind of trade, exchange gold and money, own land, have their own laws, justice system and administration, employ non-Jews as servants, and were not required to pay tolls or duties at the city’s borders.
The two charts
The reason for asking the Jews to come to Speyer was their important role in the money and trade businesses, especially with distant regions. Money lenders were needed on a large scale for the construction of the cathedral. Ultimately, rights and privileges which had been especially granted to the Jews of Speyer, were extended to all the Jews of the empire.
The two charters of 1084 and 1090 marked the beginning of the “golden era” of the Jews in Speyer which, with limitations, was to last into the 13th or 14th century. According to these documents, an “Archisynagogos”, also called a “Jews bishop” presided the administration as well as the court of the community. He was elected by the community and confirmed by the bishop. Later, sources report of a “Jews council” of twelve presided by the Jews bishop who represented the community outside. In 1333 and 1344, the authority of the Jews council was expressly confirmed by the city council of Speyer.
In 1096, the Jews of Speyer were among the first to be hit by the pogroms triggered by an epidemic of the plague, but compared to the communities in Worms and Mainz, which followed a few days later, they got off lightly.
Development of Jewish life
Around the time of these events a second Jewish quarter was established in the vicinity of the cathedral along modern day Kleine Pfaffengasse which used to be the Judengasse (Jews Alley) while the settlement with a synagogue continued to exist in Altspeyer. It is estimated that the Jewish community of Speyer consisted of 300 to 400 people.
In these years the Jewish community of Speyer became one of the most significant in the Holy Roman Empire. It was an important centre for Torah studies and, in spite of pogroms, persecution and expulsion, it had considerable influence on the spiritual and cultural life of the city.
In a synod of Rabbis in Troyes around 1150 the leadership of the Jews in Germany was transferred to the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz. The three communities created a federation called “SHUM” (שום: initials of the Hebrew names of the three cities) and kept this leadership until the middle of the 13th century.
The SHUM-Cities had their own rite and were accepted as central authority in legal and religious matters. Speyer had renowned Jewish schools and a highly frequented Yeshiva. Because of their high esteem in the Middle Ages the three SHUM-Cities were praised as “Rhenish Jerusalem”. They had considerable influence on the development of Ashkenazi culture. In the 13th century Issac ben Mose Or Sarua from Vienna wrote: “From our teachers in Mainz, Worms and Speyer the teachings were spread to all of Israel …”.
Yet, even in this flourishing period of the Speyer Jewry, there were outbursts of violence in 1146, 1195, 1282, and 1343. In 1349, during the black plague, the Jewish community of Speyer was totally wiped out. In the following years, a small community re-established itself but never regained the size and status it had had before 1349. The Jews were expelled from Speyer from 1405 to 1421, and then “forever” in 1435. One of the refugees from Speyer was Moses Mentzlav whose son, Israel Nathan, founded the famous printing house in Soncino, Italy.
Return of Speyer’s Jews
From 1621 to 1688 Jews again settled in Speyer. It was especially during the Thirty Years’ War and the following years that the indebted cities saw themselves forced to make use of their financial power. The city started taking out loans from Jews as early as 1629. However, because of complaints, before Speyer was burned down by the French in 1689, trade and financial transactions with Jews had been totally banned. In the following years of reconstruction Jews were not allowed to resettle permanently.
At the end of the 18th century, a Jewish community re-established itself in Speyer after the French Revolution. It distinguished itself by its liberal and emancipated attitudes which repeatedly brought it into conflict with the more conservative districts. In 1828 it founded a welfare club and contributed to the efforts of the city council fighting the great poverty in the town. In 1830 the Speyer Jewish community had 209 members. In 1837 it built a new synagogue on the site of the former church of St. Jacob on Heydenreichstraße; the synagogue included a little school.
Rise of antisemitism
By 1890 the Jewish community had grown to 535 members, the greatest number ever in Speyer; by 1910 the number had diminished to 403. In the early 1930s Speyer Jews started leaving for larger cities or to emigrate because of rising antisemitism.
By 1933, the number of Jews in Speyer had fallen to 269, and by the time their synagogue was torched in the Kristallnacht, there were only 81 left. In the night of 9 November, SA and SS troops looted the synagogue on Heydenreichstraße, taking away the library, precious cloths, carpets and ritual utensils and setting the building alight.
Along with the synagogue the Jews also lost their school. The same night the Jewish cemetery was also vandalized. A member of the community supplied a prayer room in his house on Herdstraße. The city later used this house as a storage for furniture left behind by deported Jews.
On 22 October 1940, 51 of the 60 Jews remaining in Speyer were deported to the internment camp of Gurs in southern France. Some of them managed to escape to Switzerland, the USA and South Africa with the aid of locals, while others were deported to Auschwitz. Only one Jew survived the Nazi era hidden in Speyer.
Up to the 1990s there was no Jewish community in Speyer. It was only in October 1996 that a first assembly took place. Ten Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe decided to found a new Jewish community.
Around 1100, on the Judengasse, the Jews built the Judenhof (Jewish courtyard) as the centre of their community containing a mikveh with a pool at groundwater level for ritual baths, a men’s and later a women’s synagogue. Both the mikveh and the synagogue were designed and built by the same architects as the cathedral of Speyer. They were was consecrated on 21 September 1104, eleven years after the pogrom of 1096. It fell into disuse in the 16th century but its ruins today represent the oldest visible remnants of a mikveh in central Europe. Today it is an archaeological heritage site and has been made accessible; the pool is still supplied by groundwater.
The Speyer’s mikveh is considered the oldest and best preserved in Europe. A barrel-vaulted staircase leads through a vestibule to a quadratic bathing shaft located 32 feet below ground. The bath is no longer officially in use today, but its use can be arranged outside the official tourist opening times. The mikveh is decorated with rich Romanesque ornamentation that was coloured in the Middle Ages. A two-part window opens the view into the bathing shaft.
In 1968, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in the court of the mikveh commemorating the fate of the Speyer Jews during the Second World War. The installation is now covered by a glass structure in order to protect it.
The SchPIRA Museum
At the same location than the mikveh, you can visit the the SchPIRA Museum, dedicated to the rich history of the Jewish community. In order to furnish the SchPIRA Museum, the Historical Museum of the Palatinate and the State Office for Historic Preservation made a permanent loan of their collections of Judaica to the museum. Archaeological exhibits of the three important pillars of the Jewish community are shown there: synagogue, ritual bath and cemetery.
The synagogue, which was dedicated in 1104, was constructed as a Romanesque hall about 34 feet wide and about 57 feet long. Only the east wall of the building remains. We know very little about how the interior of the synagogue was furnished. From a note in the rabbinical literature, we learn that it had a floor laid with stone plates and glazed windows. Traces of the window frames have been retained on the two windows in the west wall.
The Jewish house of worship was damaged during the pogrom of 1349 and repaired gain in 1354 along with several changes in its construction. After the expulsion of the Jews early in the 16th century, it was converted into a municipal armoury before it was finally torn down and the ground there sealed with coarse pavement.
On the site of the synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht now stands a department store. In 1979 another plaque was attached at the back wall of the Kaufhof department store building where the synagogue once stood. Right in front of the site a monument was erected in 1992. Shortly after it was moved across the street to its present place because of the restricted space.
It was decided to build a new synagogue by extending the former medieval church of St. Guido in the 1990s. The consecration of the Beit Shalom synagogue took place on 9 November 2011. It hosts a community center as well.
The medieval Jewish cemetery of Speyer lay opposite the Judenturm (Jews’ tower) to the west of the former Jews’ quarter in Altspeyer (today between Bahnhofstraße and Wormer Landstraße). After Jews resettled in Speyer in the 19th century, a new cemetery was built at St. Klara Klosterweg and remained in use until 1888. The former mortuary and a part of the western wall are still in place. In 1888, the Jewish cemetery was moved to the new city cemetery built in the north of Speyer along Wormser Landstraße, where it now occupies the southeastern section.
Sources: Wikipedia; Speyer Tourist Office