UNESCO Grants World Heritage Status to Medieval Jewish Sites in Erfurt, Germany

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On Sunday, a significant development took place within United Nations’ domain when a selection of medieval Jewish locations in the eastern German city of Erfurt was awarded the status of a World Heritage Site by a committee of the UN. This marks the second instance of Jewish heritage in Germany acquiring such recognition in recent history.

Several notable sites constitute this new inclusion. Erfurt’s Old Synagogue, an illustrative testament to Jewish familial living in the 13th century built entirely out of stone, and a traditional ritual bath, known as a mikveh, were among the newly bestowed converses of historical importance.

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This momentous decision was reached during a meeting of the UN World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with significant input from UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The layers of Erfurt’s Jewish history are deep-seated and enduring but had dropped out of public knowledge until relatively recent rediscoveries. The city’s Jewish population was predominantly forced outside city borders following pogroms in the 14th century, leading to the Old Synagogue’s re-appropriation as a storage unit initially, followed by its conversion into a restaurant and dance hall. The re-emergence of its historical significance only occurred in 1988.

Similarly, the ritual bath, which was sealed up and utilized as a cellar over the span of numerous centuries, didn’t have its historical and cultural significance acknowledged until 2007.

Eager to illustrate the significance of this move, Maria Boehmer, President of the German UNESCO commission, noted how these Jewish landmarks in Erfurt had been eclipsed by time for many centuries. However, their recent unearthing is regarded as a valuable gift.

UNESCO, based out of Paris, inaugurated the World Heritage List back in 1978. The list currently comprises more than 1,000 sites, ranging from the Acropolis in Athens to the Great Wall of China, all nominated by their home countries.

This recent development unfolds a mere two years following UNESCO’s inaugural acknowledgment of Jewish cultural heritage sites within Germany. Most notably, in that same year, the ShUM Jewish sites in the Rhine river cities of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer had been inducted into the list of World Heritage Sites.

Germany’s ambassador to UNESCO, Kerstin Puerschel, perceives UNESCO’s decision to include Erfurt as an instrumental stride towards shedding light on and safeguarding the shared Judaic-Christian roots within Germany and the broader European context.