UNESCO Awards Heritage Status to German Jewish Centers

View of the Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany.

World Heritage Site status was awarded to the Roman Limes along the Rhine River and Germany’s Jewish cultural heritage by UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural body said on Tuesday.

The relevant committee took the decision at its meeting in the Chinese city of Fuzhou, awarding the coveted recognition to the German cities of Mainz, Worms and Speyer as one of the cradles of Jewish culture in Europe.

The cities Mainz, Worms and Speyer were centers of Jewish culture in the Middle Ages and are referred to as “Yerushalayim on the Rhine.” Among the Jewish centers preserved from the period are cemeteries, a shul and a mikveh.

This is the first ever UNESCO recognition of Jewish cultural heritage in Germany.

They also approved applications for the recognition of a section of the Limes — the exterior border of the Roman Empire — along the Rhine River.

Speyer, Mainz and Worms are known as the SchUM sites — for the first letters of their Hebrew names.

The state of Rhineland-Palatinate fought for recognition for more than 15 years. Advocates noted that their biggest problem was the fact that so few physical artifacts remained after centuries of plundering and destructive vandalism.

The Heiligen Sand (Hallowed Sand) cemetery in Worms, for instance, is often considered the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, with graves dating back to the ninth century.

Lack of preserved historical sites, says Andreas Lehnardt, a professor of Jewish studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, is often a disappointment for foreign guests seeking to connect to the region’s rich Jewish past, but, he adds, that is simply a reflection of Jewish history in Germany.

When Jews settled in Speyer in the 11th century, they built the Judenhof (Jewish courtyard), an ensemble of a shul and mikveh. The ruins of the shul and the adjoining women’s section can still be seen today.

Supporters of the application, such as Worms Mayor Alfred Kessel, say the UNESCO distinction will not only help attract tourists, it will also help communities protect what remains of what was once an important center of Jewish culture and theological teaching.

UNESCO members will continue to work both virtually and in Fuzhou, China, until the end of the week. The committee’s annual meeting was postponed last year due to the coronavirus crisis. Currently some 1,110 Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites exist, with 50 of them in Germany — 51 other sites around the globe are under threat according to UNESCO officials.