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In Cologne, Archaeologists Unearth The History Of Germany’s Oldest Jewish Community

After attending the New Waves Day 2018 concert in Dusseldorf, Germany last month, I took a train to Köln, or what we know as Cologne. It was the nearest big city, and I wanted to see if the waterfront along the Rhine was as spectacular as Dusseldorf’s.

But what I saw there was even grander.

Upon exiting Köln Hauptbahnhof, the central train station, the first thing I saw was Germany’s most-visited landmark, the famed Cologne Cathedral, its majestic Gothic twin spires towering over Roncalli Square. I proceeded through the busy tourist area until I saw the cranes, rocks and dust surrounding the large archaeological site in the heart of the city, right behind the historic Town Hall and adjacent to the popular Wallraf Richartz Museum.

While researching on the train, I had been stunned to read about the excavation and reconstruction of the ancient Jewish quarter in its entirety — right behind the Town Hall. Today, Cologne’s Jews refer to themselves as the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps, a claim backed up by records dating back to 321 C.E. Cologne is also the oldest Jewish community in Germany.

According to German public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, digging at the site began in the 1950s and ’60s. Early excavation uncovered the remains of a mikveh and a synagogue, and even pieces of kosher food, etched writing slates and jewelry. Work resumed in 2007 after a hiatus, and is still ongoing, with many signs and schematics posted around the area’s outer wall detailing the streets, edifices and community landmarks that will be recreated.

A Jewish Museum located at the site of the original synagogue is in the works, as well. The bimah already stands, a simple yet moving emblem of great anticipation and quiet reflection.

Sadly, pogroms, persecution and forced exile were also part of the history of Cologne’s Jewish community. And during the Holocaust, the Jews of Cologne fared similarly to other Jews.

Deportations to Lodz, Theresienstadt, Riga, Lublin and Auschwitz began in October 1938, and were preceded by severe restrictions and arrests. The violence of Kristallnacht also extended to the city. About 40 to 50 Jews survived by hiding, and by 1946, Cologne had become home to several hundred Jewish war refugees. The community increased to 1,321 by 1989, and to 4,650 by 2003.

“Stumbling Stones” commemorating the place where Jews used to live in Cologne, Germany. The Stones were created by artist Gunter Demnig beginning in 1992. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images) Image by AFP/Getty Images, Getty Images

Today, the 15,000 Jews who lived in Cologne before the war are memorialized in brass squares outside their former homes. In 2012, four new German rabbis were ordained at the city synagogue, which was rebuilt in 1959.

With 5,000 residents, Cologne’s current Jewish community is the fifth-largest in Germany.

Two weeks after my trip to Cologne, I relayed my experiences to community leaders and Holocaust survivors at a ceremony rededicating the New England Holocaust Memorial, which had been vandalized last summer. Among those gathered in Boston’s Faneuil Hall for the rededication was World War II veteran and concentration camp liberator Ellsworth “Al” Rosen of Brookline, Mass., a co-founder of the national education organization Facing History and Ourselves.

“Cologne was the first place in Germany where my ship embarked,” he told me. “I especially remember seeing the cathedrals, because they were the only structures still standing in the city. And people were gathered around them.”

The troops then marched through the city on their way toward Dachau.

But today, there is hope in the shape of the cranes, excavators and backhoes; of the shovels, spades and wheelbarrows.

“The 50 million Euros-plus project that was launched in 2007, and will lead to the opening of a new Jewish Museum in Cologne, shows the dedication of the city of Cologne and its inhabitants to preserve and bring back to light the great Jewish tradition that has been in Cologne since the 4th century A.D.,” said Consul General of Germany to New England Ralf Horlemann after the ceremony.

“I am confident that the new museum will further affirm to the public at large how deeply ingrained Jewish traditions and religion were in Germany,” he added, “and how important they are for us today.”

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