Landeshauptstadt Mainz

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The Magic Land of Magenza,
Jewish Life and Times in Medieval and Modern Mainz

Pogroms and cultural flowering
Jewish life in the ghetto
Mainz Jews in the Age of Enlightenment
The emancipation of the Jews
National Socialist take-over of power and the end of Magenza
Development after 1945

The new synagogue. (Quelle: Landeshauptstadt Mainz)The earliest, definite relics of Jewish life in Mainz can be traced back to the 10th century. They give evidence of a flourishing Jewish community that is regarded as being one of the oldest in Germany. The Jewish community in Mainz became famous through the work of its scholars who made Magenza into a cultural centre of Judaism in the Middle Ages. Around the turn of the millennium, Gershom bar Jehuda, one of the most influential scholars of the West, worked in Mainz. His judgements and ordinances retained their validity still for centuries after his death. Even today, a medieval commemorative stone in the ancient Jewish cemetery still recalls this outstanding personality.

Jewish cemetery. (Quelle: Landeshauptstadt Mainz)In accordance with medieval living conditions in which certain groups, such as, for example, members of the same branches of a trade, were in the habit of living together, the Jews in Mainz also settled closely together. Their residential area, which directly adjoined the trading district between Fischtor [Fish Gate] and the Carmelite church in a north-westerly direction, was at that time not yet isolated from the Christians. Rather Jews and Christians lived together in direct proximity to each other and near to monasteries and churches, one of which, St. Mary’s Chapel at Flachsmarkt [Flax Market], bore the epithet “inter judeos” (in the midst of the Jews).

Pogroms and cultural flowering

Cultural flowering, a to a large extent autonomous community life and their own ritual institutions, such as a synagogue, mikveh, butcher’s and bakery, should not, however, obscure the fact that the social position of the Jews remained endangered again and again, even in Mainz, during the whole of the Middle Ages. Foreign and domestic policy tensions could quickly develop into a threat to the Jews’ very existence. Directly in 1096, the First Crusade led to a disaster for the Jewish community in Mainz. In connection with the call to an expedition against the Muslims to liberate the Holy Land, the mood against the Jews, who were generally branded as being the murderers of Jesus, became more radical. Inflamed fanatics and adventurers roamed in hordes through the countryside with the objective of destroying the Jews there. The then archbishop, Ruthard, shirked his duty of protection towards the Jews of Mainz by flight, abandoning them to a bloodbath. Well over 600 Jews lost their lives in the massacre, and Archbishop Ruthard was suspected of having enriched himself from their property.

How quickly general crises could erupt in aggression towards the Jews is shown by the events during the plague epidemics of the year 1349. The powerlessness to get this disease under control led to wild speculations about the causes of the illness, in which the Jews were made to blame as the alleged poisoners of wells. The Jews of Mainz, who had been obliged for nearly a century to make themselves recognisable by wearing a Jew’s hat and a band of yellow cloth, also fell under suspicion and were once again at the mercy of the angry masses. Repeated expulsions of the Jews occurred in the course of the troubled period for Mainz in the 15th century. Struggles for power within the city, great financial difficulties and the loss of municipal freedom as a result of the war over the archiepiscopal see of Mainz shaped events. Finally, in 1471, all Jews had to leave the electorate. Their landed property was confiscated by the authorities and the synagogue in Mainz converted into a Christian chapel.

Jewish life in the ghetto

Common seal of the Jews in 1794 with inscription: Gemeine Judenschaft Maynz.Jewish life in the ghettoOnly gradually did Jews settle in Mainz again. They were granted a right of residence valid for a limited period, that could be extended, against payment of so-called protection money, and thus representing a welcome, additional source of income for the city. However, it took until the middle of the seventeenth century before a community of considerable size became established in Mainz again.

However, the growth of the Jewish community was observed with great suspicion. In particular the guilds, that were suffering from the still bad general economic situation after the Thirty Years’ War, complained about increasing competition from the Jews. Elector Johann Philipp von Schönborn listened to their complaints and on 8 December 1662 issued a decree that was to have serious consequences for the Jewish residents of Mainz.

Zu sehen ist ein Kupferstich der einen jüdischen Hochzeitszug in der Vorderen Synagogengasse um 1690 zeigt. Barred anyway from membership of the guilds, and thus from most trades, further economic restrictions were imposed on the Jews, such as, for example, the ban on keeping “open shops” or the permission needed to be allowed to trade only in certain goods. The number of protected Jewish families was initially restricted to 20, shortly afterwards to 10 and their future residential quarter was limited to the already then existing Judengasse [Jews’ street], which had to be closed off on both sides. The restriction in numbers of Jewish families allowed to reside in Mainz could not be maintained and was increased to 101 families already soon afterwards. However, the restriction of the residential area to the one street remained in force. In the course of the years, the right of residence was extended to two streets all in all, the Geschlossene Judengasse [Closed Jews’ Street] and the Offene Judengasse [Open Jews’ Street], that was freely accessible on its eastern side (from the mid-19th century: Vordere and Hintere Synagogengasse [Front and Rear Synagogue Street]), which ran parallel to one another and were located between Klarastrasse and Löwenhofstrasse. As a result of the steadily growing Jewish community, which numbered approximately 543 persons around 1790, living space in the Jewish quarter became noticeably scarcer. Conspicuously narrow houses, that were constructed in an exceptionally high and deep form, stood packed closely together.

Mainz Jews in the Age of Enlightenment

The philosophy of the Enlightenment with the principle of the equality of all human beings showed its first effect for the Jews of Mainz during the rule of Electors Emmerich-Josef von Breitbach-Bürresheim (1763-1774) and Friedrich Karl Joseph von Erthal (1774-1797). The barriers to the Judengasse were removed, Jews received permission to also live outside of the Jewish quarter, they were granted admission to Mainz University to study medicine and Jewish children were allowed to attend Christian schools for the first time. The periods of French occupation in 1792/93 and 1798-1814 brought legal equality with Christians for the Jews of Mainz who nevertheless remained mistrustful towards their new lords.

Interference in Jewish community matters by the authorities, as well as the introduction in 1808 of the discriminating decree by Napoleon that compulsorily stipulated a so-called “Morality Patent” for Jews wishing to carry on a trade, confirmed this mistrust. After the Wars of Liberation and the end of the Napoleonic era in Europe, the legal position of Mainz Jews appeared incomparably more favourable compared with that of the Jews in nearby Frankfurt. But some restrictions still remained in force. The “Disgraceful Decree” of 1808 was not repealed until 1847, and admission to the civil service still remained barred to Jews for a long time.

The emancipation of the Jews

The Jewish emancipation movement, that reached its legal conclusion in Germany after almost one hundred years through the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, was accompanied by profound changes in Jewish life which also left clear traces in Mainz. The Christians were initially still not by any means prepared to tolerate Jewish neighbours so that the Jewish quarter continued to be their preferred residential area. Only gradually did Jews settle in the immediate vicinity at Flachsmarkt and in the so-called “Bleichen” quarter. With the opening of the ghetto, individual Jews also began to take an interest in the new ideas of the Enlightenment and under this impression to take a critical look at the traditional view of Judaism.

Zu sehen ist die Mainzer Hauptsynagoge in der Hindenburgstraße um 1918.In order that the requirements of the new bourgeois society could be met, the Jewish educational theorist and later teacher at the famed Jewish Philanthropin school in Frankfurt, Michael Creizenach, founded a school in Mainz in 1814 in order to impart previously neglected, secular knowledge and foreign languages to Jewish pupils. Isaak Jakob Bernays from Mainz, a rabbi in Hamburg from 1821, is well known for his endeavours for religious reform. However, some of the innovations he strove for were too far-reaching for a part of the Jewish community in Mainz that continued to be deeply rooted in traditional Judaism, so that it in 1849 it came to a split. The liberal “Israelite Religion Community” consecrated its synagogue in Synagogenstrasse in 1853 that was later to be followed by the splendid new main synagogue in Hindenburgstrasse in 1912.

At the corner of Flachsmarkt and Margaretengasse, the orthodox oriented “Israelite Religion Society” opened its own synagogue in 1856 which was replaced by a larger building in Moorish style to the plans of the City Architect Eduard Kreyssig in 1879. Nominally there continued to be one Jewish community in Mainz. However, the two groups each led their own community life with their own institutions.

National Socialist take-over of power and the end of Magenza

When the National Socialists took over power in Germany in 1933, in Mainz there was an active Jewish community life with about 2600 members. The deprival of their rights progressed quickly. After dismissals from the civil service and the boycott of Jewish stores, the Nuremberg Race Laws followed in 1935, depriving the Jews of their rights of German citizenship. Jewish pupils had to leave their school, they were barred from studying and vocational training. Jewish proprietors were put under increasing pressure to transfer their businesses, factories and houses to “Aryans” – for the most part far below their value. Numerous persons were driven to emigration.


Zu sehen ist die Mainzer Synagoge nach der Zerstörung durch die Nationalsozialisten in der Progromnacht am 9. November 1938.In the Pogrom Night from the 9th to the 10th November 1938, the synagogues in Hindenburgstrasse and Flachsmarktstrasse were looted and set on fire. On the following morning, there were numerous attacks on Jews’ businesses and homes, as well as cases of ill-treatment of persons. Dozens of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. After the start of the war, appearing in public became more and more dangerous for Jews who had to make themselves identifiable from 1941 on by wearing the yellow “Star of David”. They were increasingly also deprived of the possibility of moving freely. They had to live crammed together in so-called “Jewish dwellings”. They were required to hand in their radios, typewriters, cars, jewellery, all silver objects and fur coats, were no longer allowed to possess a telephone and domestic animals, or to use public transport, go to swimming baths, or sit on park benches, and could only still be treated by Jewish physicians. They received smaller food rations than the rest of the population and were only allowed to go shopping at certain times, to name just a few examples of the harassment and restrictions.

The oppression and humiliation were finally followed by extermination. In March and September 1942, over 1000 Jewish men, women and children, among them many very old persons, were deported in three large transports to Poland and to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Bohemia. On 10 February 1943, the last transport departed from Mainz to the concentration camps. At the time of the liberation by American troops in 1945, only a few Jews in so-called mixed marriages were still living in Mainz. It has to be assumed that about 1300 to 1400 Mainz Jews were murdered, innocent victims of National Socialist racial mania.

Development after 1945

After the war, only a few émigrés came back to their home city Mainz. The recollections of the humiliation and persecution suffered as well as the crimes experienced were too painful. 24 survivors of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt were brought back to Mainz by bus. Among them was Max Waldmann, the first chairman of the Jewish community newly founded on 17 October 1945. Only a few of the new members of the congregation came from Mainz or Rhine-Hesse. The new beginning in a period of economic hardship and in the awareness of the horrors of the past was difficult.

As the years went by, the dialogue with the émigrés of Jewish faith from Mainz, who live scattered over the whole world, got started again. Some came on private visits to Mainz, in order to visit the graves of their relatives, to revive old friendships again or to show their children and grandchildren their former home town. After the city council had approved the financial funds, weeks of encounter took place in the years 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998 and 2001 to which all in all several hundred émigré Mainz Jews were invited to the city of their birth for a period of a week.

But it was not possible for all of them to come to Mainz once again. Some had died in the meantime or were no longer in a position to set off on the long journey owing to their age and the state of their health. Others in turn refused to visit their old homeland once again on account of their painful experiences. The all in all positive response to the weeks of encounter shows that in this way a considerable contribution was made towards reconciliation which it is essential to continue – in the simultaneous awareness that reparation is not possible. At present, the City of Mainz is in contact with about 280 émigré citizens of Mainz all over the world.