NAUMBURG, Germany — I enter the Judengasse from the north, between a bookstore and a wine shop, wondering what I will find.
This cobblestone alley is barely six feet across, and the sidewalk varies from a couple of feet on each side to nil. The buildings are a mix of brick, stucco and half-timbered, two to four stories tall; in some places the stucco has broken off, and I can see where arches once stood. I turn around and notice that shops have been built over the alley entrance, making the whole space seem rather narrow and lacking for sky. In short, it looks like many other side streets in this beautiful and remarkably well-preserved old town of 31,500, the center of the Saale-Unstrut wine country.
But as I round the corner, it becomes apparent why this is no ordinary street. A building covers the exit too, but it’s light enough to see a small frieze on the left, just above eye level, depicting townspeople expelling the local Jewish population, who lived in this quarter — Judengasse means Jew Lane. Some of these townspeople wear armor and others brandish a mighty cross, while Jewish men with beards and long coats cower toward the exit, and a woman rushes two children away. According to a pamphlet from the tourist bureau, this is where “Jewish homes, school, baths and the synagogue were razed…”
What surprises me is that the townspeople in the frieze weren’t Nazis, or part of some turn-of-the-century pogrom. This expulsion happened in 1494, and the plaque was put up shortly thereafter to commemorate the great victory. In Central Europe, anti-Semitism has deep roots, and the Jews depicted here could have been my ancestors.
Across the alley from this frieze is a plaque that’s just as telling of Germany’s relationship with my people. This one is inscribed with the names of 12 Naumburg Jews who lost their lives to the Nazi regime. Most names are in pairs, a man and a woman with the same last name. I’m guessing they were married couples.
There’s one other frieze in the alley, just next to the exit and with no obvious relationship to the Judengasse’s dark history. It’s a tree with seven branches pointing upward. As a Jew I think of the menorah, but as a traveler I also think of the seven-branched candelabra that appears in windows and on fireplaces in many German homes, often interpreted as the tree of life.
Before I left for Germany, a friend mentioned that German culture is inextricably linked to Jewish culture, from science to the arts to cabaret, Mendelssohn (both Moses and Felix) to Kurt Weill to Einstein. Most Germans I know are dumbfounded that their country, with its long tradition of humanism, could have given rise to the Third Reich. Now that I’m here, when people learn that I’m Jewish, they usually offer an expression of sympathy.
I cannot find the words to express the horror of the Holocaust, but on this particular pilgrimage I am heartened that modern Germany is dealing with its history so forthrightly.
Just imagine a national monument in Washington, say, to African Americans kidnapped and enslaved, or one at Manzanar in California’s Owens Valley, where many thousands of Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.
Or what if our government were asked to make reparations to the American Indians in exchange for the land we now live on?
Although the frieze depicting the expulsion of the Jews was intended as triumphal, the community now regards it as shameful. Yet the frieze remains, a reminder of the potential for all of our inhumanity. The memorial plaque to Naumburg’s 12 Jews reminds us that we need to be accountable for our actions.
Exiting the Judengasse onto an intimate square with a historic church before me, a goldsmith’s shop to the left and an Italian café to the right, I feel I have re-entered civilization. Then I look back and see, over the exit from the alley, yet another frieze, of a duck crouched over itself, preening.
At first it seems out of place, almost mocking. Only later does it dawn on me that the duck has the ability to recognize problems within itself, reach in and remove them. We should all learn to do the same.