Speyer, Worms and Mainz have a rich Jewish heritage. This is why Susanne Urban wants UNESCO to designate them as a world heritage site. Their monuments are more than 1,000 years old—and their messages still relevant.
The first thing that comes to mind is the children of the deceased. Johanna Pfung’s gravestone looks like a mighty tree trunk which was suddenly chopped off—and yet has so many shoots that one is immediately reminded of her family. Of all the descendants that this woman, born in 1802 and buried in Worms in 1889, might have had. An oak tree made of stone but nevertheless full of life—could there be a better symbol for this place than this gravestone in the “Heiliger Sand” (“holy sand”) cemetery in Worms? Here, nearly 2,500 monuments rise up, often made of red sandstone in which Jewish history has left many traces since the 11th century. Tombs as far as the eye can see, some sunk in and weather-beaten. Perhaps this is exactly the reason why they have such an incredible presence—the Jewish cemetery in Worms being the oldest preserved such cemetery in Europe.
That it still exists today, surviving the Nazi era and numerous other pogroms, as well, borders on the miraculous. Susanne Urban loves coming here, and not just because this cemetery constitutes an important part of her work. “The desire to remember is incredibly strong,” she says—and in one way or another a sentence like this says a lot about who she is. As a child she read the book “A Square of Sky” by Janina David and this made such an impression on her that she engaged in a long-lasting correspondence with the London-based author. She studied history and wrote her doctoral thesis on Jewish publishers. She worked as a journalist for the Jewish journal “Tribüne” and went to Israel for five years, where she, amongst other things, organised seminars for German teachers at the documentation centre Yad Vashem. She received one of the few permanent historian positions as the head of the “International Tracing Service” in Bad Arolsen, an archive for research on the Nazi era and on survival. She quit because the position in Worms appealed to her so greatly.
As the managing director of the association “ShUM cities Speyer, Worms, Mainz,” Susanne Urban works on the application for the UNESCO world heritage recognition. The acronym ShUM stands for the initial letters of the place names in Hebrew: Shin (Sh) for Shpira (Speyer), Waw (U) for Warmaisa (Worms) and Mem (M) for Magenza (Mainz). The three cities together were something like a spiritual centre of Judaism in Europe along the Rhine with prominent scholars teaching here. All three locations had the same jurisdiction. “And there is unity everywhere, even down to the architecture,” Urban explains. Synagogues and mikvaot, the Jewish ritual baths, had the same design characteristics. In 1212, a women’s section was added to the synagogue in Worms—the first in Europe.