Monday, August 17, 2009

Germany: Back to the Drawing Board for Cologne Jewish Museum

Germany: Back to the Drawing Board for Cologne Jewish Museum
by Samuel D. Gruber

Cologne, Germany. Visitors try to view medieval mikvah protected (hidden) beneath a glass pyramid.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1989.

Cologne, Germany. View from mikvah towards Rathaus (City Hall) with synagogue excavation in between. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2007.

(ISJM) Last month the plug was pulled on plans to construct an impressive (some would say too impressive) Jewish museum in the historic Jewish center of Cologne, Germany, exactly atop the site of the former synagogue, which archaeologists believe may date to as early as the 4th century C.E. I wrote about this project last summer.

Plans for the museum were announced with great hoopla last year by a private association that received the rights to build and operate the center on one of the most important sites in the city - immediately across from the town hall, and almost adjacent to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum C built after 1996 and designed by noted Cologne architect Oswald Mathias Unger . This entire civic area sits atop the ancient Roman administrative center.

The private Association "Society for the Promotion of a House and Museum of Jewish Culture" that was to finance the Jewish Museum wrote to the Cologne City Council that it did not have the funds for the project nor would it be able to raise them. The Society cited the present poor economic situation as the reason for its inability to fund the project, but this seems an excuse, since it was clear at the time of the acceptance of the project that the Association did not have the funds needed nor did they have a reliable plan for raising the needed money. Skeptics last year claimed the project unfeasible and that in the end the city would be shamed in to taking it over - in order to salvage an important cultural endeavor, but also to escape charges of neglect of Jewish history.

Now the question is - have expectations been raised for this large institution - and will the city council feel obliged to step in and rescue the plan? No decision will be made until after local elections on August 30th. Mayor Fritz Schramma (CDU) has in the past preferred a smaller plan that would incorporate the synagogue remains into the large archaeological park that includes all of the excavated ancient and medieval elements in the area.

Cologne, Germany. Plan of medieval Jewish quarter from C. Cluse, ed., The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages (Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries (Proceedings of the International Symposium held at Speyer, 20-25 October 2002), p 374

To me, this is a sensible approach. In the end more people would learn of the long presence of Jews in Cologne, and all would better understand Jewish history in the city as one that was long integrated into the urban, social and economic fabric. There can still a plenty of room for detailed historic and interpretive exhibitions and temporary displays focusing on different aspects of Jewish history and Judaism.

Cologne, Germany. City archaeologist Sven Schuette explains the medieval history and topography of the Jewish quarter, shows a model of the synagogue within the larger archaeological zone, and exhibits a few of the many finds that have been recovered since the 1950s excavation was reopened and expanded in 2007. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2007)

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