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In Quest of Alsace's Jewish Heritage

In 1994, when Catherine Lehmann and her fiancé were planning their wedding,  everyone expected them to select the modern synagogue in Strasbourg, the capital city of Alsace famed for its university and great cathedral. For untold generations her family lived in the Alsatian region which has alternately belonged to France and Germany more times than anyone cares to remember. And although her grandparents had relocated to Switzerland to escape the Nazis and her parents and Catherine were born in that celebrated citadel of neutrality, the family ultimately returned to Strasbourg where Catherine grew up and still lives. 

The Strasbourg synagogue may have been the logical choice for her wedding, Catherine knew. But for some inexplicable reason, she was drawn to a tiny synagogue in the equally tiny town of Wolfisheim, northwest of Strasbourg. Although not religious, Catherine has always considered Jewish identity to be an important part of her life, and the small unpretentious country synagogue seemed to her to represent part of her collective past. 

The wedding took place on a beautiful June day with a single violinist performing the music for the processional. Afterwards as the bridal party set out for a nearby house where the party was going to be held, the violinist offered to come along. So they walked through the streets of the small village, a bride and groom with their family and friends, accompanied by the beautiful strains of a violin. People waved from their windows, stood smiling in their doorways. "There is a Jewish wedding in this village again," they said. 

This happy event got Catherine to thinking of how little the gentile world of Alsace knew about its Jewish heritage. The non-Jewish guests at her wedding had never set foot in a synagogue before. But her executive position at the Alsace Tourism Board gave her the wherewithal to begin researching the region's Jewish history, and what she discovered was that scores of synagogues, cemeteries, cheders (religious schools), even a few mikvehs (ritual baths) still exist in the Alsatian countryside. Although most have been long converted to other uses, they represent a heritage worthy of identification and publication, she decided. 

Two years later, Catherine's musings resulted in the first of what has become an annual event: "Discovering Alsatian Judaism." 

"I was not the first to discover all these properties," the dimunitive yet determined young woman says. "Max Warscjawski, the son of the grand rabbi of Strasbourg, had gone around the countryside photographing the little synagogues and, together with Michel Rothe, wrote The Synagogues of Alsace and Their History, published in Jerusalem 1992. The book became my guide. Every weekend we went out in the country and tried to find the sites in the book. It was not simple. One had became a sour kraut factory, another is part of a church. Still others are a gym, a bank, a private house, part of a farm.

"When we saw this, we were disappointed because nobody knew what these places were," Catherine continues. "Then I thought to print a brochure and invite people to tour the area and discover them. People come to Alsace to see the Rhine Road, the big castle, the cathedral. Here is another part of Alsatian history."

With support of the B'nai B'rith Hirschler Society, the Block family of Strasbourg, and the Tourist Offices of the Rhine, an initial event was scheduled for July 7, 1996. With minimal newspaper publicity and just a few synagogues available to be shown, organizers hoped for a turnout of some 500 people. Five thousand came. B'nai B'rith volunteers served as guides. Visitors were provided with maps and histories of the areas. Of those initial visitors, ninety percent were not Jewish. People were curious but also suspicious. Some were fearful of entering Jewish cemeteries. In that half day excursion, superstitions reinforced by centuries of prejudice were eradicated. 

"Each year our scope grows," Catherine says. "Now we have a guided bus tour; a cycling tour, a walking tour. We have established little museums in the countryside with ceremonial objects like Mezuzahs, siddurs, and kiddush cups. We have concerts and other entertainment. We have had a conference about synagogue architecture led by Dominicue Jarrasse, Professor of the History of Architecture at the University of Bordeaux. He is not Jewish, but he drove around France looking for synagogues, wrote a book about the French-Jewish heritage and held an exhibition at the Musee D-Orsay in Paris." 

Since Catherine Lehmann began her quest, two hundred sites have been discovered and identified. Their scope embraces a mini history of the post-emancipation life of Alsatian Jewry. The Jewish presence here began in Roman times. It flourished during the Middle Ages until the 14th century when the Jews, blamed for the rampaging plague, were massacred or expelled from cities and town. Until the Decree of Emancipation of 1791, they were restricted to rural areas. Many moved to urban areas afterwards, but in the Alsatian countryside, 176 synagogues were built in the period between 1791 and 1914. A tour of the region reveals how the older ones were discreet. Then, as Jews became more comfortable with their new liberated status, more elaborate and varied structures came into being. However, with the urban migration of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these rural synagogues fell into disuse. 

During the Second World War, the big synagogue of Strasbourg was destroyed by the Nazis. But the little ones in the surrounding countryside were spared because either no one knew what they were or they were disguised and protected by villagers who feared their towns would burn along with the centrally located synagogues. 

For Catherine Lehmann, educating Alsatians about their own history is a big part of her undertaking. "We want the villages and small cities to be aware of what they have. They should know that three quarters of the synagogues built in France in the last one hundred years were built in Alsace. I discovered an old synagogue by going through the attic of an old house - the owners didn't know that was the former use of their home. We send our material, people respond. There is interest and desire to help. Thirty thousand people come out for our yearly programs now. People from the German side of the Rhine Valley have asked us to include their synagogues in our tour. 

"There are more Jews in Strasbourg than any other French city," she adds. We are five percent of the population here, and only two percent elsewhere. We have a new Sephardic population from Marseilles and Paris. We have discovered a mikveh right here in Strasbourg which the city has saved from destruction and made safe for visitors. 

"This is happening because we care about our heritage and about letting the world know about it."

For Additional Information:

Touristique du Bas-Rhin
9 rue du Dome - BP53
67-61 Strasbourgh cedex
Phone:  0033 3 88 15 45 80

Where to Stay:

Hotel Beaucour
5 rue Rouchers
67000 Strasbourg

Phone:  03 88 76 72 00

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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