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The Jewish Cemetery “Holy Sands” (in German “Heiliger Sand”)

Jewish cemetery "Holy Sands" (pic: Bernward Bertram)
Jewish cemetery "Holy Sands" (pic: Bernward Bertram)

The oldest gravestone is from the year 1058/59. This means that the Holy Sands cemetery in Worms is the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in Europe!
Visitors from all over the world come here to see the graves of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293) and Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen (d. 1307). Other important graves are to be found especially in and near the so-called “Valley of the Rabbis”. These include the graves of Rabbi Nathan ben Issak (d. 1333), Rabbi Jakob ben Moses halevi, called MaHaRil, (d. 1427), Rabbi Meir ben Isaak (d. 1511) and Elia Loanz, called Baal-Schem (d. 1636).

The oldest jewish cemetery in Europe - "Holy Sands" in Worms (picture: R. Uhrig) 
The oldest jewish cemetery in Europe - "Holy Sands" in Worms (picture: R. Uhrig)

A place of pilgrimage for Jewish visitors from all over the world

Today, the cemetery belongs to the Jewish Congregation of Mainz, the successor in law to the former Jewish congregation in Worms, and it is maintained by the city of Worms. Because of the large number of graves of well-known Jewish people, including many important scholars, rabbis, benefactors and martyrs, and also because of the high reputation of the former congregation in Worms as “Little Jerusalem”, it is a kind of pilgrimage destination for Jewish visitors from all over the world.

 
The oldest gravestones date from the 11th century (picture: Ingo Hamann) 
The oldest gravestones date from the 11th century (picture: Ingo Hamann)
Famous all over the world: the sepulture of Rabbi Meir from Rothenburg (lleft side, died 1293) and Alexander ben Salomon (died 1307) 
Famous all over the world: the sepulture of Rabbi Meir from Rothenburg (lleft side, died 1293) and Alexander ben Salomon (died 1307)
visitors at the forcourt (picture: tourist info Worms) 
visitors at the forcourt (picture: tourist info Worms)

Holy Sands – an important cultural monument

The old Jewish cemetery is undoubtedly one of the most important cultural monuments in the city of Worms.
Because of its age, its uninterrupted use over centuries, its state of preservation, the number and importance of the Jewish people of Worms who are buried here and also because of the unique and rich Inscriptions covering a period of almost 900 years, it is of European significance
.

The oldest gravestone in the cemetery Holy Sands is from the year 1058/59 and thus documents the first great flowering of the Jewish community in Worms, a community with evidence of its existence from about 1000 CE. As a result of this synagogue’s foundation in 1034 and the many rabbis who worked here from the 11th century on, this community, together with those of Mainz and Speyer, formed the ShUM Cities. “Shum” derives from the Hebrew first letters of the names of these three communities.

The decisions made by the synods of these cities were definitive for German Jews. Worms developed into one of the outstanding centres of Jewish learning on the Rhine, and its influence extended to the east of the Rhine into other parts of Ashkenaz, which was the Hebrew name for Germany.

The cemetery is outside the medieval city wall and to the
south-west, and one important aspect of its history is the uninterrupted existence of a Jewish community from the 11 th century until the time of the Nazis despite all the enforced expulsions and pogroms. In the Jewish faith, a cemetery is a place of eternal and inviolable peace, and this one is a mirror of the history of this community and its multifaceted relationship with the history of the city.

During the Middle Ages and in early modern times the cemetery was repeatedly a potential target for violation by the people of Worms as part of pogroms and conflicts between the city and the Jewish community, for example in the years 1519 und 1615. In 1260 the cemetery was extended and enclosed, and then improvements were made following the removal of the outer defence wall after the damage suffered by the city in 1689. Further significant changes were made at the beginning of the 17 th century, including  the addition of a cleansing house for washing the dead before burial (Bet Tahara) and the inscription of a prayer for the dead (Kaddish) at the entrance to the cemetery.

Soon after the middle of the 19 th century, the community began the task of copying and documenting the extremely valuable inscriptions in the cemetery, which were and still are in danger of becoming lost due to weathering and other influences. Despite a number of attempts and the gathering of material, these inscriptions have still not been comprehensively and scientifically analyzed. At the end of the 19 th century, the Jewish community planned a new cemetery, and this plan was finally realized in 1911. The old cemetery was spared attacks and devastation during the years of Nazi dictatorship and the details of the circumstances behind this are difficult to understand. During the Second World War there was some isolated bomb damage.

After the end of the war, the cemetery was restored to a state befitting its significance by the city; damaged gravestones were restored as far as this was possible and justifiable, and the warden’s house was rebuilt.

Description

The cemetery, situated in the triangle formed by the Willy-Brandt-Ring (where the entrance is), Andreasstraße and the railway line, is divided into an older part on lower ground and a newer part on the remains of the city wall, which was demolished in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The oldest gravestones – some 50 of them date from the 11th and 12th centuries – are to be found mainly in the southern part, and here the “Valley of the Rabbis” contains a particularly high concentration of graves of well-known scholars.

The total number of gravestones in the Holy Sands cemetery is around 2500. Almost all of them are in their original position. In contrast to the usual practice of the gravestones facing east, those in the Holy Sands cemetery in Worms face south, a feature for which no convincing explanation has so far been found.

Although it is not possible to identify a clear sequence among the gravestones, there are in some parts historical or family connections that can be detected. From the Late Middle Ages on, the cemetery also served as a burial place for nearby congregations that did not have their own cemetery. There is an unusually large number of gravestones and they exhibit a richness of design and shape that is very rarely encountered.

The older part of the cemetery contains about 1150 gravestones that are still standing, and these date from the time between the late 11th century and the 17th century. The newer part has about 1250 gravestones that are still standing, dating from the 18th century until roughly 1911, when the Jewish community established a new burial place on the “Hochheimer Höhe“ next to the new city cemetery. This new Jewish cemetery had a hall of mourning, which has survived.

Above all during the course of the 19th century, inscriptions in German on the gravestones and in general a grave culture that was closer to Christian traditions became more usual. This is evidence of the strong acculturation process towards the non-Jewish majority in Worms by the Jewish citizens, most of whom clearly held decidedly liberal views. Up until 1937 there were occasional burials in family graves, but since then the cemetery has not been used.

To the right of the entrance with its warden’s house there is running water for washing the hands and also the cleansing house (Bet Tahara) dating from around 1625, donated by David Oppenheimer, a rich benefactor and member of the Jewish community.


On the way to the new part and right in the northern section of the cemetery is the double grave of Rabbi Meir von Rothenburg (d. 1293) and Alexander Salomo ben Wimpfen (d. 1307), an exceptionally fine and often visited monument to the memory of two famous Ashkenazic Jews.

Here is a picture gallery of the Holy Sands cemetery.

 

Service

Adress:

Jüdischer Friedhof "Heiliger Sand"
Willy-Brandt-Ring
67547 Worms

location in city map

 

Opening hours / admission:

Open daily (except on Jewish festivals), closed on Saturdays:

in summer 8 am – 8 pm
in winter 8 am – 4 pm


Open on Fridays and before Jewish festivals:
• End of October until end of March
  8 am – 4 pm
• April 8 am – 7 pm
• May – July 8 am– 8 pm
• August und September 8 am – 7 pm
• October 8 am – 6 pm
Admission is free.


The Jewish Cemetery will be closed on the following Jewish holidays:

Erew Pessach
01.04., 06.04.
Erew Schawuoth
20. + 21.05.
Erew Rosch Haschana
10. + 11.09.
(09.09. closed from 2 pm)
Erew Jom Kippur
19.09.
(18.09. closed from 2 pm )
Erew Sukkot
24. + 25.09.
(23.09. closed from 2 pm )
Schemini Azereth
01.10.
Simchat Thora
02.10.

The Cemetery will be closed as well on
Good friday, Dec 24–26, Dec 31 2018 and on Jan 01 2019.

Guided tours

Please enquire at the Tourist Information about arrangements for guided tours.