An eternal home: Jewish cemeteries

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An eternal home: Jewish cemeteries

The Jewish cemetery in Sohren is located away from the town centre, occupying a small, remote plot of land at the edge of the woods. Photo: Daniela Tobias

In addition to establishing prayer rooms and synagogues with a small Mikveh (ritual immersion baths) everywhere they settled, the Jews were also determined to acquire land in order to bury their dead. According to Jewish doctrine, the deceased must remain inviolable, meaning that cemeteries and gravesites should not be removed, but should continue to grow and expand over the centuries. These represent some of the oldest testimonies to Jewish-German culture; which in many places even survived National Socialism. They are of inestimable value for today’s genealogical research.

Separation between life and death

Cemeteries have existed along the Middle Rhine Valley since the 11th Century. Some of the oldest traces of Jewish settlement in the Rhine-Hunsrück district, including burial sites, are located in the former imperial cities of Boppard and Oberwesel. In keeping with religious tradition, the rural Jewish cemeteries known today are located outside the villages, because proximity to or contact with the deceased is deemed to be impure. In many places these sites mirror the tendency to provide the respective Jewish community only with infertile land or land that is difficult to access. A common practice followed in many towns beginning with the French period (1794-1815) was to apportion part of the municipal cemetery to separate the Jewish gravesites. This practice was not found in the Hunsrück are. Oral traditions (e.g. idiomatic expressions and old location names) indicate, however, that isolated village families also buried their dead in the forests.
The following slide presentation features a selection of gravesites located at the ten Jewish cemeteries that can still be visited in the Rhine-Hunsrück district. These exemplary relics provide further insight into the Jewish burial culture and gravestone imagery, as well as their associated traditions and customs.

Obit to the Deceased (Jewish Cemetery in Gemünden)

Equality in Death (Jewish Cemetery in Oberwesel)

Searching for Traces of the Past (Jewish Cemetery in Zeltingen)

Expressions of Empathy (Jewish Cemetery in Kastellaun)

Hands of Blessing (Jewish Cemetery in Boppard)

Forgotten Memorial (Jewish Cemetery in Holzfeld)

A Special Position of Honour (Jewish Cemetery in Boppard)

Destruction and Decay (Jewish Cemetery in Simmern)

Historical Preservation (Jewish Cemetery in Sohren)



Until the judgement day?

In accordance with Jewish law, cemeteries are established for eternity. A cemetery remains a cemetery, even if the gravestones have been removed or the site has been built over. The deceased are to find eternal rest for body and soul at this location until the Messiah comes to bring redemption. This is referenced in the Hebraic term "Beth Olam", or “Eternal home”.
Unfortunately, in many places, an awareness of the differences between Jewish and Christian burial practices does not exist: Jewish cemeteries have been overbuilt or gravestones have been completely removed. In many instances, gravestones have been reworked for other purposes or set into walls by stone masons and sculptors with official permission from the authorities. Vandalism and anti-Semitic graffiti are prevalent to this day, with Jewish gravesites being unmistakably targeted. At the same time, wilful neglect, thoughtlessness, natural weathering processes, wildlife and storm damage, including acid rain, have done indelible damage.
Nonetheless, the 401 Jewish cemeteries located in largely rural communities are a lasting testimony to the once thriving German-Jewish culture in Rhineland-Palatinate. They are sites of religious ritual and places of remembrance for relatives and friends, but are also standing monuments under state protection.
Nevertheless, one speaks of „orphaned“ gravesites at almost all of these rural cemeteries because no descendants remain to maintain them, and no Jewish communities exist to use them. Responsibility for care and maintenance is usually taken on by the closest Jewish congregation, or is carried out on their behalf by the local community or private individuals.