The museum, which will be known as MiQua, will focus on Cologne's Jewish history from the Middle Ages through the present day. German politicians at the ceremony discussed German anti-Semitism of the past and present.
The cornerstone for Cologne's future Jewish Museum was laid Thursday in a ceremony attended by regional politicians and members of the architectural team.
The museum will go by the nickname MiQua, which comes from the word "mikveh," a ritual purification bath in Judaism.
It will be built on and underneath the square where the city's historic town hall stands, which is the site of Cologne's historic Jewish quarter from the Middle Ages.
The museum will highlight Cologne's general history from 1424 onwards, with a specific focus on the city's Jewish history.
"No other German city has such long ties to Jewish history as Cologne," Armin Laschet, the conservative premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), said at Thursday's ceremony, adding that few people are aware that the roots of Jewish life in the city date back some 1,700 years.
Cologne's Jewish community is considered the oldest north of the Alps, according to the present day congregation's website. The first mentions of the community go back to 321 A.D.
A museum to fight anti-Semitism
The museum's groundbreaking ceremony came on the heels of a newly reported instance of anti-Semitism in Germany, in which high schoolers in Berlin had taunted a Jewish classmate for months. Politicians have voiced increasing concern over the frequency of anti-Semitic acts while Jewish leaders have pressed for greater action to be taken to fight latent anti-Semitism.
NRW's premier Laschet used the occasion to highlight Germany's long history of anti-Semitism, which dates back centuries before the Holocaust, and said the museum "is also an appeal against anti-Semitism."
Jews were held responsible for the Black Death in 1349, he recalled, and were consequently murdered and had their homes destroyed. They were driven out of the city in 1424, and the next congregation would not be founded until 1801.
Cologne's mayor, the independent politician Henriette Reker, said the museum would show how Christians and Jews lived peacefully with one another, while also showing "the horrible crimes committed against the Jewish congregation."
She described MiQua as a statement "for a cosmopolitan Cologne that builds bridges between all cultures and religions."
Doors to open in 2021
Construction of the Jewish Museum is expected to be completed in 2021 at a cost of €77 million ($90 million).
Once built, the one-of-a-kind museum will feature a 600-meter-long (656 yards) underground passage that will allow visitors to view historic excavations, including remains that date back to the Roman era. Dance halls, hospitals, bakeries, and a synagogue have all been uncovered during excavation.
Also uncovered was a tablet from the Middle Ages with an written engraving that roughly translates into the present-day as, "Things are as they are" ("Et es wie et es") — which is the classic Cologne saying that can still be heard on the city's streets today.
cmb/eg (dpa, KNA, epd)