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Lit candelabrum
The menorah is a key symbol of Judaism, featured prominently at the exhibitionImage: Roland Weihrauch/dpa/picture alliance

People, pictures, places: German Jews across the centuries

Sabine Oelze
July 3, 2021

An exhibition in Cologne about 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany showcases personal stories through the ages.


Abraham von Oppenheim confidently is seen sliding his right hand into his coat — a gesture reminiscent of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military leader often portrayed in that very pose. The 19th century banker is immortalized as a sculpture at Cologne City Hall along with 123 men and women who played an important role in the history of the city on the Rhine River.

The fact that this Jewish banker and passionate patron of the arts is featured as one of those sculptures shines a light on the coexistence of Jews and Christians in Germany before the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933.

As a member of various foundations, Oppenheim was not only committed to causes related to the Jewish population of the Rhineland region, such as financing the construction of the Cologne synagogue, but he also donated a large sum of money to a Catholic project, i.e. the continued construction of Cologne Cathedral, which took centuries to build.

To this day, the Oppenheim family coat of arms is on display in the Gothic cathedral.

The exhibition "People, Pictures, Places," which is currently on show in Cologne, explores many such biographies to mark "1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany." The Landschaftsverband Rheinland (LVR) organizers advertise their show on Twitter as forum that provides "exchange, encouters and information" to combat "prejudice, clichés and exclusion."

Louise Straus: the first Jewish woman to head a museum

Visitors learn about outstanding local individuals like Louise Straus, a dazzling figure who was born in Cologne in 1893. She was highly educated for her time as one of the first female art historians holding a PhD. In 1919 she became the first woman to serve as acting director of the city's Wallraf Richartz Museum.

Her husband of nearly ten years, the surrealist artist Max Ernst, was a famous artist, whose prestige and influence could, however, later not contribute anything to saving his ex-wife. The couple had separated in 1927. In 1944, Straus was deported and was murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Cube structure in a large hall
One of the show's multimedia cubes Image: Stefan Arendt/LVR-ZMB

But this is not where Jewish life in Cologne ended, nor where the discussion on Jewish identity in Germany begins. In four multimedia sections housed in large cubes — dedicated to the issues of law and injustice, life and coexistence, religion and intellectual history, and art and culture — the exhibition goes far back to the beginnings of Jewish life in late antiquity.

At that time, Cologne was a Roman colony known as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, and the issue of religious or ethnic persecution was part of a completely different framework during the Roman Empire. But even in this context, it tells stories of empowerment and acceptance: The show's central exhibit is a replica of the only surviving copy of the imperial decree of 321, in which Emperor Constantine made it possible to appoint Jews to the city's governing body, i.e. to public office.

Mosaique of Emperor Constantine
Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337)Image: public domain

Jewish empowerment and influence

In fact, the exhibition aims to inform about the diversity of Judaism beyond the Shoah — or Holocaust. It showcases personal stories like that of Isaac of Aachen, a Jewish interpreter at the court of Emperor Charlemagne. When Isaac visited a Muslim leader in Baghdad on behalf of the emperor, he brought back home an Indian elephant as a gift from the caliph Abubal Abbas.

And it also highlights how over the centuries, members of the Jewish community became part of the councils not only in Cologne but also in other German cities. You will learn how violations of their rights were punished in the so-called Judenschreinsbuch (Jewish shrine book), a kind of land register to document neighborhood disputes and complaints, property sales and weddings.

The aim of the exhibition is to cover diversity," Laura Cohen, the curator, told DW, adding that it "presents people who held important positions and exercised great influence."

Netta Barzilai, woman on stage
Netta, Eurovision Song Contest winner 2018Image: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/Persona Stars

Looking beyond the horrors of the Holocaust

Exhibits also include virtual reconstructions of synagogues, biographies of composers like Fanny Hansel and artists including Felix Nussbaum and Max Liebermann, as well as a wide range of music from Klezmer to hip hop. Most of the individuals whose stories are shared were influential locals before the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933. This is when the great exodus of German Jews began, as well as the onset of the genocide that culminated in the Holocaust.

Some of the survivors of the Nazi regime and their familes are also shown at the exhibition. They include Israeli singer Netta, who won the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest with her hit song, "Toy," or cartoonist Ben Gershon. The cartoons in his book Anti-Semitism for Beginners prove that Jewish humor is still alive and well today.

Laura Cohen highlights that the punchline of a typical Jewish joke works by "suspending strict rules and juxtaposing them with pragmatism" — a strategy that perhaps has defined the core of centuries of Jewish art, culture and life throughout the globe and throughout the ages.

This article was translated from its German original

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