Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main

People at home – daily life in the Judengasse

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Museum Judengasse
People at home – daily life in the Judengasse

The photograph was taken during the demolition of the Juden­gasse between 1874 and 1887. The western row of houses has already been demolished, leaving a view of the remaining eastern row.

We can recognize the five houses whose cellar walls can now be seen in the museum. From left to right, they are the buildings known as “Warmes Bad” or “Klause” with a public well in the facade; and the houses known as “Sperber,” “Roter Widder,” “Weisser Widder.”

The “Warmes Bad” took its name from the neighbouring “Kaltes Bad” – that is to say from the mikveh – and was one of the larger houses in the Judengasse, being some four yards in width. From about 1684 onwards it was the home of the so-called “Klausrabbi,” who ran the yeshivah or talmudic college.

The “Steinernes House” was the only entirely stone-built house in the Judengasse, and was erected after 1717 by Isaac Nathan Oppenheimer, imperial court factor from Vienna.

The three adjoin­ing houses which share a single roof-truss are typical of the houses to be found in the Judengasse in the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries. As a rule they were no more than three yards wide and were the homes of the Jewish middle and lower classes.

The “Steinernes Haus”

Remains of the old mikveh (1462–1711)

Remains of the old mikveh (1462–1711)

In accordance with Mosaic law, women must purify themselves ritual­ly after childbirth or menstruation.

This requires a bath that is large enough for an adult to be completely immersed. It must be filled with “living water,” gathered from rainwater or a groundwater spring.

The copperplate engraving from the eighteenth century illustrating a protestant theologist's book on Judaism elucidates the various phases of the ritual bath in the mikveh. A woman enters the mikveh accompanied by a servant, loosens her hair, undresses completely and then submerges herself in the water.

Facade of the “Steinernes Haus” (Stone House). From the documents submitted for planning permission, 1717

Facade of the “Steinernes Haus” (Stone House). From the documents submitted for planning permission, 1717

In 1717, a mikveh was installed in the cellar of the Steinernes House, which was probably used by the people living in the house.

The older mikveh, which had been destroyed in 1711, had been intended for the use of everyone in the commu­nity and had for many years been the only mikveh in the Judengasse until a new one was installed at the synagogue in 1602.

A spiral stairway leads from an antechamber in the cellar of the house to the bath filled with ground-water, some six yards below street level. The antechamber, which was probably heated, was used for undres­sing before descending to the mikveh.

Wedding in the Judengasse. Copperplate engraving in Johann Jacob Schudt's “Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten,” Frankfurt 1717

Wedding in the Judengasse. Copperplate engraving in Johann Jacob Schudt's “Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten,” Frankfurt 1717

The houses “Sperber”, “Roter Widder” und “Weisser Widder”

The foundation walls of the three houses known as “Sperber” (Sparrow-hawk), “Roter Widder” (Red Ram) and “Weisser Widder” (White Ram) stretched from the lane almost right up to the eastern wall of the ghetto, which is recognizable in the photo­graph below by its red mortar.

Though only three yards wide, the houses were some 20 yards long, thus making full use of the little space available. Moreover, the small courtyards to the rear of the houses often contained sheds and toilets.

The many niches in the walls are the remnants of wall cup­boards which were closed with metal or wooden doors and served to store precious items. They indicate that the houses were not only used as living quarters, but also contained shops and storerooms.

Bedroom of the house in which Ludwig Börne was born

Bedroom of the house in which Ludwig Börne was born

A school­master in the “Roter Widder” taught reading and writing in Hebrew. As teachers were generally poorly paid, he undoubtedly ranked among the lower classes of the ghetto.

Other inhabitants of these houses worked as casual labourers or were simply described as poor. All in all, there were ten families registered as living in these three houses in 1703, the Sperber being the most crowded with 14 persons sharing 80 square metres.

The painting by Otto Lindheimer (above) was made shortly after the Judengasse was finally demolished. It is one of the few portrayals of an interior in the Judengasse.

As in most of the houses, the kitchen, including the stove, is located in the stairwell due to lack of space. The houses tend­ed to be very dark, the only source of light being windows facing the narrow Judengasse or the small backyards. A trapdoor in the floor leads to the cellar.

Drain by the eastern ghetto wall

Drain by the eastern ghetto wall

The Warm Bath

The construction drawing of 1712 shows the facade of the “Warmes Bad” or “Klause,” and a side view of the house.

Such drawings had to be sub­mitted to the city officials after the Great Fire of 1711 in order to obtain building permission. The actual build­ing work was then carried out by Christian builders.

In the stone-built ground-level storey, a well was installed that could be accessed from the street. It was one of five public wells in the Judengasse providing drinking water for the population. Only a few houses such as the “Steinernes Haus” had their own private well in the cellar.

For a nominal fee, water-carriers brought the water from the wells to the houses. They were among the poorest of all the inhabitants in the Judengasse, for they had no perma­nent right of residence and had to earn their living by casual labour.

It is estimated that some 80 per cent of the Jewish population in the German Reich at the end of the eighteenth century belonged to this impoverished class. Often tolerated only briefly, they moved from place to place.

The signs of the houses

Signs with pictorial representations of the house names jutted out into the street over the houses in the Judengasse. After 1711, these were replaced by stones built in over the doors.

Stone with the sign of the slaughterhouse, after 1711

Stone with the sign of the slaughterhouse, after 1711

The names of the houses were also displayed on the grilles installed above or beside the house doors for ventilati­on purposes. Many families eventually took their names from these house names.

The most famous example being the Rothschild family, which built the house “Zum Roten Schild” (At the Red Sign) in the sixteenth century, and retained the name when they moved elsewhere. The house signs featured in women's jewellery, Hannukah candle holders and kiddush cups.

This indicates the importance of owning a house, or part of a house, to the famil­ies in the Judengasse. It was one of the conditions by which Jews could obtain permanent rights of residence in Frankfurt.

Tombstones with house signs

Tombstones with house signs

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