People at home – daily life in the Judengasse
Eastern section of the Judengasse, Frankfurt, c. 1880
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.
On the site of the “Steinernes Haus,” before the great fire that swept through the Judengasse in 1711, there was a house for community officials such as the Hazzan and the community servant.
A mikveh was installed in the cellar dating back to the earliest phase of the ghetto between 1460 and 1462. Six steps remain, leading down into the ritual bath. When the old mikveh was abandoned and filled in, one of the load-bearing pillars of the “Steinernes Haus” was actually set where the bath had been.
The bath was filled from groundwater. The common designation “Kaltes Bad” (Cold Bath) in reference to the mikveh is to be taken quite literally.
Remains of the old mikveh (1462–1711)
Ritual purification in the mikveh. Copperplate engraving in Johann Christoph Georg Bodenschatz' “Aufrichtig Teutsch Redender Hebräer”, Frankfurt and Leipzig 1756
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.
The crowded housing and cramped conditions of the Judengasse led to a number of major fires in the eighteenth century. In 1711, all the houses in the Judengasse burned down.
The site on which the mikveh had stood was sold by the community to Isaac Nathan Oppenheimer, imperial court factor from Vienna, who wanted to build a prestigious baroque town house here for his visits to Frankfurt during trade fairs and other such occasions.
However, the plans he submitted were not approved by the city council, which found “the fine frontispiece and other eye-catching ornamentation far too magnificent.” Only on the repeated intervention of the emperor and after a number of amendments to the plan was the house finally built.
In the years that followed, the house was used by the Kann family, who held a leading position in the community and who were related to the court factor's family.
Facade of the “Steinernes Haus” (Stone House). From the documents submitted for planning permission, 1717
New mikveh in the Steinernes Haus (1717–1887)
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.
The house that previously stood on the site of the “Steinernes Haus” was known as the Hochzeitshaus” (Wedding House) and was used for festivities and celebrations.
The copperplate engraving (below) from the book by Johann Jacob Schudt, rector of the Frankfurt grammar school, shows a veiled woman under the wedding canopy (huppah) being led through the Judengasse to the courtyard of the synagogue for the marriage ceremony. Jewish musicians lead the procession.
The women and men are dressed in the characteristic garb of Frankfurt Jews in the period around 1700. Above the doors we can see the signs with the pictorial designations of the house names.
Wedding in the Judengasse. Copperplate engraving in Johann Jacob Schudt's “Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten,” Frankfurt 1717
Foundation walls of the houses “Sperber,” “Roter Widder,” “Weisser Widder” and eastern ghetto wall
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.
The majority of the Jews had been involved in trade since the seventeenth century, the previously predominant business of money-lending having become a secondary occupation.
The architectural history of these three houses is typical of the heavily-developed Judengasse. In the early 16th century, the houses known as “Rad” (Wheel) and “Widder” (Ram) were the first to be built on the 200-square-meter site next to the mikveh.
The “Sperber” (Sparrowhawk) was added in 1580. In 1590, the “Widder” was divided up and the resulting pair of new houses were named “Roter Widder” (Red Ram) and “Weisser Widder” (White Ram). The house known as “Rad” (Wheel) was abandoned towards the end of the seventeenth century and the other three were rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1711.
Official municipal records indicate that members of the middle and lower classes occupied these three houses around 1700. They traded in linen or sold bread and brandies.
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.
Entrance area of a house in the Judengasse. Photograph after a painting by Otto Lindheimer, 1884 (original lost)
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.
Behind the houses, a sewer ran from north to south along the ghetto wall and into the River Main. It was about 1.8 m deep and 1.5 m wide. A similar channel was situated behind the row of houses on the west side.
Above the channel, small toilet cubicles had been installed. This was in fact a fairly modern facility in comparison to other parts of old Frankfurt, where the houses only had septic tanks that had to be emptied at regular intervals. The sewage channels of the Judengasse were swept out once a year by the city hangman and his assistants, for a fee.
Originally, the channels were not covered, and caused a stench in the summer. Yet for many years the city council refused to allow the Jewish community to cover them.
Drain by the eastern ghetto wall
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.
Construction sketch of the Warm Bath and well, 1712
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.
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.
When the Judengasse was demolished, some of these stones were placed in the Historisches Museum. The ox-head designated the slaughterhouse at the southern end of the Judengasse.
One of the few skilled occupations open to Jews was the slaughtering of animals and processing of meat.
As this had to be performed according to the dietary laws set forth in the Bible and the Talmud, requiring special training and rabbinic supervision, the council permitted the Jewish community to establish a slaughterhouse in the sixteenth century and to slaughter animals there for their own use.
Stone with the sign of the slaughterhouse, after 1711
Metal grill with the sign of the “Rote Traube” house and stone sign of the “Moor” and “Flask” houses, 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.
The house signs also feature on many of the gravestones in the adjacent Old Jewish Cemetery. Once again, this is a reflection of how important the house names were to the identity of the people who lived there.
The cemetery was established before 1272 and was in use until 1828. Around 1900, more than 6,000 gravestones were counted there, two-thirds of which were later destroyed by the National Socialists. The Frankfurt cemetery is one of the oldest and most important Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
Tombstones with house signs
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