Blick auf das Rothschildpalais am Untermainkai in Frankfurt am Main.

History of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt

Germany's oldest major Jewish Museum

We are the oldest independent Jewish Museum in Germany. On 9 November 1988 Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl opened the museum on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the November Pogrom. The history of the museum, however, extends much further back.

The Museum of Jewish Antiquities

View into the Museum of Jewish Antiquities in Frankfurt, around 1922
View into the Museum of Jewish Antiquities in Frankfurt, around 1922

Today’s Jewish Museum is not the first of its kind in Frankfurt. In 1922 the Museum Jüdischer Altertümer  (Museum of Jewish Antiquities) was opened. It in turn had developed out of the Gesellschaft zur Erforschung jüdischer Kunstdenkmäler (Society for the Study of Jewish Art Monuments), founded by the Frankfurt patron Charles Hallgarten in 1897. That museum mainly exhibited valuable cult objects. It was housed in the former bank building of the Rothschild family on Fahrgasse. Unlike today, the Jewish Community ran the museum then. Its administrative offices were also on Fahrgasse.

On the Reichspogromnacht 1938 the museum was looted by men from the SA and SS and a large part of its collection destroyed. About 1,000 objects were incorporated into Frankfurt’s History Museum, some turned up on the local art market and others were melted down. Part of our Judaica Collection is from the holdings of that museum.

 

Commission to Research the History of the Frankfurt Jews

After the Second World War, Jewish citizens who had been expelled Frankfurt suggested collecting and publishing material on the Jewish history of Frankfurt. The project was supported by the City of Frankfurt. In 1961 a special commission was set up to research the history of the Frankfurt Jews. That commission included, among others, Max Horkheimer, Rabbi Kurt Wilhelm and Rabbi Georg Salzberger and many other renowned personalities.

Foundation of the Jewish Museums in the Rothschildpalais

In 1979 a plan was drawn up to found a Jewish Museum in Frankfurt again. It was to be a municipal museum and part of what was called the new Museum Bank (Museumsufer) which had been promoted since 1977 by Hilmar Hoffmann, the Frankfurt city councillor in charge of cultural affairs at the time. The historical Rothschildpalais on Untermainkai along with its neighbouring building came into question. The first museum director in 1985 was Georg Heuberger. By choosing the 9 November 1988, the 50th anniversary of the November Pogrom as the official opening date, those responsible underscored the museum’s political focus on commemoration.

Museum Judengasse

Vogelperspektive auf Grabungen auf dem Frankfurter Börneplatz im Mai 1987
Excavations on the Frankfurt Börneplatz in 1987. The foundations which were found here are today part of the Judengasse Museum. Photo: Andreas Pohlmann

In 1987, during building works on Börneplatz in Frankfurt, the foundations of 19 houses from the former Judengasse came to light – a unique archaeological find. The former Jewish ghetto, or Judengasse, had been built in 1462 along the city walls, which dated from high medieval times. Over the course of the centuries, it developed into one of the most important Jewish centres in Europe. Up to 3,000 people lived there under the most confined conditions.

The archaeological finds gave rise to the so-called Börneplatz Conflict. The problem was what was to happen to these testimonies to the Jewish history of Frankfurt? The City wanted to have an administrative building constructed on the site, the demonstrators, by contrast, demanded that the foundations be preserved. The conflict inflamed passions around the whole country. In the end, a compromise was found: five of the excavated house foundations were first removed and then reconstructed at the original site, now the basement of the administration building. Today they make up the core of the Museum Judengasse, opened in 1992 as a branch of the Jewish Museum.

In 2016, the Museum Judengasse installed a new permanent exhibition. It presents the history of the Judengasse and Jewish life in Frankfurt up until the years after 1800, when Jews were also permitted to settle outside the Judengasse. Beside the Museum Judengasse are the Old Jewish Cemetary on Battonnstraße and the New Börneplatz Commemoration Site.

The new Jewish Museum

The new Jewish Museum has been developing on Untermainkai since 2015. It includes a spacious extension building designed by Staab Architects. The Rothschild Palais and its neighbouring building are being refurbished and renovated for the new permanent exhibition. The re-opening is scheduled for summer 2019.