Travel/History: Worms: A Storied Past

Published in the October/November 2007 issue of German Life magazine

Worms: A Storied Past
Lori Hein

I looked out across Heiliger Sand (Holy Sands), a field of headstones engraved in Hebrew, some a thousand years old and listing backward or to one side, and settled my gaze on the towers of Dom St. Peter, the cathedral of Worms. The ancient Jewish cemetery and the mighty Romanesque church, both witnesses to the city’s rich history, were draped – graves of Talmudic scholars and statues of saints equally – in the thin, white cloak of a late autumn snowfall.

The dusting lent an air of calm to this old German city whose history has at times been turbulent, and I went looking for pieces of its past. As I explored, Worms, which sits on the Rhein 28 miles south of Mainz in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, offered glimpses of Celts and Romans; a once thriving Jewish community; Holy Roman Emperors; the seed-sowers of the Reformation; a wine-growing culture with 2,000-year-old roots.

Four-towered Dom St. Peter has been the signature landmark of Worms for over a thousand years. The amber-red sandstone colossus sits atop the old city’s highest hill and dominates the skyline, dwarfing buildings old and new that have been built around it. Though early Christians of the late Roman era built a church on the site in the 7th century, it was in the 11th century under Bishop Burchard that the foundations of a Romanesque cathedral with today’s grand dimensions were laid.

As the centuries marched on, masons and laborers of the medieval cathedral guild rebuilt and restored, eventually adding gothic flourishes to the church’s Romanesque core. The result is a soaring space with strong Romanesque bones and lighter gothic limbs – carved portals, stained glass, airy chapels. Added to the mix are baroque and rococo elements installed after the cathedral’s interior – along with most of the city of Worms – was torched in 1689 by Louis XIV’s army during the War of the Palatinate Succession, a sweeping expansionist bid by the French king. The most striking of these later cathedral constructions is the opulent gilt altar designed by 18th century architectural wunderkind Balthasar Neumann.

Worms was a key administrative and ecclesiastical center during the Holy Roman Empire, and St. Peter’s Nicholas Chapel was the setting for sessions of the Imperial Diet, a Catholic court and legislative body. Of the many Diets convened at Worms, that of 1521 stands apart in the history of the city and the Christian world. Called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and top figures in the Catholic hierarchy, Martin Luther stuck to the words and spirit of the 95 Theses he’d nailed four years earlier to a church door in Wittenberg. He refused to recant his protest that biblical scripture, not papal power or decree, holds the key to salvation. The Diet labeled Luther an outlaw, and the Reformation got into gear.

A huge monument to Luther and other protestant reformers sits near Dom St. Peter in a park where the city’s moat once flowed. While the cathedral remains Catholic, most Worms residents are Protestant, and some half dozen architecturally and historically significant evangelical and Lutheran churches, notably the baroque Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Trinity Church) welcome visitors.

While Worms is a key stop along the "Luther Trail," the string of German cities with connections to Martin Luther, Worms also holds some of Germany’s most important ancient Jewish sites, and historian Dr. Gerold Boennen, director of the city archives since 1996, confirms that many people come to Worms expressly for these: "Visitors to the city are searching for authentic places with a long history, especially concerning the very important Jewish part."

Contemporaneous with budding post-Roman Christianity, Judaism existed in Worms as early as the 10th century, and from the Middle Ages until it was extinguished under the Third Reich, Worms’s Jewish community was one of Germany’s largest and most active. Striking pieces of this community – the old Jewish quarter, the ancient synagogue, the haunting cemetery where I’d watched snow settle on scholars’ stones – are places that invite, indeed cause, reflection.

The Jewish quarter is tucked in the curved embrace of medieval city wall remnants north of the cathedral. Restored multi-story houses line narrow streets, and in the center of the quarter sits what was the community’s focal point: the synagogue and attached yeshiva, or religious study hall, called Rashi Chapel after eminent Jewish scholar Rabbi Salomon ben Isaak, known as Rashi, who studied in Worms around 1060.

The entire quarter is a restoration atop previous restorations, as varying degrees of destruction visited the Jewish community and its buildings during the Crusades, 14th and 17th century pogroms, and the period from 1938 to 1942. Major restoration, using original stone and brickwork where possible, was done in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the city funds ongoing preservation. While the city maintains the synagogue, its legal owner is the Jewish community of Mainz, which absorbed Worms’s tiny remaining Jewish population into its congregation after World War II. The combined community holds services once a month in Worms’s historic synagogue.

While the temple complex has been rebuilt and altered since the original stones were laid in 1034, the buildings visitors see today together comprise, as did earlier iterations, the community infrastructure prescribed by orthodox Judaism: a place to worship; a mikva, or immersion pool for purification baths; a study house for religious instruction. The fourth component, a cemetery separate from the synagogue, is filled by Heiliger Sand, Europe’s oldest Jewish cemetery, which sits outside the city walls south of Dom St. Peter.

Heiliger Sand was never destroyed, and its 3,000 gravestones, the earliest dated 1076 and the most recent, according to Dr. Boennen, dated 1937, survived even Nazi destruction. Some guidebooks and Internet articles cite then city archivist F.M. Illert with having saved the cemetery during that period, but Boennen knows of no documents or evidence to support this and feels the story may be "really a legend and cannot be proved." But he acknowledges that visitors "are interested every time in how was it possible that the cemetery was not destroyed." A divine hand, perhaps?

Both the archives office and a Jewish Museum managed by the archives are located in Rashi-Haus, built in 1982 adjacent to the synagogue. Boennen described the richness of the treasures his department tends: "We are responsible for a great and increasing collection of documents, beginning with a charter by King Henry IV for the city of Worms from 1074, the oldest document of a German king given to the people of a city. Despite all the wars and ups and downs of Worms, we preserve a collection which can normally not be expected by a relatively small city like ours." The archives also hold a collection of 300,000 historic photographs.

Having learned a little about some of the players in the eventful, millennia-long pageant that is Worms’s history, I left the city and headed north toward Mainz on the B9, a small road that runs aside the Rhein. As it did in the city, light snow dotted the scene, a tableau of rolling hills planted with recently harvested Riesling vineyards. This is Rheinhessen, Germany’s largest wine-growing area, and viniculture here dates to Roman times.

Just outside Worms the gothic Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) sat on its hill surrounded by a vineyard from which monks once made sweet wine for thirsty medieval pilgrims. This "Liebfraumilch" gained fame over time, and wine merchants not tied to the church’s vineyard began selling wines with that name, as they do today. Two wine exporters, Langenbach and Valckenberg, own the original Liebfrauenkirche vineyard, and their wines are labeled "Liebfrauenstift Kirchestueck" to denote that specific provenance.

Flat, black barges plied the Rhein as I passed through ancient towns, many with centuries-old grape-growing traditions. Two neighboring villages, Oppenheim and Nierstein, stood out as particularly pleasing for modern pilgrims in search of scenery, history and good wine. Each offers hillside hikes, stunning medieval architecture and wine estates that have been in the same families for as long as 11 generations.

Practice makes perfect, and these vintners turn out world-class Rieslings. With my head full of history, I thought this a fine place to stop and toast the past.

More information:
Worms Tourist Office: Neumarkt 4;;
Dom St. Peter:;; (German only)
Nierstein and Rheinhessen regions:; (both German only)