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Visiting Europe's oldest Jewish cemetery, Heiliger Sand in Worms

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While traveling in Germany, I am always on the lookout for historical evidence of Jewish life here. Unfortunately not much exists, having been wiped out by Germany's Third Reich. That’s why I was especially pleased to find the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe just up the road from us in the walled city of Worms (pronounced voorms).

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Just outside the city walls, a few blocks from the famous Cathedral of St. Peter, sits the triangular patch of greenery containing the cemetery. Hundreds of sunken tombstones, all in varying states of decay, cover the peaceful site. The markers are mostly simple stone tablets inscribed in Hebrew, some with more ornamental borders. The oldest tombstone that is still legible dates from 1076.

Interestingly, all of the grave markers face the same direction which gives the eerie impression they are all looking at you as you make your way down the dirt path that rings the site. In Jewish cemeteries it is customary for the grave markers to face Jerusalem.

The most recent burial here was in 1940, however as early as 1911 the community had started using a new site since this one was already too full. Only established families could still use the Heiliger Sand after that time.

Worms had a large Jewish population from the 10th century with the first synagogue built in 1034. Located at the northeastern bend inside the original city walls, the Jewish quarter has been rebuilt and preserved and includes the synagogue and mikvah or ritual bath. More information in English is available at www.worms.de.

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