The itinerary of the second part of the fifth day of our vacation included Saverne with the intention to visit the castle (we ended by just taking pictures from the outside) and was aimed to end in the evening in Strasbourg – the first city where we planned to spend two days, one of them fully dedicated to discover the city.
chateau de Saverne
It was however the stop that we made in the early afternoon that was going to represent one of the most moving discoveries and interesting encounters of our vacation – the Musee Judeo-Alsacien, the Museum of the Jews d’Alsace in Bouxviller.
Musee Judeo-Alsacien in Bouxviller
Bouxviller is one of the many picturesque small cities North of Strasbourg, with German names and style in the buildings witnesses of the complex history of the area. It was also the place where a flourishing Jewish community estimated at its pick to several thousands people lived for many centuries. Yet, a few decades after the second world war there were no Jews left in Bouxviller and the building of the principal synagogue of the city built in 1842 was due for demolition in 1983 to clear the place for the parking of the adjoining supermarket. And then a small miracle happened. A Jewish miracle.
with Mr Gilbert Weil
When we entered the building of the museum we were welcome by a young lady who asked us where we come from. When we said that we are from Israel she immediately shouted – ‘monsieur Weil!’. Monsieur Gilbert Weil immediately showed up and the conversation that followed was a fascinating trip in time, not only in the history of the museum but also through the whole history of the Jews of Alsace, and his personal history. Gilbert Weil is the man who saved the building in 1983. With a few days left until the demolition he fought the red tape of the bureaucracy and got a special permit from Jack Lang, the minister of Culture of Francois Mitterand that avoided the demolition. The condition for saving the place was to include it in the national patrimony of France as a building destined to become a museum. So a museum it will be decided monsieur Weil, and he started to let people in the area and institutions around France and the world know that a museum of the history and culture of Jews in Alsace is in becoming. Most of the objects in the collection were gathered from the donors in the Jewish homes of the area. If no Jews are living any longer in Bouxwiller there are chances that the place will become the source of knowledge and memory for the Jewish community that existed here more then eight centuries. Monsieur Weil lives part of the year in Bouxwiller and part of it in Jerusalem (our conversation mixed French and Hebrew). The museum is open between Easter and mid-September (Rosh Hashana I guess), for the rest of the year visitors need to call and arrange for a special appointment in order to visit it.
expulsion of Jews from France (12th-14th centuries)
The rooms of the museum are ordered in an ascending spiral shape, starting with a corridor where the first centuries of the Jewish presence in the area are documented. While Jews are mentioned with certainty starting with the 12th century, their presence is assumed to be older. France was already in the medieval period one of the places were persecutions and segregation of Jews was widely practiced, and the decrees of expulsion of Jews from France predate the 1492 expulsion from Spain by several centuries.
1349 - autodafe in Strasbourg
1349 was an especially dark year in the history of the Jews in Alsace, and of their relation with their Christian neighbors. February 14 that year 2000 Jews were gathered in the Jewish cemetery and burnt alive on the stake, as the inhabitants were hoping to avoid the city being hit by the Plague. Five month later the epidemic hit the city. Following that traumatic incident, the life of Jews in Alsace developed mainly in smaller rural communities like Bouxviller, which gave a specific direction to the Jewish culture and history of the area.
sefer Torah from Jerusalem
The French revolution liberated the Jews from persecutions and ghettos, and made of Jews equal citizens. Together with Jews in all France, the Jews of Alsace were among the first in Europe to be awarded full and equal rights with all other citizens. They developed a strong attachment to France and Jewishness came second in the definition of their personal identity. Yet, rabbis continued to keep the flame of the faith, which became for most of them more of a private issue. Jews at home (where objects like the Torah book above were kept and used), equal citizens in the city.
Jewish Holidays and Customs
The continuation of the museum alternates the historical information with the customs and ethnographic data. It’s a good and balanced mix, which allows for the non-Jewish visitors to be introduced in the Jewish customs and way of life, and has enough local information to be of interest also for the Jewish visitors.
Each of the Jewish holidays and principal moments and aspects of Jewish life and institutions have dedicated windows – here is the one explaining to the visitor the spiritual meaning and the ceremonies related to Passover.
photographies documenting the Jewish life
As the trip in time continues we can see documents and photographs that describe the Jewish life in the small cities of Alsace. Part of the areas fell under German rule after 1871, but most of the Jews of Alsace stayed faithful to France. Among them an officer named Alfred Dreyfus.
Alsacian Jews supported the beginnings of Zionism
The Zionist alternative to the life in Diaspora triggered the interest of part of the Jewish community in Alsace. Delegation of Jews from Alsace participated at the first Zionist congresses and Jews from Alsace were associated to the agricultural projects of the baron de Rotschild in Palestine at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Living in rural communities many of them had more knowledge about agriculture than most of the other Jews in Europe, so they also contributed to the founding of the first agriculture schools in Eretz Israel.
Shoah - a prayer book that saved a life
The dark years of the Holocaust did not spare the Jews of Alsace. The lives of many of them were saved inititally by the fact that after the war broke Jews as well as other inhabitants close to the border with Germany were evacuated in the South of France, so they did not fall under the German occupation. This is what happened also to Gilbert Weil and his family. Surviving all the war years with no homes and no means of subsistence was not easy. However, the fate of these who were caught by the German occupants or their French collaborators and sent to the concentration or death camps was much more tragic. The life of a Jew from Strasbourg named Marcel Lorand was saved by the prayer book in the photography. When the Germans evacuated the concentration camp of Dachau they took their prisoners in a forced march where the weak ones were executed on the side of the road. Lorand was left as dead on the way, and found a few hours later by the Russian. A Russian soldier saw the prayer book that fell out of the pocket of the coat. The soldier was Jewish, he looked carefully, saw that Marcel was breathing, and he saved his life.
view through the window of the old synagogue
After the war only a minority of the Jews in Alsace returned to their homes. Many of them stayed in other parts of France, or emigrated to Israel and other parts of the world. Jews from North Africa replaced them in a few places, mainly in Strasbourg. In most of the smaller cities like Bouxviller which were centers of Jewish life for centuries there are today no Jews left. It is this museum, that keeps the place on the map of the Jewish objectives of the area, a local initiative that can be taken as example and emulated in many other places where the light of Jewish life is nowadays extinct. With its programs and initiatives that bring in visitors and especially young people from schools in the province the Musee Judeo-Alsacien will preserve at least for a while the memory of a way of life and of a culture that contributed to the history of this special place in Europe.