Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Virtual Jewish World: Cologne, Germany

Cologne is a city in Germany. Founded in 50 C.E. as the Roman Colonia Agrippinensis, seat of the provincial and military administration, it is likely to have attracted a Jewish population at an early date. A Jewish cemetery, assumed to have existed from Roman times, is attested there from the 11th century. It was in use to the end of the 17th century and came to light in the 1930s. Two edicts of Constantine (Cod. Theod. 16:8, 3-4) of 321 and 331 respectively imposed the onerous Curia duties on the Jews of Cologne and exempted the officials of their community from the obligations incumbent on the lower class of citizens. No further information on Jews in Cologne is available until the 11th century.

Medieval Period
Communal Structure
Modern Period
Holocaust Period
Contemporary Period

Medieval Period

In 1012 (or 1040), a synagogue was erected which, though destroyed, was three times rebuilt on the same site, until, after the expulsion of 1424, it was turned into a chapel, though it served various purposes in the course of time. Allied bombing during World War II laid bare the foundations of the ancient building where unique examples of a genizah cellar under the bimah and a cistern (in the forecourt?) have been discovered.

During the 12th century rabbinical opinion was divided over the religious propriety of its stained-glass windows depicting lions and serpents. A chronicler of the first half of the 12th century describes the Cologne community at the end of the 11th century as “a distinguished city… from where life, livelihood, and settled law issued for all our brethren scattered far and wide” (Solomon b. Samson in Sefer Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-?arefat, ed. by A.M. Habermann (1945), 43). The central importance of the Cologne fair and the community there for Jewry throughout the Rhine valley is further attested by the description of the synods held in the city: “all the communities came to Cologne to the fairs three times a year and deliberated at its synagogue” (ibid., 47).

The First Crusade of 1096 brought death and destruction to Cologne Jewry. Though the archbishop tried to protect the Jews of the diocese, many were massacred; the Jewish quarter and synagogue were sacked and burned down. The number of those killed indicates a community of approximately 1,000. The martyrs included Moses Kohen ?edek, rabbi and cantor, originating from France and respected for his scholarship and piety, as well as other scholars. One of the martyrs had come from Italy, another was a proselyte. A few saved their lives by accepting baptism, but were subsequently permitted by imperial decree to return to Judaism. However, a group of converts remained, who, themselves or their descendants, attained positions of importance in the Church and civil administration.

The community was afterward reconstructed. When a new city wall was built in 1106, the Jews were assigned their own gate (Porta Judaeorum) for the defense of the city. In the Cologne land register (Schreinsbuch), from 1135, the extent to which Jews owned property there is revealed: from 30 houses at the beginning of the period, to 48 in 1170, 50 in 1235, 60 in 1300, 70 in 1325, and 73 in 1349. Many also lived in leased or rented houses. The land register also yields information on the provenance of the Jews of Cologne, mentioning over 20 places in the Rhineland and beyond (such as Frankfurt, Wuerzburg, Arnhem in Holland, and even England).

The Second Crusade of 1146–7 left Cologne Jewry more or less unharmed, due mainly to Archbishop Arnold, who put the fortress of Wolkenburg at their disposal as a refuge. The imperial Jewish tax as well as the jurisdiction over Jews for serious criminal offenses were in the hands of the archbishops. From 1252 onward, they issued periodical letters of protection or privileges to the Jewish community, by which the Jews were assured of protection of life and limb, freedom of commerce and worship, freedom from forcible conversion, and the right to untaxed burial for any Jew in the Jewish cemetery. The rabbinical courts had exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving Jews. For these “privileges” they had to pay heavily in the form of taxes or lump sums.

The 1266 privilege, granted by Archbishop Engelbert II, was engraved on stone and can still be seen in the wall of the cathedral. During the 14th century power in the city passed from the archbishop to the patrician city fathers who had defeated him in the battle of Worringen (1288); subsequently the latter were asked to endorse the archepiscopal privileges granted to the Jews and, in 1321, the city itself issued them a letter of protection valid for ten years. It is an indication of the growing insecurity of Jewish life in Cologne that this sort of charter had to be frequently reissued. The cost of the letter of protection to the Jewish community was the considerable sum of 1,600 marks in 1321, rising to 1,800 in 1331. From 1341 acquisition of property by Jews required the consent of the city council, which also intervened in internal disputes.

Disaster overtook Cologne Jewry during the Black Death. The plague had reached the city in the summer of 1349; the mob stormed the Jewish quarter on St. Bartholomew’s Night (Aug. 23–24), letters of protection notwithstanding. Part of the community had assembled in the synagogue; they themselves set fire to it and perished in its flames. The rest were murdered. Among the martyrs were the last three “Jews’ bishops” of Cologne (see below) and a number of distinguished rabbis. The archbishop, the municipality, and the count of Juelich now laid claim to the derelict Jewish property. When the “protectors” had at last settled their quarrel, the property was sold and the proceeds used for church and city buildings.

In 1372, Jews were readmitted to Cologne, once more under a privilege from the archbishop renewed in 1384 and every ten years until 1414. The city council also granted a privilege similar to earlier ones, stipulating that no claims could be raised arising out of property owned prior to 1349. Interest rates were limited to 36 1/2% per annum. A new spirit of discrimination was shown in the special dress regulations introduced for Jews and the prohibition on employing Christian nurses, contained in documents of 1384. The golden penny (goldene Pfennig) poll tax, imposed on German Jewry in 1342, is recorded as being collected in Cologne in 1391.

The post-1372 community was small, never comprising more than 31 taxpaying households and 200 persons. All the more burdensome was the enormous tax which this small group had to pay, though it must have included some fairly rich people. However, the days of the community were numbered. The city refused, after prolonged pleadings before the archbishop, emperor, and pope, to renew the residential privilege which expired in October 1424. This brought the history of medieval Jewry in Cologne to a close.

Communal Structure

Cologne Jewry, like other ethnic and economic groups, formed a corporation with its own council and leader, referred to as the Judenbischoff (Episcopus Judaeorum; seven holders of this office are known by name between 1135 and 1417), apart from its religious and judicial organization with rabbis, dayyanim, readers, shochtim, beadles, etc. The office of “bishop” and rabbi were not identical, though occasionally united. The Jewish quarter, its synagogue (with a separate building for women), and the cemetery have been mentioned above. Other communal property included a mikveh (in addition to a public bath), a dance and wedding hall (Spielhaus), a bakehouse, a “hospital” for wayfarers, and accommodation for officials. The synagogue court (curia Judaeorum) served for public assemblies, wedding ceremonies, and perhaps for the rabbinical court. A wall separated the Jewish quarter to the south from the adjoining area, while a gate led into it from the east. The mikveh was discovered and partly restored during the 1956–57 excavations.

The Jews of Cologne were mainly merchants, and later moneylenders. The Cologne fairs, to which traders from near and far brought both raw materials and finished goods, were one of Europe’s most important mercantile events. Jewish visitors came from as far as the Ukraine. Transactions at this fair form the subject of an opinion by Gershom ben Yehuda (10th–11th century; Ma’aseh ha-Ge’onim, ed. by A. Epstein (1909), 70; Rashi’s Pardes, ed. by H.L. Ehrenreich (1924), 73).

Powerful financiers who established themselves in the banking business in the 13th and 14th centuries were largely a law unto themselves, as shown by their repeated conflicts with the community, but their wealth and ostentation often proved their undoing. Many pursued more modest trades and occupations. Some physicians are mentioned toward the end of the 14th century. A

mong a long line of notable Cologne rabbis (rabbanei Kolonya) were Eliezer b. Joel ha-Levi of Bonn (“Ravyah”), and Asher b. Jehiel (“ha-Rosh”) who was active in Cologne before his emigration to Spain in 1303. Alexander Suslin ha-Kohen of Frankfurt (martyred in Erfurt, 1349) lived for some time in Cologne. To the kabbalistic school belonged Abraham b. Alexander of Cologne.

The Cologne community early established its own liturgical rite, partly based on Palestinian custom. MaimonidesMishneh Torah was copied in four volumes of vellum in 1295–6 by Nathan b. Simeon of Cologne. This manuscript, now at Budapest, is one of the finest examples of Ashkenazi calligraphy and miniature painting of the period.

From 1424 to the end of the 18th century, Jews were excluded from residence in Cologne. Even those few admitted for business were not permitted to stay overnight, not excepting Jewish physicians who were frequently called in by the local population from nearby towns such as Bonn and Deutz. In the 16th century, Cologne became the center of the Pfefferkorn - Reuchlin controversy. The University of Cologne (founded 1388) had a chair of Hebrew from 1484.


The Pfefferkorn-Reuchlin controversy led to the publication of many books and pamphlets, some containing Hebrew letters printed from woodcuts, such as Pfefferkorn’s Judenveindt and Osternbuch (1509). In 1518, a polyglot psalter (in four languages) was edited by Johann Potkin, and printed by Jacob Soter and again in 1539 by Johann Boeschenstein. In 1553, Soter printed the books of Obadiah and Jonah with a rhymed Latin translation by the apostate Johann Isaac ha-Levi and, in 1555, Jacob Anatoli’s Ru’a? ?en with a Latin translation also by ha-Levi. In 1563, in partnership with P. Horst, he printed the book of Malachi, with translations. The Cologne imprint of a Bible of 1603 by J. Lucius (of Helmstedt) is doubtful, and it may have to be assigned to Hamburg. A Passover Haggadah with German translation and music by the Cologne cantor Judah, father of the composer Jacques Offenbach, was published in 1838 by Clouth and Company.

Modern Period

The annexation of the Rhineland by revolutionary France in 1794 brought Jewish residents again to Cologne from 1798. A new congregation, formed by 17 households, was established in 1801. Solomon Oppenheim represented it on the Assembly of Jewish Notables convoked by Napoleon in 1806, and its rabbi, S.B. Rapaport, on the French Sanhedrin of 1807. Under the decree of 1808, the Cologne congregation was administered first by the Krefeld and (from 1817) by the Bonn Consistory.

Residential permits were required even after the Rhineland had been incorporated into Prussia in 1815; 33 were granted in 1817, and 134 in 1845, when the community numbered approximately 1,000. Among the lay leaders of this period was David Hess, father of Moses Hess. It was not until 1861, however, the year of the opening of a new synagogue magnificently endowed by the banker Abraham von Oppenheim, that the Cologne congregation achieved the status of a public corporation under the Prussian community law of 1847. Civic equality was finally obtained in 1856.

Cologne Jewry numbered 4,523 in 1880, 9,745 in 1900, and approximately 20,000 (2 1/2% of the total population) in 1933. It had four synagogues and several battei midrash, two elementary schools and a secondary school, apart from religious schools, a hospital, an orphanage, a children’s home, a home for apprentices, and many ancillary societies and institutions.

Among rabbis who officiated in Cologne before World War II were the scholars Isidor Scheftelowitz and Adolf Kober. From 1867, an independent Orthodox congregation (Adass Jeshurun) was active; a Jewish teacher’s training college was closely associated with it. When David Wolffsohn, a resident of Cologne, succeeded Theodor Herzl as president of the Zionist Organization in 1904, its offices were transferred to Cologne where they remained until 1911. Max Bodenheimer was another leading Zionist in Cologne.

Holocaust Period

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jews (and other political opponents) were tortured and even murdered. The turning-point in the life of Cologne Jewry was April 1, 1933, the “Boycott Sabbath.” The boycott affected not only shops and businesses but doctors, lawyers, and other professionals as well. Lawyers were driven through the street on garbage trucks. The subsequent dismissal of Jews from the civil service on April 7 affected physicians, teachers, and professors as well. It was a two-way boycott, many Christian shops refusing to serve Jews and it continued in some quarters as the city ceased purchasing from Jewish merchants.

On May 10, 1933, “Jewish” books were burned on the University plaza. The Jewish community reacted to all this by carefully worded protests and declarations of loyalty to Germany, but also by assisting emigration, by increased welfare efforts, and by organizing professional retraining courses and trade schools. Discrimination, including the closure of playgrounds and athletic facilities, intensified. By 1935, Jews were barred from public baths. Jews responded by emigrating, leaving Cologne, if possible, but there was also movement in the other direction as Jews from the small towns and villages of the Rhineland sought refuge in Cologne. The community organized its own cultural life through the local “Kulturbund,” the second largest in Germany after Berlin’s. As elsewhere, religious life revived, and Jewish schools could hardly accommodate the number of pupils seeking admission.

By the end of 1936, 2,535 people required communal assistance. In March 1938, the two Cologne congregations were deprived of their status of public law corporations. The November 9–11, 1938, pogroms known as Kristallnacht led to the destruction by fire or vandalism of all synagogues. Jewish shops and offices were plundered and great numbers of Jews thrown into prison or concentration camps. More than 400 Jews were arrested and sent to Dachau. Emigration intensified. Over 100 children were sent to Great Britain on the Kindertransport. More than 40% of the Jewish population emigrated before September 1939.

In May 1939, the Jewish population was 8,406 with another 2,360 Mischlinge, persons of mixed Jewish ancestry. When war came in September 1939, the remainder of Cologne Jewry became subject to an all-night curfew, their special food rations were far below that of the general population, they were officially forbidden to use public transport and, when allied bombing began, to use public air raid shelters.

Jews had to move out of houses owned by non-Jews; later they were restricted to certain parts of the town, and finally to Jewish-owned houses or institutions, and living conditions grew steadily more desperate. Toward the end of 1941, Jews were interned at a camp in the suburb of Muengersdorf with exemptions for those working in the armament industry and hospitalized patients. Jewish hospital patients were moved into the camp on May 31, 1942, with seriously ill patients temporarily housed in the Adass Jeshurun school building.

The first deportation was that of Polish Jews in October 1938. On October 21, 1941, some Cologne Jews were deported to Lodz. Later deportations were to Theresienstadt, Lodz, Riga, Lublin, and Auschwitz. Many died or were murdered before the end of the journey. Of special note was the deportation to Minsk on July 20, 1942, of Jewish children and some of their teachers. The last to be deported in 1943 were Jewish communal workers. After that deportation, the only Jews remaining were those in mixed marriages and their children, many of whom were deported in the fall of 1944. Approximately 40–50 Jews survived in hiding.

Contemporary Period

A new community came into being after 1945, consisting of the few survivors, displaced persons, and a trickle of returnees (600 in 1946), and in 1967 numbered 1,321. The Roonstrasse synagogue was rebuilt in 1959. Rabbis active in Cologne in the postwar period were Zvi Asaria and E. Schereschewski. The Monumenta Judaica exhibition, reflecting 2,000 years of Jewish history and culture in the Rhineland, was shown in 1963–64. Besides a youth center the community maintained a Jewish home for the aged. The Jewish community numbered 1,358 in 1989 and 4,650 in 2003.

Archaeological Zone/Jewish Museum (2010)

In a multi-year excavation project that began in 2007, 1,700 years of the history of Jewish Cologne were discovered and studied. Among the mundane yet revealing objects found are tablets from the main synagogue, of children’s scribblings, and outstanding debt recordings from a nearby Jewish bakery. Archaeologists learned a tremendous amount about what Jewish life was like during the Middle Ages and medieval times. They found ancient medallions, clay marbles and ivory dice, animal bones and Hebrew inscriptions, as well as the oldest Yiddish writing on stone. The director of the project said the findings reveal “Cologne [as] the oldest proven Jewish existence in Germany.” The 700-year-old synagogue in downtown Cologne and the adjacent ancient mikveh are scheduled to feature in a museum – “the Archaeological Zone/Jewish Museum” – that the city is building for the general public; it will include the history of Jewish persecution including violent and traumatic pogroms throughout the turbulent Jewish history of the region. The 5,000 members of Cologne’s Jewish community were ambivalent about the project, recognizing that the museum will benefit and is geared toward the general public, not specifically Jewish people. Nonetheless, the 110,000 square-foot endeavor will undoubtedly attract visitors of Jewish heritage sites to Cologne.


Z. Asaria (ed.), Die Juden in Köln (1959); A. Kober, Cologne (1940); S. Braun (ed.), Jahrbuch der Synagogengemeinde Köln (1934); A. Pinthus, in: ZGJD, 2 (1930), 109–10, 127; K. Schilling (ed.), Monumenta Judaica-Handbuch (1963), index, S.V. Köln; A. Carlebach, Adass Yeshurun of Cologne (1964); K. Bauer, Judenrecht in Köln bis zum Jahre 1424 (1964); Germ Jud, 1 (1963), 69–85; 2 (1968), 420–42; PK; B. Friedberg, Toledot ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Augsburg… (1935), 33; A. Marx, Studies in Jewish History and Booklore (1944), 321–3; Roth, Dark Ages, index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Kober, Grundbuch des Kölner Judenviertels (1926); Köln und das rheinische Judentum (1985); S. Doepp, Juedische Jugendbewegung in Koeln (1997); K. Serup-Bilfeldt (ed.), Zwischen Dorn und Davidstern (2001); M. Schmandt, Judei, cives et incole (2002); B. Bopf, "Arisie-rung" in Koeln (2004). Raphael Ahren, "1,700 years of Jewish history come alive in downtown Cologne," Times of Israel (February 5, 2014).

Source: Alexander Carlebach /Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.), Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.