Meandering along the Rhine River, soaking up the rich Jewish heritage

A memorable cruise that nearly wasn’t.

Castle on the scenic stretch of the Rhine from Koblenz to Bingen (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
Castle on the scenic stretch of the Rhine from Koblenz to Bingen
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
Some months ago, we cruised on the River Rhine with a luxury boat belonging to Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. This was an excursion that nearly didn’t happen. Due to excess rainfall and flooding, the Rhine rose, making it impossible for river boats to negotiate the locks and low bridges. Some 200 river boats were entrapped in this mayhem. The discontent and disappointment of the ship’s passengers was largely assuaged by the outstanding cruise manager, Tamas Kocsis, who adroitly pacified the unhappy travelers.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds and to their credit, Uniworld River Cruises did an amazing job in maintaining the schedules.
We visited all the proposed ports on the itinerary, although many were made by luxury buses with overnight stays on the boat and on one occasion in a hotel. It was a real pleasure to return each evening after a long day’s touring to the luxurious well fitted cabin on Uniworld’s SS Antoinette and partake of the sophisticated and elegant cuisine which was of an extraordinary high standard.
The Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has been recognized as one of the world’s best small ship cruise lines in surveys published by both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure. Their cabins and dining are also ranked among the top in the world by Zagat Survey.
The company offers over 500 departures sailing on over a dozen rivers in more than 20 countries. Their luxurious boutique ships have an average capacity of 130 guests with world-class gourmet cuisine, and award-winning, personalized hospitality. The cruise also included shore excursions hosted by local experts.
The Rhine River and its Jewish presence One of the main attractions of this cruise on the Rhine was that it afforded us the opportunity to visit sites of Jewish settlement in Germany, including Cologne, Koblenz, Heidelberg and Speyer.
After Julius Caesar’s victory over the Gallic tribes in the first century BCE, the Rhine formed the major border between Roman Gaul in the West and the Germanic people to the East. There has been a Jewish presence on the Rhine since these Roman times. In the year 321, the Emperor Constantine issued a document that gave the Jews of Cologne permission to hold certain municipal positions that had previously been closed to them. With the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire around the year 400, the Rhine was occupied by Germanic tribes. This became part of Charlemagne’s empire in the ninth century and was eventually incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne permitted Jews freedom with regard to their commercial transactions, although he restricted their political rights.
In the Middle Ages, three cities along the Rhine, Speyer, Mainz and Worms, had very rich Jewish traditions and were amongst the main centers of Jewish Ashkenazi culture. These three cities were collectively called Schum, from the first letter of the cities’ Hebrew names (shin, vav, mem) Jews throughout Germany regarded the Schum as the authority in matters of law and religion. The largest Jewish community was resident in Mainz and the great religious scholar Rashi lived for many years in Worms.
For the Jewish population, there were certainly times of prosperity with a rich cultural and religious life; however, more often than not, they were subjected to harassment and persecution. Their first tragic challenge was the Crusades, the religious and military movement whose aim was to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims.
The First Crusade began in 1096, and on their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders passed through the Rhineland with its well-established Jewish communities. To these Christian warriors, Jews were perceived as much an enemy as Muslims in the faroff Holy Land; moreover they were held responsible for the crucifixion. To finance their crusade, the European knights required money, which was usually supplied by Jewish moneylenders, and murdering them was an easy way for the Crusaders to be relieved of their debts. The bishops of Mainz, Speyer and Worms attempted in vain to protect the Jews of those towns but to no avail, and wholesale massacres of the Jewish population occurred.
The site of the greatest violence was in Mainz. Similar killings of the local Jewish population occurred during the subsequent Crusades.
Their next major challenge was the outbreak of the Black Death or bubonic plague, the pandemic that raged through Europe between 1348 and 1350 and killed up to two-thirds of the population. Jews were held responsible for this outbreak and suffered severe persecution. In August 1349, an enraged mob entered the Jewish quarter in Mainz and the Jews were slaughtered en masse.
By the 15th century, because of persecutions, as well as the difficult restrictions placed on them, most Jews either left or were expelled from the Rhineland.
Some did occasionally venture back, but they achieved civic rights only in the early 19th century with the advent of Napoleon, who did away with the Holy Roman Empire. Even then, their situation was often tenuous at best and their civil rights were frequently revoked.
Jewish communities gradually increased in number, but the curtain finally fell with the advent of the Nazis in 1933. The synagogues were demolished on Kristallnacht in November 1938. By 1945, almost all Jews had been deported to concentration camps where they were annihilated. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Jewish population in Germany has increased due to an influx of Russian Jews following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
A chronicle of Cologne Our first stop on the cruise was the city of Cologne.
This is the fourth-largest city in Germany and its Jewish community is the oldest north of the Alps. Ongoing excavations in the heart of modern-day Cologne adjacent to the historical Rathaus (city hall) have yielded impressive physical evidence of an ancient Jewish community, including a synagogue and mikve (ritual bath). There are plans to ultimately turn this into a large archeological park, although this issue is beset by controversy and there is significant local opposition in view of its prime real-estate location. It was here on the night of St. Bartholomew in 1349 during the Black Death that the Jewish quarter was attacked and its hapless inhabitants were murdered and their property plundered.
Cologne’s most famous landmark, its magnificent Gothic cathedral, is one of the largest and most impressive in the world. It was begun in 1248 and is believed to house relics of the Magi, the three kings who paid homage to Jesus on his birth. For this reason, Cologne became a site of pilgrimage second only to Rome.
In addition to holding these holy reliquaries, the Judenprivileg (“Jews’ privilege”) is prominently displayed adjacent to the choir. This stone plate was commissioned by the archbishop of Cologne Engelbert II von Falkenburg in 1266 following riots against the city’s Jews. This plaque publicly documented the rights of the Jewish population. These included their ability to freely bury their dead, and granted them a monopoly in the money-lending business. The archbishop was keen to protect the Jews, since taxes paid by them constituted an important source of income for the city. The Judenprivileg was also used to control and discriminate against the Jews, who had to live in separate quarters shut off from the rest of the city.
Remembering the Jewish communities in Koblenz and Heidelberg From Cologne, the cruise continued its passage to the city of Koblenz, strategically situated at the point where the River Moselle joins the Rhine. We took a ride on an aerial tram cable car across the Rhine to the Ehrenbreitstein fortress for dazzling views overlooking the confluence of these two rivers.
The presence of a Jewish community in Koblenz in 1172 was mentioned by the famous Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela. Much of the city was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and virtually no remnants of the ancient Jewish community survived.
In 1948 the prayer hall at the entrance of the ancient Jewish cemetery was converted into the present-day synagogue. A community center with a communal hall was subsequently built adjacent to the synagogue.
Prayer services are held on Shabbat and there is a Friday night dinner. Various social clubs have been established and Jewish studies are given to the youth on Sundays. The current Jewish population of the city and surroundings is just under 1,000.
From Koblenz, we made a quick bus trip to the city of Heidelberg. Jews were present in Heidelberg by 1275, but the community was decimated during the Black Death. Soon thereafter, in return for a considerable payment, Rupert I admitted Jewish refugees from Worms and Speyer, despite great local opposition; his successor, however, expelled them.
At the site where the original synagogue was burnt on Kristallnacht in 1938, a memorial (Synagogenplatz) has been established, which follows the layout of the synagogue originally built in 1877. Twelve stone cubes show the location of the pews and stand for the twelve tribes of Israel. Heidelberg is the site of the Central Archives for Research on the History of the Jews in Germany, which was founded in 1987.
The legends of Bingen and Speyer We rejoined the cruise for a trip down the most memorable part of the Rhine, the 64-kilometer stretch from Koblenz to Bingen. At this point, the river forms a deep gorge surrounded on both sides by terraced vineyards and castle-lined cliffs, which appear around every bend. These castles were built by feudal overlords to protect their properties from marauders. This part of the Rhine, steeped in folklore and history, is the source of many German legends.
Perhaps the most famous is the Lorelei, which relates the story of the nymph who lived in the rock high above the Rhine who lured fishermen to their destruction with her singing.
Our final stop was Speyer, a delightful bustling river port and medieval town dominated by the six soaring spires of the Romanesque cathedral, the largest in Europe. Speyer was one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire. Its cathedral was the burial place of the German emperors for almost 300 years. It was in this cathedral that the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux preached a rousing sermon on the necessity of the Second Crusade, which resulted in further slaughter of the Jewish population of the Rhineland.
In 1084 the Bishop of Speyer invited prosperous Jewish merchants to settle in Speyer and placed them under his protection. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, scholars came from far and wide to study, and Speyer was the site of a vibrant Jewish community.
The remains of the synagogue and the mikve are found in the Judenhof (Jews’ Courtyard), a stone’s throw from the cathedral. The ruin of the synagogue is one of the most ancient Jewish places of worship from the Middle Ages still standing; the mikve is the oldest of its kind north of the Alps. Both were built on a Romanesque plan by the same craftsmen who built the cathedral. The synagogue was dedicated in 1104, but was destroyed by arson in 1195. It was then rebuilt in a Gothic style, and for more than 400 years it was the focal point of Jewish community life. It included a separate women’s prayer hall. Most of the synagogue was destroyed in 1689 when the city of Speyer was invaded and occupied by the French and the synagogue and mikve were used to store arms.
Today, only the east wall of the building remains. A recess is still visible in this wall where the Ark housing the Torah scrolls was located. The two double-arched windows in the reconstructed western wall are copies of the originals, which are now housed in the adjacent Jewish museum.
The mikve was built around 1120. It is adjacent to the synagogue and is 10 meters below street level. To this day, it collects ground and rain water. It has remained almost completely unaltered through the centuries.
The structure is entered by descending a set of stone stairs. The antechamber is adorned with architectural elements such as pillars and windows, reflecting the Romanesque style of the cathedral. To the right and left, niches with benches have been incorporated in the wall. There is a small changing room and a semicircular flight of steps leads to the immersion pool.
The museum that is attached to the complex houses the most important mementos of the life of Jews in Speyer, including floor tiles, vessels and coins as well as gravestones of the medieval Jewish cemetery, which no longer exists.
Around 1500, the history of the medieval community of Speyer came to an end and Jews returned only at the beginning of the 19th century. During the Nazi period, all Jews were deported and met their death. Until the 1990s, there was no Jewish community in Speyer.
In 2011, a new synagogue, Beth El, and Jewish community center were established. 
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field.
Other images from this and other tourist sites can be seen at He may be contacted at Thanks to Arnelle Kendall, vice president of public relations, The Travel Corporation, USA; and Scott Muller, director of guest relations at Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, who facilitated this cruise.