The commercial and educational hub of Germany

The city of Leipzig, located in Saxony, boasts a rich history of trade, pursuit of knowledge, social protest and regeneration.

The last private residence of famed 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn. (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
The last private residence of famed 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn.
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
Having reviewed the cities of Weimar, the cradle of German enlightenment (December 12), and Dresden, a capital of culture known for its rich artistic treasures (December 26), we now settle on Leipzig, a hub of commercialism and education.
From the end of World War II, these three cities were in the German Democratic Republic, which was under Soviet control behind the Iron Curtain.
For me, the trip to Leipzig also represented a personal odyssey, since my late father studied medicine at the University of Leipzig and I visited the building where he lodged. At the University Archives, I was shown documents pertaining to his stay.
Leipzig, which is in Saxony, is situated at the crossroads of trade routes that were established in the Middle Ages. The first mention of the city was in 1015; in 1497, the emperor Maximilian granted it imperial trade fair privileges. It has always been a center of commerce, and it is home to the oldest trade fair in the world.
By the 15th century, it was also an important religious, cultural and intellectual center. Its university was founded in 1409 and boasts famous luminaries such as Johann von Goethe, Ephraim Lessing, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Teller and Angela Merkel.
Leipzig was the site of the Battle of the Nations, an epic confrontation between Napoleon and an allied coalition two months after the Battle of Dresden. The allied victory ended Napoleon’s presence in Germany and ultimately led to his exile on the island of Elba.
During World War II, Allied bombing left the city heavily damaged. The US Army captured the city in 1945 and turned it over to the Soviets.
Leipzig played a significant role in instigating the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. This began with nonviolent weekly protests in and around its famous St. Nicholas Church, where citizens demanded freedom to travel and the election of a democratic government. The protests rapidly spread to other East German cities, and on October 9, 1989, about 70,000 people gathered at the church with candles in their hands. Despite threats, the demonstration remained peaceful. These events ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and German reunification a year later.
Over the last quarter of a century, Leipzig has undergone massive urban renewal and has transformed itself completely.
In 1989, it was one of the most polluted cities in Europe. After unification, Leipzig languished, and young and old fled to the west. However, that flow has stopped, and the city is now prospering. Among the driving forces of this urban renewal were the Porsche and BMW auto companies, which established factories in the city.
The city council devotes 10 percent of its budget to culture. Tourists flock there, and the population (today over 550,000) is steadily growing.
Jewish presence Traces of Jewish life in Leipzig go back to the mid-13th century. Its trade fairs attracted Jewish merchants from all over Europe. To accommodate them, the market day was moved from Saturday to Friday. Although Jews were expelled in 1540, their right to attend the fairs, which took place three times a year, remained unaltered.
A small Jewish settlement was founded in the city in the early 1700s, but the official Jewish community was established only in 1847. By then, Jews were allowed to settle in Leipzig without any restrictions. In 1925, the community had about 13,000 members, making it the sixth-largest Jewish community in Germany.
On Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, over 500 Jewish men were arrested, and centers of Jewish communal life were destroyed. The 2,500 Jews who remained in 1941 were crowded into 43 “Jew houses” (Judenhäuser) and forced into labor. They were all later deported to the east in nine transports between January 1942 and February 1945. By the end of the war, about 20 Jews were left in the city.
In 1988, there were 36 Jews in Leipzig. The Jewish population began to increase with immigration from the former Soviet Union. Today, under Rabbi Zsolt Balla, Leipzig has one of the most active Jewish communities in central Germany. The Broder Synagogue, which is over 100 years old and was the only one to survive the war, holds daily services. The community numbered 1,280 members in 2012.
Jewish memorial The city’s ornate Moorish Great Synagogue, built in 1855, was destroyed together with the other 17 Leipzig synagogues on Kristallnacht. Today in its place stands a dramatic memorial consisting of 140 empty bronze chairs in several rows.
Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) German artist Gunter Demnig created metallic cobblestones with the purpose of giving a name and identity to the victims of Nazism and commemorating their memory. Each cobblestone is inscribed with an individual’s name, year of birth, and dates of deportation and death (if known). They are commissioned by relatives, friends or neighbors of the deceased.
The Stolpersteine are laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence of the victim and are there for everyone to stumble upon. The project began in 1993, and to date, 45,000 Stolpersteine have been planted in Germany and other European countries.
Tourist sites The historic downtown area of Leipzig features a Renaissance-style ensemble of buildings from the 16th century. There are several baroque-period trading houses and former residences of rich merchants.
Throughout the city center, there are glass-roofed arcades, courtyards and trade fair palaces, some of which have been in existence for over 500 years.
Perhaps the most famous is the Madler passage, which contains Auerbach’s Cellar – one of the oldest pubs in Germany, as it dates back to the Middle Ages. Goethe called it his favorite restaurant and even included it as a venue in a scene from his epic play, Faust.
Old Town Hall This ornate Renaissance style-building with its gables and decorated façade was built in 1556 and is situated in the Market Square. Inside is the old council chamber, considered the most beautiful room in Leipzig. Today, the Old Town Hall houses a museum of the city’s history. The museum displays the council table where Bach signed his contract to become cantor at St. Thomas Church, Bach’s famous portrait by Elias Haussmann, and other treasures.
St. Thomas Church It was in this 800-year-old late Gothic church that Bach worked as a cantor for over 27 years. His statue, erected in 1908, stands near the entrance, and he is buried in the church. It is also the home of the renowned St. Thomas Boys Choir. In front of the church is the monument to composer Felix Mendelssohn.
The Nazis destroyed the original monument in 1936, but it was rebuilt in 2008.
St. Nicholas Church Leipzig’s oldest and biggest church was built in the 12th century. Bach was also responsible for music activities in this church. The weekly Monday prayer meetings that took place there in the 1980s were the starting point of the peaceful demonstrations that ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Battle of the Nations Monument This 300-foot-high monument to the Battle of the Nations is one of the largest monuments in Europe.
Museum of Fine Arts Inaugurated in 2004, this museum has the appearance of a giant glass cube. It houses Flemish, German, Italian and French masterpieces. Prominently displayed in this collection are works by Leipzig-born artists Max Beckmann and Max Klinger.
Leipzig’s musical heritage Few cities have as rich a musical heritage as Leipzig. Over the centuries many famous composers, including Bach, Telemann, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Mahler and Grieg lived and worked in Leipzig. Some 23 sites associated with these composers are linked in the Leipzig Music Trail, which is marked by curved stainless-steel elements embedded in the ground.
The trail also encompasses several museums, including the Bach Museum, which is adjacent to the St. Thomas Church and is an international center for Bach research. The interactive museum presents Bach’s life and work, and displays some of his original manuscripts and scores.
Ironically Bach was not the city council’s first choice for cantor at St. Thomas; he received the position only after several other musicians refused it, Telemann among them.
The Mendelssohn House is that composer’s last private residence and is where he died. It has been preserved in the late 19th-century style.
The living room contains original furniture the composer owned and several of his watercolor paintings, letters and sheets of music. New interactive features include a video library and an Effektorium (conductor’s podium) where visitors can conduct a virtual orchestra.
There is also the Schumann Museum, where Clara and Robert Schumann lived after their marriage. It was here that Schumann composed his “Spring Symphony.” At the Edvard Grieg Memorial, the eponymous composer performed his last compositions.
Finally, Leipzig is the home of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra, which city merchants founded in 1743 and which is one of the oldest in the world. The name “Gewandhaus” comes from its original venue, the hall of the cloth-makers’ guild house. The Gewandhaus is situated on the Augustusplatz. Other buildings around this square include the opera house and university. All the buildings around the Augustusplatz were destroyed during bombing raids in World War II. After the war, they were rebuilt in a Soviet style.
I am indebted to Steffi Gretschel, Tourismus und Marketing GmbH, Leipzig, who facilitated this trip.
I also thank the following people from Leipzig for all their help: tour guide Gitta Perl; Rabbi Zsolt Balla, head of the Jewish community; Cornelia Thierbach, curator of the Mendelssohn House; and Petra Hesse and Sascha Werner of the Universitätsarchiv.
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 as well as other tourist sites can be seen at