Frankfurt: Rich with history, including Jewish, isn’t just for business

Frankfurt is not cold or boring. On the contrary, there is much to remind you of the Old World long ago, along with much that “explains the success of postwar Germany.”

 RARE Passover Haggadah is displayed in the Museum Judengasse in Frankfurt.  (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
RARE Passover Haggadah is displayed in the Museum Judengasse in Frankfurt.
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
Travelers and tourists: Stop thinking of Frankfurt-am-Main as only a gateway to European travels; or just to do business in this city of finance, or just to attend its world renowned book fair. I discovered and you will, too, that it has a rich culture and history, dining and amusement options. Add to that, the new and just remodeled – reopened in mid-October –The Jewish Museum, one of the finest museums in Europe.
Still, we wouldn’t want to avoid noting the city’s name to fame. Frankfurt is the financial capital of Germany, the economic colossus of Europe. Just gaze at the modern all-glass, high-rise offices and you can see why that is so. Although Frankfurt has about 765,000 residents, this Rhine-Main industrial area takes in nearly 400 banking concerns. 
But then, Frankfurt always has been a center of trade and commerce. Stand on one of the many bridges over the Main River and you can see why trade flourished here. In 2024, Frankfurt will celebrate its 1,500 year anniversary.
But Frankfurt isn’t just about money. It is also the home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I visited his house – now a wonderful museum – where he lived from his birth until the age of 26. His home, Goethehaus,is open to the public at Grosser Hirschgraben 23, in the Innenarstadt district of the city. Decorated with period furniture and paintings, it provides an authentic environment in which Goethe spent his youth.
Frankfurt has become a city of art. No wonder, they call a long avenue in the city, the Museum Mile, or Museum Row or Museum Embankment. I walked that mile road on the Schaumainkai, the tree-lined avenue along the left bank of the Main River, between Friedrichsbrueckestrasse and Eisernerstrasse. Beautiful!
Located on this cultural riverbank row are nine museums that will satisfy any art lover’s curiosity, such as the Museum of Communication, the Museum for Applied Art, as well as the Liebieg Municipal Museum of Sculpture. After visiting a few, I spent a sunny day strolling along the area’s park-like paths around the river. The South Bank river district, known as Sachsenhausen, and situated near the museums, is replete with upscale restaurants, fast food establishments and bars with live music. Try the Apfelwein, the local hard cider, in Germany’s fifth largest city.
I stood in the center of the Romerberg, the city’s medieval town square. Here you can observe the city’s striking contrasts: neo-Gothic houses, historic markets and apartment buildings, and in the distance, modern skyscrapers.
Then there is the famous Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest annual book-based exhibit, both on the number of publishing companies represented and the number of visitors. Not only is the fair significant in its size, but it is considered to be the most important book fair in the world for international deals and trading. The latest one was held in the middle of October.
The Rothschilds and the Ghetto
Speaking of trade, Jews probably already traded in this flourishing city in the twelfth century. We know that a massacre occurred in 1241. And to Jews, Frankfurt means the Rothschilds and the ghetto. 
In 1492, the Jews of Frankfurt were transferred to a specially constructed street, known as the Judengasse, (Jews’ Lane in German). It was a ghetto that was enclosed within walls and gates The Jews possessed their own quarters, but the area could not be enlarged.
The Rothschilds once lived in the ghetto. In the 1560s, Isaac Elchanan, the first Rothschild, obtained a house here that displayed a red sign on the board of a shield: “rot schild,” meaning “red sign.” While those descendants might have moved, the name Rothschild stuck. On February 23, 1743, Mayer Amschel Rothschild was born. He later established a relationship with William of Hanau, who loved coin collecting. Mayer Amschel would offer him coins and William, in return, offered a patronage that eventually blossomed into the Rothschild financial empire.
The Jewish Museum and the Museum Judengasse
Remarkably, the newly renovated Jewish Museum and the Museum Judengasse capture the Jewish history of this city in all its detail, accomplishment, tragedy and the recent rebuilding of a Jewish community in Germany. These two cultural institutions are only about a 15-minute walk apart and should not be missed by the traveler.
The old Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt is known as the Judengasse. The Museum Judengasse is at Battonnstrasse 47. Tel: (49-(0) 69-212-70790. 
This museum had a makeover during 2015 and was reopened in March 2016, with a new design of the whole exhibition, according to Marie-Luise Asbahr, a staff member at the Jewish Museum.
The new Jewish Museum, which reopened mid-October and which is located at Bertha-Pappenheim-Platz; Tel: 49-(0) 69-212-70790, is a wonderful architectural ensemble comprising the renovated classicist Rothschild Palais built in 1821 and the just completed Lichtbau (Building of Light). The new facility features dramatic asymmetric architecture with multiple rhombus-shaped windows and consists of more than 21,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. It is truly defined as displaying Jewish history, art and culture in Frankfurt, from around 1800 to the present day, with a strong focus on the present.”
Both of the Jewish museums’ locations are of tremendous importance to the city’s Jewish history. The permanent exhibitions in Museum Judengasse and the Rothschild Palace underscore Frankfurt’s significance as a center of European Jewish life from the Middle Ages until annihilation during the Holocaust. In May 1939, only about 14,000 Jews were left in Frankfurt, as many had fled from the Nazis. Only 600 Jews from Frankfurt survived the war.
About 7,000 Jews live in Frankfurt today. I visited the Ignatz Bubis Gemeinde Centrum (Community Center). It stands as one of the most impressive Jewish structures built in postwar Germany. Located at Westendstrasse 43, Tel: 49(0)69-76-8036-1000. One actually should enter the other side of the building on Savignystrasse 66. On this impressive site, one sees a menorah set high above the entrance. 
The Westend synagogue is located on Freiherr-vom-Stein-strasse 30, Tel:49(0) -69-7680-360. This is the only Frankfurt synagogue to have survived Kristallnacht and the gray stone building features vaulting stone arches on four sides under a massive cupola, with a Star of David, stained glass windows in blue and white. Prayer services follow the Conservative movement.
No! Frankfurt is not cold or boring. On the contrary, there is much to remind you of the Old World long ago, along with much that “explains the success of postwar Germany.”
The writer is the author of the just published, Klara’s War, A Novel; A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 4th edition, (Pelican Publishing), Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press). Follow him on Twitter:@bengfrank.