Cologne museum to show long Jewish ties to the city

A new Cologne museum will show how Jewish life in the city goes back more than 1,700 years and, civic leaders hope, help revive it decades after the Holocaust.

An archaeological site from Roman times will be at the heart of the museum which the organisers also want to illustrate modern Jewish life and customs.

The strongly Catholic city, best known for its Gothic cathedral, claims to have the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps, dating back to at least 321, during Emperor Constantine's reign.

"This project is extremely important to show that Jews have been in Germany for as long as Christians - people in this country should be made more aware of that," Wilfried Rogasch, head of the project, told Reuters.

Late on Friday, a jury chose German architects Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch to design the museum due to open in 2010 or soon thereafter. It is being financed partly by a private foundation and partly by the city.

The same architects designed an award-winning synagogue in Dresden which opened in 2001 and a Jewish centre in Munich.

"The concept is for an integrated project which will bind together the archaeological remains and the museum which will bring us to the modern day," Rogasch said.

The remains include a synagogue and a "mikwe", or Jewish ritual bath house, and the museum will be suspended over the site, said Rogasch.


Cologne's 5,000-strong Jewish community backs the initiative but says it wants the museum to have relevance to their lives by including a meeting area or a place of worship.

"We welcome the project and want people to learn about history but we also want something today's Jewish community can actively engage in," Abraham Lehrer, a board member of Cologne's Community of Synagogues, told Reuters.

Germany's Jewish community has more than tripled in the last 15 years, mainly due to immigrants from the former Soviet Union who account for most of the country's 105,000 registered Jews. A similar number of non-practising Jews live in Germany.

Jewish schools, theatres and shops have sprung up but Lehrer said the population's dynamic growth of recent years is slowing.

With neo-Nazi crime on the rise, police guard synagogues round the clock and the community is haunted by the memory of the Holocaust in which Nazis killed about 6 million Jews.

Only 12,000 Jews were left in Germany after World War Two from some 600,000 before.

Medieval Cologne's strategic location on the river Rhine at the crossing of trade routes brought it prosperity. Its Jewish community thrived until pogroms and explusions in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Although not on the scale of Berlin's Jewish museum which opened to great fanfare in 2001, locals say the historical connection will give Cologne's museum special appeal.

"It is a unique opportunity we have because of the history and I think the project will become a landmark in Germany and even Europe," Mayor Fritz Schramma told Reuters.