The Mikvah – living water for ritual cleaning
The mikwaoths, which have existed in former times in nearly every Jewish community, like in Trendelburg, Hofgeismar, Grebenstein, Meimbressen, Hoof, Zierenberg, Naumburg, Wolfhagen and Volkmarsen, were excellent, but still hardly visible examples of the diversity of Jewish life. Most of these were irretrievablely destroyed by the violence during the NS-period or later by demolition or conversion or they were filled with concrete.
Some years ago a very old mikvah in Trendelburg was uncovered and a memory plate and a spring water basin reminds in Wolfhagen, that there was a former mikvah.
The excellent results of the excavations in Volkmarsen show that we can rediscover and open to the public today unique and forgotten cultural monuments, when we take care with the historical building stock and do appropriate research work.
The rediscovered mikvah in Volkmarsen, a unique find in 2013
Already about thirty years ago I was busy with the mediaval cellars in Volkmarsen. I could prove within the bounds of my many years’ standing researching work on Jewish history, that Jewish families have lived much more earlier in our town than it is described in the specialist literature and in the town-chronicle.
I conclused from it, that there must have been a prayer-room and an mikvah of the Jewish community long time before the well known synagogue with mikvah was built about 1827. I made researches in several archives and found out, that the house in Steinweg 24 with the extraordinary and nice vault-cellar from the beginning of the 13th century belonged to the Jewish family Hüneberg still before 150 years. Little by little I suspected that a meeting place and a mikvah could have been just on this place
A In 2013 I have got the permission from the owner of the house for diging in the cellar and in October 2013 I started working together with the voluntary protector of historical monuments Peter Kirschbaum from Warburg and with Joachim Geritzen.
First we found building rubble, stones and heaped ground under the stoned surface, but then the top of a vault and worked walls of sandstone with two pigeonholes became visible. All of them suggested that we indeed had discovered an old mikvah. After Dr. Buchstab and Dr. Sippel from the state office for protection of historical monuments had a look at the place of diging, the Institut fuer Bauforschung und Dokumentation in Marburg was commissioned to make exacter investigations.
In cooperation with the experts the completely preserved shaft-mikvah could uncovered till three metres deep. In the basin there was clear and running water, like the Jewish rules demand it of old. Parts of wood, which were found in the deeper and into the rock carved part of the mikvah and which belonged to a panelling of the basin, give information about the proable age of the mikvah: Owing to the dendro-chronological investigations it can be assumed, that the oak- and beechwood was felled before or about 1500. The way how the sandstone was worked and the curved portal in the cellar suggest the time before 1500 too. The complete analysis of the fabric shows: already at the end of the 15th century, latest at the beginning of the 16th century there was a mikvah in Volkmarsen used as a place for ritual cleaning by the Jewish community.
So the rediscoverd shaft-mikvah, which was erected in the method of late medieval buildings, is about 500 years old, other comparable mikvahs are not known in Hesse, apart from the mikvah in Friedberg, which is clearly older. It was built in 1260 and 28 metres deep, reachable by many steps.
Excerpt of the 60 pages investigation-report of the Freien Institut für Bauforschung und Dokumentation e.V. in Marburg
Editors: Elmar Altwasser / Mathias Kornitzky
Building historical investigations in Volkmarsen, Steinweg 24,
cellar in the backhouse with a mikvah
… Result of the building phase I of the investigated cellar: „ It seems to be a building from the early phase of the developement of towns. It is most probable that the cellar was built in the 30th or 40th years of the 13th century., … The vaults in the south part of the cellar are carried by a round pillar, which has a three side capital with identical ornaments of semicircled shields. In the northern part an eight square pillar was erected during the building phase II. The cellar is able to be reached by a way with a round curved gate in the north-west corner. This gate is identical with other gates from the second half of the 14th and from the 15th century. Some traces of working suggest the middle of the 15th century. Probably the cellar was converted in the second half of the 15th century.
It might be possible, that the conversion is connected with the destruction by the squads of the count of Hesse in the year 1477.
In the building phase III a mikvah was erected in the south west corner of the cellar. The shaft of the mikvah is covered by a arched vault. The top of the vault lies on the height of the nowadays floor. … The walls content of relatively flat, mostly rectangular stones, which are between 0,11 metres and maximum 0,17 metres high and which were meticulously built.
… There is a built niche-stone three layers of stones higher, a ashlar, 0,35 metres high and 0,28 metres in width, in which a depression is chiseled into, 0,27 metres high and 0,20 metres in width.
… The south-wall of the mikvah goes on to the south-east-corner of the shaft 1,30 metres in length. From the top the wall stretchs down in ten layers of stones to the high of a step, which forms a kind of threshold to the entrance into the mikvah. Under it lies the rock of red sandstone, in which the downer part of the shaft is chiseled. The bottom of the basin lies still 0,70 metres deeper. Above the threshold of the entrance there is another niche chiseled in.
The dendro-chronological investigation of some wood from the basin.
Five objects of the wood, which were rescued in the basin and which could have been rest of the lining of the basin, were choosen for the dendro-chronological dating, for exmple three planks of 16 cm in width with edge profiles, grooves and cones. The result is still astonishing: All the investigated and dated wood were growing in the second half of the 14th century and in the 15th century. The last preserved annual ring of the third investigated wood is dated from 1449. Therefore the earliest year, in which the three was felled, is 1465 + 10 / – 7.
Building phase III – The erection of the mikvah in the early modern times.
The architects decided to build the mikvah into the south-west corner of the cellar. The basin of the mikvah is not so very big, but it fulfils by a volume of 800 – 1000 litres depending of the ground water label the ritual rules of a operative ground water mikvah. Even if that mikvah is small in comparison with other mikvahs, it still seems by the architectural point that it belongs to the high- and late mediecal shaft-mikvahs. It is common to all the monumental mikvahs in the Rhineland, first of all in Worms, Speyer and Cologne, that they have a vaulted shaft above the basin. In Hesse you will not find such a mikvah apart from that one in Volkmarsen. All the older mikvahs, which are dated into the 17th or18th century, don’t have shafts, they are so called cellar-mikvahs.