The gateway seems to be a portal into a lost world.

The rush of modern life, and even the sounds of traffic, seem to vanish almost immediately after entering Heiliger Sand (Holy Sands), a rare historic site and forested enclave in Worms, Germany, a dynamic city where the past, present, and even future are woven into a rich tapestry.

In the Jewish faith, the cemetery is viewed as a place of eternal and inviolable peace, and, in spite of centuries of cultural upheaval, conflict, and transition, Heiliger Sand has survived as the restful oasis envisioned. Located outside the medieval city wall, the weathered stones are tangible links to the city’s history since at least 1058 A.D.  During the Middle Ages and into the mid 20th century, with the ebb and flow of antisemitism, the cemetery was often a target for vandalism. In 1260 the cemetery, mirroring the growth on the Jewish community that centered on the Judenstrasse district, was extended and enclosed with stone walls. At the beginning of the 17th century, a cleansing house for washing the dead before burial (Bet Tahara) and the inscription of a prayer for the dead (Kaddish) were added at the entrance to the cemetery.


There is a sense of timelessness in Heliger Sand in Worms German photo copyright Jim Hinckley

In about the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish community began recording and documenting the inscriptions in the cemetery that were in danger of becoming lost due to weathering and other influences. Since 2005, the Salomon L. Steinheim-Institute for German-Jewish History at the University of Duisburg-Essen has continued with this task. Today, the cemetery, one of five Jewish cemeteries in Worms, belongs to the Jewish Congregation of Mainz, the successor in law to the former Jewish congregation in Worms, and it is maintained by the city of Worms. From the Late Middle Ages on, the cemetery also served as a burial place for congregations in neighboring communities that did not have a cemetery. The large number of graves of important rabbis and Jewish scholars, benefactors, and martyrs, has made the historic cemetery a pilgrimage site for Jewish people from throughout the world. It is also a destination for visitors with an interest in medieval history as many of the gravestones feature unique designs, inscriptions, and even shapes.

The park like cemetery is located in a triangle formed by the Willy-Brandt-Ring that provides access to the entrance, Andreasstraße and the principle rail line. The oldest section of the property with about 1,150 gravestones is located on low lying ground, with the remainder being built on the remains of the medieval city wall that was demolished in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In the southern part, and the “Valley of Rabbis” there are at least fifty gravestones that date to the 11th and 12th centuries. The total number of gravestones in the Holy Sands cemetery is unknown but around 2,500 have been documented, almost all of which are in their original position. An historic curiosity about the cemetery centers on the positioning of the gravestones. Traditionally these stones are placed with an eastward facing, but the ones in the Holy Sands cemetery face south. An historic reason for this has never been found.

A section of the cemetery that dates from the 18th century until roughly 1911, a period when the Jewish community had established a new burial place on next to the city cemetery. A hall of mourning, which has survived, was built during this period. Inscriptions in German on the gravestones are one manifestation of a culture that was drawing closer to Christian traditions. Up until 1937 there were occasional burials in family graves, but the last burial occurred in 1940. To the right of the entrance is the renovated warden’s house with running water for washing the hands and the cleansing house (Bet Tahara) that dates to about 1625.

For more information about the cemetery, follow this link.

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