Just two miles apart in Zurich’s northwest, two communities endured World War II with their homes, functional institutions, and numerous Jewish landmarks still standing. Although only a few Jewish residents remain in the Swiss villages of Endingen and Lengnau today, the Doppeltur Society plays a pivotal role in safeguarding Jewish cultural heritage and resurrecting the century-old history of Jewish-Christian harmony in these locales.
The Doppeltur Society is steadfast in its commitment to preserving this invaluable heritage through a blend of exhibitions and educational initiatives aimed at deepening our collective comprehension of this singular Swiss narrative. Their goal is to render this captivating history of coexistence accessible to a wide-ranging audience and stimulate contemplation on contemporary social issues. The rich Jewish and Christian histories of these two towns converge along “The Jewish Heritage Path.”
Between 1776 and the attainment of political equality and independence in 1866, Jews were compelled to establish permanent residence in both villages. These communities, which constituted the majority in Endingen and accounted for one-third of Lengnau’s population, earned the moniker “Jewish villages.” By the close of 1850, they had grown to a population of 1,500 residents and had successfully acquired a cemetery, a testament to their harmonious coexistence with Christians. However, a plethora of laws barred Jews and non-Jews from cohabiting, owning property together, and engaging in various occupations, including agriculture.
The presence of homes featuring two identical doors serves as a poignant testament to the coexistence of Christians and Jews, illustrating the inventive solutions forged by the communities of Endingen and Lengnau. Ms. Seraina Conrad, the project’s head of administration at the Doppeltur Society, shared with NYJTG that Jews and Christians do not typically reside under the same roof. Instead, “the houses were divided from the basement to the rooftop, with one entrance designated for the Jewish family and the other for the Christian family.” The precise historical significance of this architectural arrangement may be open to debate. It remains uncertain whether these double-door houses consistently housed Jewish and Christian occupants or if circumstances varied over time. Nonetheless, it is unequivocal that the double door has evolved into a symbol of cohabitation within a diverse society.
Remarkably, many of the Jewish doors still bear the visible indentation for the mezuzah, a testament to their historical use, and most have undergone maintenance over the years, ensuring their current state of good repair.
Following the passing of the last Jew in Lengnau in 1977, the town experienced a gradual erosion of its Jewish communal identity. Concerns began to surface regarding the guardianship of critical heritage sites such as the synagogue, mikveh, and school. Meanwhile, Endingen, with its remaining three Jewish families, including the Bloch family with ties to the renowned musician Ernest Bloch, found itself in a markedly different situation.
In an open discussion among many liberal Jewish residents of Zurich, there was a proposal for a new liberal neighborhood, but regrettably, this plan was rejected and never came to fruition.
To address these challenges and safeguard their cultural heritage, local organizations and individuals, including the Jewish community of Endingen-Lengnau, initiated “The Jewish Heritage Way” in 2009. This tourist trail was designed to interconnect the Jewish historical sites in these two villages with the broader cantonal and national heritage, offering a meaningful avenue for preserving and celebrating their rich history.
Ms. Conrad elucidated that the residents of Lengnau and Endingen were resolute in their determination not to relinquish this integral facet of their culture and history. The center they established has a multifaceted mission, encompassing four primary objectives:
- Presentation of Unique Jewish-Christian Coexistence: The center seeks to vividly showcase the exceptional history of Jewish-Christian coexistence in the region, providing a platform for the narrative’s preservation and dissemination.
- Raising Awareness of Broader Themes: In addition to its historical focus, the center aims to raise awareness about overarching themes such as tolerance, migration, and multiculturalism, fostering a deeper understanding of these critical issues.
- Serving as a Place of Encounter and Cultural Exploration: It serves as a central hub and launching point for cultural paths, encouraging people to explore and engage with the heritage and history of the area.
- Mediation and Dialogue: Through various events and workshops, the center serves as a dynamic venue for mediation and dialogue, promoting meaningful conversations and exchanges among diverse groups of people.
Roy Oppenheim, one of the co-founders of the project and a current board member, noted that as the Swiss media recognized the growing public interest in this initiative, its coverage expanded to encompass organized groups, religious institutions, political parties, schools, and universities.
Central to the mission of this facility is the promotion of tolerance and respect for all cultures and religions, ensuring accessibility for everyone. Recognizing the importance of educating children about the history of multicultural coexistence, efforts are underway to integrate these themes and historical periods into the secondary school curriculum nationwide. Students between the ages of 12 and 16 will have the opportunity to learn about these vital aspects of their country’s history and heritage.
According to Ms. Conrad, the center’s primary aim is to offer a diverse range of activities presented in both English and German, enabling visitors to delve into the history of these meticulously preserved landmarks. The center also plans to foster tourism by establishing connections with local organizations.
The project has received substantial funding from various sources, including the Canton of Aargau and multiple Jewish and Christian groups, accounting for the majority of the 12 million Swiss francs required for its realization. The timeline for completion is contingent on the approval of the local authorities, but it is anticipated that the project will be finalized by 2025.
The Endingen-Lengnau Jewish Cemetery holds a significant place in history, tracing its origins back to 1640, when Jews first settled in the area. However, they faced land purchase restrictions for over a century, during which time their only option for burials was a small island in the Rhine River, known as the “Jewish Island,” which was prone to flooding.
In 1750, after the island cemetery flooded, the Jewish community acquired land situated between Lengnau and Endingen to establish a new burial ground. This Jewish cemetery, still in active use today, boasts more than 2,900 meticulously preserved graves, each of which is carefully cataloged. Notably, the graves here do not follow the conventional family plot arrangement; instead, there are two separate rows designated for men’s and women’s graves. Interestingly, while Jewish tradition dictates burials with the feet facing east, here they lie to the north, for reasons that remain unclear. The cemetery also features a Holocaust memorial, dedicated in 2014, as a poignant tribute to the countless refugees who were denied entry into Switzerland during the Nazi era and tragically perished.
Regular burials continue to take place at this cemetery every two months, including three Israeli soldiers with Swiss ancestry, as well as individuals from the United States, Canada, and Israel who have chosen this sacred resting place. The cemetery is also the final resting place of notable figures from the region, including the ancestors of composer Ernest Bloch, William Wyler, the director of “Ben Hur,” and Salomon R. Guggenheim, the founder of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Designated as a historical landmark since 1963, the cemetery bears witness to the enduring legacy of the Jewish community in Endingen and Lengnau.
The heritage of Endingen and Lengnau’s Jewish community transcends Swiss borders; it is a crucial strand in the global tapestry of Jewish culture and heritage. The endeavors of the Doppeltur Project serve as a beacon, reigniting the flames of history and pointing the way toward a future characterized by inclusivity and enlightenment. These initiatives remind us that history, with all its intricacies, possesses the extraordinary ability to unite and inspire, transcending the boundaries of time and culture.
For more information:
Fly Swiss at https://www.swiss.com/us/en/homepage.
Visit the Swiss Travel System at https://www.mystsnet.com/en/.
Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com
The author participated in a press trip sponsored by Switzerland Tourism.