Jewish jewels from Black Death plague on display

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A hoard of jewels and coins, probably hidden by Jews fearing reprisals when the Black Death plague sweeping Europe was blamed on them, has gone on display in Britain for the first time.

The collection, including a delicate 14th century wedding ring, intricately decorated cups and dazzling jewels, was unearthed in Erfurt, Germany, in 1998, close to the town’s 11th century synagogue.

Although historians cannot be sure, they suspect that the treasures were concealed in or around 1349 by Jewish families expecting to return and collect them later.

But whether because they were forced to flee, died in the plague or were among around 1,000 people killed in a pogrom in Erfurt in March that year, the items were left undisturbed for 650 years until excavations for a block of flats revealed them.

Some of the most precious pieces from the collection are on display at London’s Wallace Collection alongside items from a second hoard found in France in 1863.

“There is a very poignant edge as these two treasures were almost certainly buried by Jewish families at the time of the Black Death when Jews were used as a scapegoat,” said Stephen Duffy of the Wallace Collection in central London.

Among the highlights is a display case containing the three earliest known examples of Jewish wedding rings inscribed with the words “good fortune” in Hebrew and designed in the form of miniature houses.

Also on show is what the Wallace says is the only surviving medieval toilet set in the world, complete with an ear cleaner and perfume bottle. Only a handful of such hoards have been discovered.

“People in medieval times knew that Jews had hidden their jewels, and so they looked for them,” said exhibition curator Karin Sczech, although she did not rule out more such discoveries being made.

The coins and silverware, from all over central Europe, show that Erfurt was at the center of a thriving regional economy.

Sapphires from Sri Lanka, garnets from India and cotton, probably from Egypt, also point to a more globally mobile world than visitors might expect, Sczech added.

Organizers said the London exhibition, which runs until May 10, could be the last time the rare items were allowed to travel. From the autumn the Erfurt treasures are to go on permanent display in the old Erfurt synagogue.

After 1349 the building was abandoned and converted into a warehouse, before being used as an entertainment space and dance hall from the late 19th century. The Nazis held dances there, unaware it had once been a Jewish place of worship.

To read more about our entertainment news, visit our blog "Fan Fare" online at