This may look like just another collection of old coins, but the Erfurt Treasure is a collective artifact that shows us in tangible form some of the darkest days in the history of the Western world. These coins and piece of jewelry, made of gold, silver, bronze and iron, were hidden under the wall of a cellar entrance in a house in the medieval Jewish quarter of Erfurt, Germany. Most likely they were hidden there on or shortly before March 21, 1349, when the Christian inhabitants of Erfurt massacred the Jews who lived in their town. Other artifacts were hidden too, such as an ancient manuscript copy of the Tosfeta. Six hundred and forty-nine years later, in 1998, demolition work above the old Jewish quarter exposed a few coins. The treasure was found and put on display in a local synagogue.
The 14th century was utterly disastrous for most people who lived on the Earth. The worst outbreak of disease in human history, the Black Death, swept the Eurasian world, killing tens of millions. It was the 14th century equivalent of what a global nuclear war might do today. (The 14th century was pretty bad for people living in the Americas too, but for different reasons). In European towns like Erfurt, religious and cultural tensions between Jews and goyim were often sharpened by the effects of the disaster. Sometimes rumors spread that Jews were responsible for spreading the plague, often through poisoned water. At other times the story was that “cleansing” towns of Jews would invite the favor of God and He would remove the pestilence. Either way, people wanted to kill Jews. We’re not sure how many died in Erfurt. Estimates range from 100 to 3000. Some Jews committed suicide before they could be killed.
Expropriation of the property of Jews almost always accompanies anti-Semitic violence–it certainly did during the Holocaust–and this was what the owners of the coins now known as the Erfurt Treasure were hoping to avoid. By hiding their valuables and fleeing, they hoped the tensions would eventually die down and someday they could return to their communities, where Jews had lived side-by-side with non-Jews for centuries. Jews quickly returned to Erfurt. They were again living there by the late 1350s, continuing their worship in what is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, founded in the 11th century.
Among the coins of the Erfurt Treasure is a magnificent gold wedding ring of Ashkenazi craftsmanship. The German government issued a postage stamp depicting the ring in 2010.