Basel dazzles, and for good reason.
This Swiss city’s architecture is charming, its art museums plentiful and cuisine memorable, thanks to it being lovingly crafted from fresh local ingredients. In fact, longtime residents and tour guides Jacqueline Bloch and George L?der recommend you dig deeper than the fondue pot to experience how broad and deep Switzerland’s cuisine really is (the internationally acclaimed and historically relevant Brasserie Les Trois Rois, Schloss Bottmingen and Gasthof zum Goldenen Sternen).
Step outside a centrally-located hotel such as Hotel Basel (www.hotel-basel. ch), and in no time, you’ll be feasting on great historical spots and shopping. The efficient trams, meanwhile, ensure anything not just outside your hotel — such as any of the 35 museums or even France and Germany — is minutes away.
Thanks to Bloch’s keen eye and razor-sharp wit, the city unfolds as a captivating and challenging history lesson. The Geneva native, who has called Basel home for more than 45 years and raised a family there, is also the respected authority on Basel’s Jewish history, and Basel tourism’s go-to person for many Jewish visitors who have passed through the city’s historic gates.
Her humor and delivery are indeed infectious, especially as she recounts how a sign reading “Schmuck und Uhren” (translation: “Jewelry & Watches”) elicited giggles from recent New York visitors. On her detailed tour, she leads her charges through Basel’s winding streets, introducing the sites with a pragmatic grin and a statement. Although Basel served as the cradle for Theodor Herzl’s vision of an Israeli state and Jews were granted full civil rights by the mid-19th century, it has had its share of non-Utopian moments that need to be absorbed to understand the context in which Herzl was building his vision.
Bloch’s first stop on the tour is one of the more modern buildings of the University of Basel. Though the city had come a long way in many respects by 1939, when ground was broken for a new building, an amazing discovery was made: the remains of a burial ground and tombstones meant to be converted to building materials shed light on the area’s Jewish presence that had not been covered heavily in the city’s written records.
In 2002, likewise, with the groundbreaking for another building came the discovery of 60 more tombs. Basel history, as she explains it, is a fascinating commentary on fears, prejudices and ignorance that is as relevant today as it was for Jews from the Middle Ages to the 19th century who struggled for acceptance.
While it was documented that members of the Jewish community helped build and enrich Basel, they were not able to take full advantage of the fruits of their contributions. Much of this is well-documented at our next stop, the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, at Kornhausgasse 8.
Next, at one of the city gates, Bloch directs us to a document dating to the early 1700s that notes a Jewish woman was more valuable than livestock, based on the tolls the city placed on who and what crossed the bridge when curfew was sounded for non-residents.
“Around 1200, the Jewish community was broken up when the plague came to the city,” she says. “Because Jews were more resistant to the virus than other members of the population, they were accused of poisoning the wells and were persecuted, burned at the stake and run out of the city.
“However, as the city was located on the Rhine and people cooked with wood, it was vulnerable to earthquakes and fires. The city government was aware of the fact that Jewish communities still managed to exist outside city walls, and they turned to Jews for loans. Even though Jewish money helped build the oldest bridge standing in Europe and helped repair the city after the 1352 earthquake, they were only allowed into the city to do business.
“As Jews were not allowed into guilds, the one job a Jew could have was moneylender.”
En route to Basel’s main Synagogue at Leimenstrasse 24 (a lovely complex anchored by the main building, mixing Romanesque and Middle Eastern architectural elements, whose many offerings include religious services, a primary school, a kosher restaurant and a JCC), Bloch says pointedly that there is no actual Jewish neighborhood or district in Basel.
Indeed, since Zurich is now home to Switzerland’s largest Jewish community, the Jewish presence in Basel thrives through the landmarks that dot the city and the legacy of Theodor Herzl, who organized the first World Zionist Organization Congress in Basel after a long search to find a locale that would be amenable in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair.
The guide lovingly pulls from her stack of notes a famous photo of Herzl gazing out of the window of his room at the Hotel Les Trois Rois, towards the Rhine and his future vision of a Jewish state. Though anti-Zionist prior to 1894, a converted Herzl believed the creation of a Jewish nation would enable Jews to exist as a people like all other peoples, and with the promise for an end to anti-Semitism.
With the support of the head rabbi of Basel at the time (the only one in Switzerland who supported the concept of a Jewish state), and in collaboration with fellow visionary Nathan Birnbaum, the First Congress in 1897 was a success (in a location which is now the city’s casino).
Herzl predicted his vision would come to life within 50 years.
Today, Basel’s riches are not only enjoyed by members of the Jewish community, but also by a melting pot of multi-national residents and visitors benefiting from thriving chemical and pharmaceutical businesses, in a country said to have the highest standard of living in the world.
As we are lead to the local WIZO to uncover some vintage fashion finds, Bloch explains that while there are many places in Switzerland representing modern upscale living at its best, she loves the fact that even the wealthiest people living in Basel place a higher value on the city’s cultural riches than on fashion.
“Fashion here is more classic and low-key than other Swiss capitals,” she says. “People are cultured and refined, but don’t feel they have to show off. The Jewish community here today is very well organized, and it is nice to see so many of our young people going to Israel and people from America and other countries coming here because of its importance in the Jewish world.”
For information, visit Basel Tourismus, Guided Tours, at: guidedtours@ basel.com, or see: www. basel.com.