Mikvah in

Between the present and the past, immersion in forgotten places


Cherubs and birds of paradise. Picture frames with beautiful curves. Gilded embellishments. Mirrors in all shapes and sizes. Chandeliers, vases, decorative columns. Meticulously folded towels on white and gold holders. Old-fashioned-looking drying hoods over the washbasins. The centre of the room dominated by a massive antique cash register. Among white and gold finery are roller stools, taps, and hair care products.

Wood-panelled room with mirror, sconce, and two drying hoods from the last century. Picture
Drying hoods over the washbasins.
In the upper half, the hairdressing salon; below, a lighted room; in between, the open floor; visible cross-section of the floor and the stone ceiling.
Above: hairdressing salon;
below: cellar anteroom leading to the mikvah.

Looking down the narrow street, scissors snip and hair ends fall away.

Through a door to the back, up a few steps. The busy sounds fade away. Here, too, mirrors, washbasins and towels. Baroque style. But among them – an alcove. A white cabinet. No frills. In the middle, a nine-branched chandelier. The building at Neustrasse 5 had been the property of the Jewish business family Löwenstein since the beginning of the 19th century. This room, a place of gathering and prayer for the Jewish community of Gemen and the surrounding area. In this alcove stood the Torah shrine, explains Berno Rohring.

In the late 1960s, Berno Rohring initially leased only the room on the ground floor, the master barber setting up his baroque salon here. Then, 15 years ago, he bought the listed building, which had been rebuilt after the town fire of Gemen around 1870. Little by little, he renovated the other rooms, discovering something in the process that had survived the town fire. In the cellar, filled up with rubble and forgotten.

Cabinet in the wall with Hanukkah; above it, a flower and a clock.
Cabinet in the hairdressing salon with a Hanukkah chandelier.

x_locations can often not be seen at first glance, but with a few clues become visible and explainable in dialogue between science and everyday life.

On the wall, a neatly cut rectangular hole in the wooden floor. A little more than shoulder width. The wooden stairs down are steep. We make our way down backwards. Several hundred years in a metre and a half. The whitewashed cellar vault is low. We have to duck our heads, stand bent over. The floor is made of dark square stones. It is cool here; the walls are damp. To the left, a narrow passage.

In the second room, flickering candlelight. This is where the mikvah was discovered 15 years ago. The ritual immersion bath is not much bigger than the hole in the floor that we just climbed through. I settle down on the low gallery by the doorway. I wonder if there were towels and clothes lying here, or helping hands waiting. The rectangular brick shaft lies directly at my feet. I can’t make out its floor. A person could have immersed herself completely here. The groundwater is still high today. The river Aa in Bocholt is dammed just around the corner of the house.

Wooden staircase and open floor.
Descent to the mikvah.
Limed stone vault with shoulder-height dark wooden staircase. The tiled floor is partly red, partly light, partly dark.
Anteroom mikvah with wooden steps.
Limed vault with cables on the ceiling, dark floor ,and rectangular inlet on right edge.

Water is essential for ritual purification.

A mikvah must be fed by “living water”, Wilhelm Bauhus explains to me. Collected rainwater, spring water or groundwater. For spiritual purification. No water from outside; and not warm water, not even in winter. We speak more quietly here than upstairs in the hairdressing salon. The one small window is closed, facing west. Out to Kleiner Hook. To the evening star? Candles flicker in a second gallery behind the mikvah. The surface of the water lies still in the dark. No reflections.

Today, master barber Berno Rohring and his daughter Pia, owner of the baroque hairdressing salon Rohring, are opening the doors for us to the history of the house in Gemen – for me and the Expedition Münsterland team led by Dr. Wilhelm Bauhus, head of the Innovation Office at the University of Münster.

Expedition Münsterland has been bringing university and region into conversation since 2010. As part of the sub-project x_locations, science and everyday life are brought together at largely forgotten places in Münsterland. Their stories are explored from a scientific, artistic and cultural point of view, and placed in the memory of the general public once again, with academics, students, local institutions, and interested members of the public working together in the spirit of Citizen Science. People’s local experiences allow for traces of Jewish life in Münsterland to be worked through. Besides the mikvah in Gemen, the project includes the Jewish cemeteries in Münster and Darfeld, the kibbutz in Westerbeck, and the former synagogue in Ascheberg.

Wall of the vault with electric light.
Vaults in the mikvah cellar.

Text: Claudia Ehlert
Bild 1–8: Andreas Wessendorf, Universität Münster, AFO