Currently in France, but until the 17th century belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, the territory known as Alsace lies in the center of the original heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry and includes some of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities. A buried Jewish treasure found in the Alsatian town of Colmar and dating to the early 14th century is now on display in the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan. Diane Cole writes in her review of the exhibit:
In 1863, workmen at a Colmar confectionary shop situated on a street once called “Rue des Juifs” (Street of the Jews) chipped a hole into a mortared wall, reached inside, and pulled out a terracotta pot filled with a collection of precious jewels, rings, a colorful brooch, decorative buttons and belt buckles, a miniature silver key, coins, and other objects.
A major clue to the original owners’ being Jewish is the most exquisite artifact in the cache: a gold Jewish ceremonial ring topped with a miniature rendition of the lost Temple in Jerusalem. An engraved Hebrew inscription reads mazal tov.
Sleuths should also seek out another object that points to the cache having once belonged to a Jewish family: a tiny silver key [comparable] to a delicate “Tiffany” key, to be worn as . . . a small accessory. . . . Jewish observance prohibits carrying money and valuables beyond the household on the Sabbath, [while] wearing jewelry is allowed. The key would have been used to lock up the box, which would have been kept at home. With important objects thus safeguarded, the wearer of the key could feel comfortable going outside on the Sabbath, whether to synagogue or to visit members of the community.
In the mid-14th century, the Black Death swept through Europe, provoking murderous pogroms and expulsions of Jews. Most likely, writes Cole, the owner of the treasure hid the cache to protect it from plunder, and never returned.