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Dispatches From Louisville’s German Sister City, Mainz

Louisvillians, meet your German sister city, Mainz

Mainz is an old city. 

“If you look up there... up that hill, a long time ago, 2,000 years ago, that's where our city started because up there was a Roman military camp,” tour guide Lothar Schilling said, pointing his finger uphill from a square called Schillerplatz

No longer a Roman conquest, nor a French one, today Mainz is the capital of the western German state Rhineland-Palatinate.

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Louisvillians, meet your German sister city, Mainz

Much of the city was destroyed during World War II. But some buildings, like in the Altstadt, or old city, date back centuries, including the Mainz Cathedral. The iconic part of Mainz’s skyline was the venue for the coronation of multiple kings, but had to be rebuilt several times, including prior to its consecration, due to fires, Schilling explained. 

The square below its dome has a market several days a week, packed with vendors selling local wine, cheese, meats and produce. 

Mainz is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable-type printing press. Schilling said the city celebrates this quite extensively: there’s a Gutenberg Museum, multiple monuments dedicated to him, a Gutenberg square and street. 

“The university is named after him,” Schilling continued. “We have the Gutenberg marathon. There even used to be Gutenberg cake and Gutenberg ice cream.”

At the museum, you can see the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest major book printed using his invention. You can also watch house printer Thomas Ruh give a demonstration of how the letterpress of Gutenberg’s time worked. 

“For me, it's a big honor that I can stay here in the museum to show people how was the printing [sic] in the past… we have new machines, new papers, new colors, and now the mass press and mass production of books. And everything is based on Gutenberg’s invention,” Ruh said.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Mainz every year to see Marc Chagall's nine stained-glass windows at St. Stephan's Church.

Another Mainz claim to fame is Schott Music Group.

One of the oldest music publishing houses in the world, it’s tucked into a quiet cobblestone street lined with homes built in the 18th century, a part of the city that survived wartime bombings. 

Schott Music Group is responsible for printing some major compositions

One of its biggest gets: Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”


Something else you should know about Mainz is that Carnival is a big deal here

A tradition going back to medieval, even Roman, times, the modern-day Carnival starts Nov. 11 each year and culminates in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday with parades, parties and general tomfoolery — a way to live large before Lent. 

Though in-person Carnival celebrations had to be canceled this year due to the coronavirus

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Lothar Schilling and Franz-Josef Wertmann sing a popular Carnival song

In a changing world, what is the relevance of sister city relationships?

The history of the Mainz-Louisville Friendship Circle is, of course, not nearly as ancient as the city itself. 

The club formed in 1992, according to its website, and the cities of Mainz and Louisville entered into an official partnership two years later. 

Unofficially, the relationship started in the ‘70s when a University of Louisville German professor named Marta Edie reached out to the university in Mainz seeking exchange opportunities for her students. 

Over the years, the Mainz-Louisville sister city relationship has primarily consisted of student exchanges, plus some artistic exchanges, such as when youth choirs from each city traveled to their sister city counterpart for performances. 

However, there’s been little to no interaction with Louisville in recent years, Friendship Circle president Franz-Josef Wertmann said.

“There are so few people in Louisville that seem to be interested in this partnership,” he said, adding that it’s also been a challenge to recruit new and younger members to the Friendship Circle in Mainz. 

He also wonders if there’s waning interest from Louisville students in learning the German language.

In the late ‘90s, UofL suspended both its German major and minor programs, bringing it back as a minor in 2010, Janet Cappiello, with UofL Communications and Marketing, said in an email. 

She said she wasn’t able to pin down the specifics of why German has come and gone and come again at the school, “but decisions about suspending and restarting programs are based on interest and enrollment.”

At the high school level, Jefferson County Public Schools German offerings have remained consistent over the past 15 to 20 years, spokesperson Renee Murphy said, with about four to five schools in the district offering German classes each year.

Xiao Yin Zhao wants to re-engage all of Louisville’s sister cities. 

Zhao is the executive director of the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana (WAC), which took over management of the Sister Cities of Louisville program a little more than a year ago

The sister cities concept came about during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s time to encourage people to get past their differences.

“Nowadays it is very different,” Zhao said. “It kind of seems a bit quaint because it's a global world… So the idea of a sister city kind of loses a little bit of its meaning.” 

But Zhao believes it doesn’t have to lose that meaning. She hopes to modernize and expand the program, strengthening relationships with Louisville’s nine sister cities: Adapazari, Turkey; Jiujiang, China; Perm, Russia; Mainz, Germany; Quito, Ecuador; La Plata, Argentina; Leeds, England; Tamale, Ghana; and the city’s first established sister city, Montpellier, France.

“One of the things that we lack here in Louisville is how many people know of our sister cities. What a sister city means, right? How can I take advantage of this relationship?” Zhao said. 

WAC started a newsletter to reopen lines of communication with all of these cities, and “highlights all of the things that's happening in different sister cities."

An issue from early August let Louisvillians know that the region around Mainz was greatly impacted by terrible flooding in western Germany

"Houses were torn away or destroyed, as well as bridges, roads, electricity, telephone cables etc.,” Wertmann wrote in the newsletter. 

WAC is working with Louisville Metro to re-energize the sister cities program. 

Sabeen Nasim, director of the city’s Office for Globalization, said the process started by connecting with these international partners virtually.  

“What exchanges can we do from an educational standpoint, from an economical standpoint, what learning and knowledge sharing can actually happen?” she said.

More specifically, Nasim would like to see more professional exchanges for adults, increased economic impact from these relationships, and more opportunities for collaborations to tackle pressing issues.

“Because not everybody can go to Mainz, right?” she said. “But we can capitalize on this virtual world that we have.”

Zhao thinks, in bolstering the program, they’ll need to address equity. 

“There's the cost factor, there's the sense of international exchanges being not accessible to all,” she said. “It's something we constantly think about; how do we make international exchange more accessible to anyone at any level because it can be so life changing.”

Mainz-Louisville Friendship Circle’s Franz-Josef Wertmann has been excited to reconnect with people in Kentucky, and said the conversations, thus far, have been good.

“The people who are in our club in the Friendship Circle, of course, are all convinced of how important it is to have stable connections to people from other countries.”

Dispatch 2: Medieval Jewish sites, SchUM, get UNESCO recognition

UNESCO has awarded a World Heritage designation to a cluster of sites in Germany due to their historical significance to European Jewish culture in the Middle Ages. 

Collectively, these ancient sites are known as SchUM, an acronym: formed from the first letter of the Hebrew names for the three west-central German towns this Jewish community inhabited in the Middle Ages.

“Schpira, Warmaisa, Magenza, and today it’s Speyer, Worms and Mainz,” Elke Höllein explained. 

Höllein is director of public relations for the city of Mainz, and helped coordinate, on the Mainz side, the years-long application process to earn this World Heritage recognition. 

UNESCO, the United Nations’ education, scientific and cultural arm, gives these awards to places with major historical or cultural importance. SchUM received its designation in July

This is the first UNESCO site granted to Jewish heritage in Germany, the agency confirmed. It gives critical preservation status to sites like the remains of a synagogue and a centuries-old ritual bath. 

“It's a heritage of not only the Jewish communities, but our communities,” Höllein said. “And it's a place of remembrance.”

War and fires destroyed the medieval Jewish quarter that once was in Mainz, according to the SchUM official site

And that hits on a larger issue when it comes to historical Jewish sites throughout the country.

Andreas Lehnardt, who is a professor of Jewish studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle that tourists are often dismayed when they come to the area searching for tangible artifacts from past Jewish communities and don’t find much. 

“That is simply a reflection of Jewish history in Germany,” Lehnardt said. 

What remains of SchUM in Mainz is the Old Jewish Cemetery that dates back to the 11th century.

“The German name is ‘Auf der Judensand,’” Höllein explained. “This means, ‘on the Jewish sand.’ And they are really sand dunes.”

That makes conservation tricky. 

The burial site has about 1,800 tombstones. Some of those are sinking.

“In parts of the cemetery, we also have stones 5, 6, 7 meters down in the earth, but you are not allowed, for Halacha rules, to dig into the ground and [pull] them out,” Höllein said. 

Halacha is the set of laws guiding Jewish practices and daily life. It forbids disturbing the dead, which means digging for sunken stones is impossible.

“So they will stay there forever.” 

For the headstones still above ground, many have lengthy Hebrew inscriptions. 

“They tell you about the people that lived in these times, and they are speaking to us… you learn a lot about the societies,” Höllein said. 

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Medieval Jewish sites, SchUM, get UNESCO recognition

The UNESCO press release said the sites “tangibly reflect the early emergence of distinctive Ashkenaz customs and the development and settlement pattern of the ShUM communities, particularly between the 11th and the 14th centuries.”

Rabbi Aharon Ran Vernikovsky, the former community rabbi at the Jüdische Gemeinde Mainz synagogue, said, in a video, these markers of Jewish history and heritage from the Middle Ages are not found “in this concentration, this form” anywhere else. 

“The religious significance of the SchUM cities lies in the fact that the most important Jewish scholars lived and worked in these SchUM cities in the Middle Ages and carried out religious acts, decrees and regulations that are still valid in Judaism today,” he said, in German, in the video.

Elke Höllein, with the city of Mainz, said that’s why this effort has been so vital.

“We also have this immaterial heritage that is as important as the built heritage,” she said.

Presently, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Mainz is open only for guided tours due to safety concerns as the city works to secure many of the old tombstones, Höllein said. She hopes to open it to the general public by 2023.

Dispatch 3: Mainz, the ‘wine capital of Germany’

Andreas Wagner has been preparing for the harvest. 

“The picking of the grapes will start at the end of September,” he said. 

Wagner, along with his two brothers, runs Wagner Winery in Essenheim, a little more than six miles southwest of Mainz in western Germany. His family has been at this for generations, harvesting this land for about 300 years. 

It can be a precarious business.

“Because growing wine, together with nature, there is a lot of risk,” he said. 

Late-spring frosts or extreme heat can ruin their crops, and consecutive years of “very, very dry and sunny” weather yielded smaller grapes and a 25% hit to their revenue last year, Wagner said. 

But he expects a good harvest this time around. 

After a few, hopefully warm and sunny weeks, they’ll start to pick the pinot grapes. 

“Then the merlots, sauvignon blanc and riesling, this is our last white grape,” he said. “Then we have cabernet sauvignon and to shiraz. Normally the time is about four to six weeks, from the first day to the last day.”

Wine grapes have been grown in this area west of the Rhine River since Roman times. And nowadays, wine-making is a decent business here. 

According to the German Wine Institute, it’s geographically the largest wine region in the country, turning out about a fifth of Germany’s 10 million hectoliters annual domestic wine yield — a hectoliter is roughly 26.5 U.S. liquid gallons. I’ll let you do that math. A spokesperson with the wine academy, or DWI, said Germans drink about 20 million hectoliters annually.

So why is the Rheinhessen, the larger area that encompasses Essenheim, so fruitful?

It’s a sunny region with mild climate and soils that are good at soaking up water, then giving that water to the vines slowly; a key thing during dry periods. 

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Mainz, the ‘wine capital of Germany’

Wagner said, on their land, they have three different kinds of soil. 

“That makes it very interesting because we have riesling, for example, on all three soils,” he said. “You can see under your feet, how soil changes, and you can taste that the riesling tastes different.”

By the way, Wagner’s wines, even his rieslings, are not very sweet. 

There are still dessert wines. But Wagner said sweet wines are largely a trend that went out of fashion for Germans decades ago.

The perception that all Germans wines are syrupy still persists outside of the country. Part of that is a marketing problem, Frank Schulz, director of communications at the German Wine Institute, said. 

“Problem with the misconception is that it is difficult to refute,” he wrote in an email. 

He thinks one way to debunk this is to get more German fine wines on the shelves of everyday grocery stores, and not just in specialty shops. But it will take time to help people see the diversity of German wines, he said. 

Given its proximity to all of this wine country, Mainz is often referred to as the “wine capital of Germany.” 

Elke Höllein is director of public relations for the city of Mainz. She  manages the region's participation in a global network called the Great Wine Capitals — other members include Bordeaux, France and Napa Valley, California. 

“You stumble here into the vineyards, if you just go outside of the city borders, you are surrounded by wine,” she said.

Residents of Mainz don’t take this for granted. 

In the evenings, particularly in pre-COVID times, you’ll find a number of them enjoying a Weinstube, or wine tavern. 

Tour guide Lothar Schilling said these taverns might have “a short [food] menu.” The wine is the star at these establishments.  

He has a theory about how you can distinguish the best wine taverns from the rest.

“They have a mark in the glass pointing out 0.2 liters,” he explained. “A good wine pub will always be above that mark when giving you the wine.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified a member of the Friendship Circle in a photo caption.