A safe haven for French Jewish communities throughout centuries of persecution, Provence remains strongly marked by its Jewish heritage. From Marseille to the Comtat Venaissin, architectural and cultural benchmarks tell the story of a rich and tumultuous bygone age.
An historic refuge
One of the largest hubs of the Jewish community
Push open the doors to the Grand Temple in Rue Breteuil in Marseille – the city’s oldest place of Hebrew worship. Opened in 1864, this Roman-Byzantine style synagogue was designed by architect Nathan Salomon and is considered as one of the finest religious constructions of the Second Empire. Next, take a moment to visit the Deportation Memorial at the foot of Fort Saint-Jean. Since its inauguration in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, it has been attached to Marseille’s History Museum and pays tribute to the city’s role as an unoccupied refuge zone. Next stop is Trets, also a major Provencal refuge for Jewish communities. Go up Rue Paul-Bert to the old Jewish quarter or carriera judaica, home to a mysterious medieval facade apparently belonging to an ancient synagogue.
A past etched into our memories
The Camp des Milles memorial site in Aix-en-Provence commemorates the tragic history of France’s Jewish communities. During WWII, the site was used as a detention camp prior to deportation to the Auschwitz extermination camps. Many artists and intellectuals alike were imprisoned at the Camp des Milles, including Otto Meyerhof, Nobel Prize in Medicine, and the pianist-composer Erich Itor Kahn. The camp is now dedicated to remembrance and educating current generations, and hosts various workshops and specialist-interest tours open to all: a very moving experience allowing visitors to retrace the past and encouraging them to build a better future together. Continue your exploration of the Jewish heritage of Aix-en-Provence around 10 km down the road at the Centre Darius Milhaud, where you can take part in a tour, view documentaries and attend reading workshops to measure the scale of this extraordinary legacy.
Traces of Jewish heritage
Reconstructing history in our streets and museums
We’re off to Tarascon. In Rue du Château heading towards Rue des Halles, you’ll find many traces of Jewish presence during the Middle Ages – pay particular attention to the now-restored grey house facades. At the exit from the town, stop off near Chapelle Saint-Gabriel to visit the tombstone written in Hebrew, dating back to 1196. Next stop is Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: the Jewish cemetery built in the early 15th century still harbours around sixty graves testifying to the former presence of a Jewish community. While you’re visiting Arles, go to Rue Dr Fanton located in the town’s medieval Jewish quarter, before pursuing your deep dive at the commemorative Museon Arlaten and Musée Départemental de l’Arles Antique, where you’ll find carved tombstones representing Abraham.
In the days of the Comtat Venaissin
A safe enclave in Vaucluse governed by the Pope
France’s oldest working synagogue is located in Carpentras. Erected in 1367, it is now a listed monument. Take to the heights as you ascend its majestic staircase leading to the sanctuary where the Rabbi’s chair has pride of place… This temple of Jewish culture unveils many ancient customs, such as the Mikveh ritual purity bath. Just a short hop down the road, the synagogue of Avignon – also a listed monument – was rebuilt after a fire in 1846. Pause a while to admire its magnificent rotunda supported by white columns, reminiscent of a Greek temple (guided tours are not available as it is still a place of worship). In Cavaillon, the old synagogue has now been converted into the Musée Juif Comtadin, a hub of local art. This unique architectural feat offers a variety of guided tours. Today, the only remnant of its medieval oirigins is a single turret – the two superimposed volumes date back to its reconstruction between 1772 and 1774. Wind up your plunge into Jewish history with Pernes-les-Fontaines, the ancient capital of the Comtat Venaissin, where the Mikveh tradition is still perpetuated today on the famous Place de la Juiverie.