October 2001, Architecture

Germany’s New Synagogues

The Jewish population of Germany has tripled since the fall of the Wall. In what style should they build?

“The history of the German Jews has come to an end,” Hannah Arendt wrote without equivocation soon after the Holocaust. That calamity also seemed to close the book on an illustrious tradition of German Jewish religious architecture. But against all odds, the past decade has witnessed a tripling of the number of Jews in Germany, accompanied by the opening, construction or planning of a dozen new synagogues. Now, the central question that vexed 19th century German architects — ‘-In which style should we build?’- — is being posed with renewed urgency by synagogue designers in Germany. “It’s something no one expected,” says Deirdre Berger, who represents the American Jewish Committee in Berlin. Indeed in 1948, the World Jewish Congress issued an appeal to Jews all over the world to “never again settle on the blood-drenched soil of Germany.”

Prior to World War II, the German Jewish community was over 500,000 strong; the overwhelming majority were subsequently murdered or driven into exile. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, only 30,000 Jews lived in West and East Germany. Most were East European Holocaust survivors who emerged from displaced persons camps and somehow stayed in the country. Many professed to be “sitting on packed suitcases” and were so ashamed to have lingered on German territory that when they traveled abroad they often told fellow Jews that they lived in Switzerland.

Now an influx of Jews from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe has pushed up Germany’s Jewish population to over 90,000, transforming both the community’s size and identity. These new arrivals entered through an exception in Germany’s otherwise tight immigration laws that was created as part of continued German efforts to make recompense for Nazi crimes. Most are nonobservant and uneducated in Jewish practice and thought. But existing communities, dominated by Orthodox leadership, want to integrate the immigrants and build for the future. “On the one hand we know what happened here in Germany 50 or 60 years ago,” said Rabbi Shneur Trebnik, who leads a small community in Ulm. “On the other hand, today I hope things are changing.”

Meanwhile, younger German-born Jews desire greater religious pluralism and seek to revive the Reform Jewish movement founded in Germany in the early 19th century. A Reform rabbinical school was inaugurated in Potsdam last November, the first Jewish seminary to open in Germany since the Holocaust. At present, the country’s 88 communities are served by 27 rabbis, most educated in Israel or the United States. Amid this ferment, synagogues are under construction in Dresden and Chemnitz — the first Jewish prayer houses to arise in eastern Germany since communism’s demise. The design for a new $27 million synagogue, community center, and museum complex in Munich was selected in July, and new temples are under discussion in other cities, including Potsdam and Wuppertal.

Funds for these new structures come primarily from German state and city governments. Appealing for additional donations for the Dresden synagogue, Kurt Biedenkopf, state government leader in Saxony, observed, “After all, it was citizens of Dresden who destroyed the original building. Accordingly, it is an act of justice that they support the construction of a new one.”

Immigration has swelled the number of Jews in Dresden from 60 to 365 over the last decade. “We urgently need this center which will lay the seeds for a new religious and cultural life,” says Heinz-Joachim Aris, executive director of the community that prior to the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom was housed in a majestic structure designed by Gottfried Semper. For the past half-century, Dresden Jews have gathered next to the cemetery in a burial hall converted into a prayer space by the East German regime.

But since Dresden’s new synagogue project got under way in 1997 after a far larger effort began to reconstruct the Frauenkirche, a splendid Baroque church destroyed in the 1945 Allied firebombing, some see the synagogue campaign as a guilty afterthought. Massachusetts Institute of Technology architectural history professor Mark Jarzombek argues that the state of Saxony has become the de facto client, rather than the Dresden Jewish community. He calls the modern synagogue a “billboard” aimed at promoting foreign trade and tourism that is also part of a “state-mandated, state-financed –return to normalcy” following the trauma of genocide.

The federal government in Berlin is certainly keen to spotlight the upswing in Germany’s Jewish population. To this end, it helped fund a touring exhibit organized by the Mizel Museum in Denver about Alfred Jacoby, Germany’s most prolific designer of new synagogues. (The show is currently on view in Houston at the Margolis Gallery of Temple Beth Israel through November 30. It will open in March 20002 at the University of Utah.) Yet behind the hype lies a genuine if sometimes halting bid to resuscitate Jewish life. “The communities have grown to the point that existing quarters are inadequate,” says Judith Hart, editor-in-chief of the Allgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung, a weekly published by the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

The latest designs are divergent in approach and caliber, but several involve formal qualities that assure synagogues renewed prominence in German cityscapes. “Up to now the position of Jews in Germany has been characterized by a feeling of shame and fear,” says Manuel Herz, architect of an attention-getting new house of prayer for Mainz. “But,” adds Herz, “This is changing.  The Jews from former Eastern bloc nations have fewer qualms about living in a nation where democracy and prosperity contrast sharply with conditions in their troubled homelands. In addition, a younger generation of architects is far more inclined to break with the muted design strategies pursued in the Holocaust’s immediate aftermath.

The two dozen modest, inconspicuous German synagogues erected in the second half of the 20th century made little no reference in their design to the murder and dispersal of prewar German Jewry. (Another 40 small communities have been based in renovated pre-war synagogues.) Alfred Jacoby continues to avoid overt references to the past, opting instead for a more abstract approach. In this connection, he cites the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Jacoby, the son of Polish Jews who survived forced labor camps, studied with Aldo Rossi in Zurich, and his work reflects Rossi’s predilection for clear geometric forms, with sanctuaries that provide serene havens from the avant-garde trends prevalent in often intentionally disconcerting Holocaust memorials. At the same time, Jacoby’s synagogues in Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Offenbach, Kassel, and Cologne are neither set back from the street nor concealed by greenery, as was often the case until now.

In Chemnitz, Jacoby has sought to embody the mindset of new Jewish immigrants with little religious background. The elliptical sanctuary will have two focal points — one centered on the ark which contains the holy Torah scrolls, the other a large window placed off axis. “I’m trying to express that these people have a dual orientation,” Jacoby says. “They have to integrate into a foreign country and integrate as a Jewish community.”

However vividly the designs capture the fractured and still awkward nature of Jewry in Germany, Frankfurt Jewish community leader Salomon Korn cautions against overstating the new synagogues’ ultimate impact. “Jewish life in Germany will not be revived by these buildings alone,” he says. “That will only be done through people like rabbis and teachers who are in short supply. These buildings are the framework, the shell. They must be filled with life. That is the great challenge.”