Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Neue Synagoge (The New Synagogue), Berlin

Neue Synagoge
Oranienburger Straße 30
Model of the building, showing
the immense space of the main
sanctuary, to the right
We like to speak of the cities we visit as “full of stories” and of course every city — because of its distinctive history, its people, and their values — provides a wealth of experience, education, and entertainment for most of us as tourists. To my way of thinking, Berlin is one of the best. I love Berlin, and I have gone there often (and wouldn’t mind going more often if I could). And when friends ask me what they should do when they come to Berlin, the New Synagogue is at the top of the list.

For one thing, this remarkable building — an architectural gem of the mid-19th century and an historical monument — was designed by Eduard Knoblauch (1801-1865), who had studied under Karl Friederich Schinkel, one of the best-regarded architects of his period. The New Synagogue was completed after Knoblauch’s death by his friend from his student days, Friedrich August Stüler, who himself took on the duties relating to the building’s construction and its interior arrangements.

The location itself is remarkable as well, for the New Synagogue is located in one of the most interesting parts of the city. At Oranienburger Straße 30 and not far from the famous Hackescher Markt, the stately building with its stunning eastern Moorish style stands out on one of Berlin’s most pleasant streets. But the building we see today is not exactly the building that Knoblauch designed and Stüler completed.

That building was constructed between 1859 and 1866. Today’s building dates largely from 1988 to 1995. So what happened? In its original incarnation, the building was one of the major religious and cultural centers of Jewish life in Berlin. With regard to the latter, for example, we find reference to an event held on January 30, 1930, as recorded in the synagogue records:
…the “Jadlowker Synagogue Concert” for the benefit of the welfare institutions of the Berlin Jewish Community. Hermann Jadlowker, appointed in 1912 to the Berlin Opera at the recommendation of the German Kaiser, had been cantor in a Riga synagogue since the 1920s. Now he gave a concert in Berlin, and his name attracted thousands to the New Synagogue. In the course of this concert, Albert Einstein and the physician Alfred Lewandowski, a son of Louis Lewandowski, performed two violin duets by Handel and Bach.
Two internal windows
Such cultural activities became important to German Jews, and two more examples are cited in the history, the Berlin premier of the oratorio by Ferdinand Hiller, “The Destruction of Jerusalem” on November 20, 1935 and the performance of Handel’s “Saul” in early 1938. But such events were soon thrown into the past, for the growing evils of Germany’s regime created new terrors for the synagogue’s members and their families.

On November 9-10, 1938 Berlin’s infamous “Kristallnacht” (also called the “November Pogrom” in some histories) did not spare the New Synagogue. One warmly remembered hero was Wilhelm Krützfeld, the chief of the district police precinct. A fire had been started in the synagogue’s wedding hall and Krützfeld — now remembered as the “courageous chief” — and two of his men, fully armed, came to the scene and chased the arsonists away. Having with him a file containing a letter describing the building’s “significant artistic and cultural value,” he was able to save the building.

For a while, the building continued to be used for limited religious purposes. The final Rosh Hashanah service took place on September 14, 1939, and no services of any kind took place after April, 1940. Ultimately, the New Synagogue was taken over by the army and used as the Military Clothing Office.

Painted ceiling with damage
As the synagogue is located in central Berlin, it suffered heavy damage in Allied bombings of the German capital. The small Jewish population remaining in Berlin after the war faced problems greater than restoring the building, which fell into disuse and decay. In the summer of 1958 — on never-explained or justified orders of the GDR — a large part of what remained of the synagogue was destroyed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it would not be until 1988-1995 that the New Synagogue would once again take its place as one of the wonders of Berlin. That it took seven years to reconstruct the building was no accident. The target dates for the reconstruction were carefully chosen to correspond with the original seven-year building period from 1859-1866.

Opening Hours sign
for the New Synagogue
At the re-opening of the building on the evening of May 7, 1995 — the eve of the 50th anniversary of the city’s liberation — in a “solemn ceremony” attended by the Federal President, the Chancellor, and numerous honored guests, the building was given to the people of Berlin. Its purpose, as noted on one of the first placards the visitor reads on entering the building, is to be a “place of learning, remembrance, and exchange.”

One of the goals of the reconstruction is to give visitors a sense of the Jewish life that once flourished in Berlin. It was a splendid structure, considered by some to be the most beautiful and magnificent synagogue in Germany. It was certainly the largest, with a seating capacity for 3,000 worshipers, and it was built to serve the city’s growing mid-19th century Jewish population, which was expanding at this time, largely through immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Empty space outside the building
where the main sanctuary stood
The New Synagogue — now known also as the Centrum Judaicum — has become an important attraction for visitors to the city. So it’s a fascinating story, and a visit to the building, now partially reconstructed, is very satisfying. Even what is still missing from this great building can be of interest, and one of the great pleasures (so to speak) of the visit is to be able to see the space where the great hall stood. A glass and steel wall connects the inside of the building with the outside, and the “footprints” of the now-gone columns can be seen on the ground of the open space. As described on the placard mentioned earlier, the glass and steel wall also links to the synagogue’s historic vestibule with a permanent exhibition “Open Ye Gates — The New Synagogue Berlin 1866-1995” and the building’s former main hall. It is a thrilling space to visit and gives the visitor an awesome sense of all that happened in the New Synagogue. 

[Historical Notes based on The New Synagogue, Berlin Past-Present-Future by Hermann Simon (Berlin: Edition Hentrich Berlin, 1999)
Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is amazon.com/author/guystclair.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Guy,

thank you very much for this offer. Here are my comments:

The architect Eduard Knoblauch and his family (to which some remarkable architects belong to) is commemorated in the Knoblauch_Haus. This is one of the very few old Bürgerhäuser (burghers house) which have remained almost unchanged. The Knoblauchhaus now is part of the old Nicolaiviertel and belongs to the Stadtmuseum Berlin.

To Wilhelm Krützfeld who rescued the New Synagogue: There is a nice biography of Wilhelm Krützfeld, written by Heinz Knobloch (1926 - 2003, almost identic surname just accidentally). His book "Der beherzte Reviervorsteher - Wilhelm Krützfeld/ The courageous police officer - Wilhelm Krützfeld" describes in detail with a lot of underhand humour these times and Krützfeld's role. Heinz Knobloch, this East Berlin writer and essayist worked for a GDR-newspaper and has written some very nice books on Jewish persons.

The renovation of the New Synagogue was decided even before 1989 under Honecker's Regime. he wanted full recognition by the USA so he decided to do something about Jewish heritage in the GDR. The renovation of the building was completed after the end of GDR i.e. around 1993. Soon it was decided that it will not be anymore a house of Jewish worship but instead a house of remembering and celebrating Jewish culture. Therefore the Centrum Judaicum was established with its founding director Hermann Simon. I am friendly with him and he introduced the book "Jewish life in the province" on Jewish People, their life, their history, their persecution, their death and their survival in my home town (written by Rolf de Groot, my brother in law, and me). Hermann Simon one year ago resigned from this post because of his age. He is a very interesting person, one of the very few Berlin Jews which were active in the very small East German Jewish Community.