Letter From New York: Virtually Indestructible
The monumental Börneplatz Synagogue in Frankfurt was known to locals simply as “the red synagogue,” due to the crimson sandstone used in its construction in 1882. The building’s vibrant color and Italian Renaissance architecture reflected the bold self-confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century. Sixty-nine years ago today, on Kristallnacht, the Nazis burned it to the ground, along with nearly 200 other synagogues throughout the Third Reich. All that remains of the red synagogue is a black outline on the concrete sidewalk where it stood.
However, thanks to the work of two German architecture professors and dozens of their students, the Börneplatz Synagogue has been reborn, virtually, in full color. Under the guidance of Manfred Koob and Marc Grellert at the Darmstadt University of Technology, more than a decade of effort has yielded Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction, a dramatic, computer-generated “restoration” of 16 major 19th- and 20th-century synagogues in 14 cities, all obliterated during the Nazi reign. After an exhibition sponsored by the German government in Bonn attracted 60,000 people, a traveling version made its way to the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv. But the display has yet to visit the United States, so Koob and Grellert were in New York last week to present their work and discuss prospects for an American tour.
“This project is about so much more than technology and architecture—it’s my connection to my own history,” says Koob, who was born in 1949 in a small town near Frankfurt. “In my generation, our parents never spoke to us about what happened, but now, I can. Now, we can say to the German people and the world, this is what we lost.”
Based on blueprints, drawings, photos, and survivor’s memories, the digital images of these synagogues, perfectly recreated, are in some ways even more tragic than the fading, gray snapshots of charred domes and melted stain glass that document their destruction. Even with every column and mosaic depicted to the last detail, the lifelike images are lifeless. The exquisite sanctuaries are empty. The virtual light streaming through the windows casts perfect late-day shadows across the pews, but no one is coming for afternoon prayers.
The eeriness mixed in with the splendor is not unintended. In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, the professors write plainly that the images are meant “to serve as an admonishment as well as a memorial.”
The project began in 1994 as a response to the firebombing of a century-old synagogue in the northern German city of Lübeck—the first attack on a Jewish place of worship in Germany since World War II. Grellert, then a 31-year-old student and political activist who had organized seminars with Auschwitz survivors, vowed to make a lasting statement. He and eight other architecture students approached Koob about using computer-aided design (CAD) software to restore some of the beauty of what the Nazis had destroyed.
By 1996, the Darmstadt team had reconstructed the Börneplatz Synagogue and two others that once stood in nearby Frankfurt. With government support and the sought-out approval of Jewish organizations, the project expanded. Each synagogue has taken a group of three or four about a year to complete. Presently, about 60 students are involved, dispatched to cities across Germany to gather blueprints, drawings, photographs, and personal accounts. When possible, Grellert gathers eyewitnesses in front of a computer screen to advise designers on details such as how high to hang the Ner Tamid or how deeply to tint the carpets—“not that they always agree with one another,” he says with a smile.
“The most moving experiences were when we met people who used to sit in these synagogues and pray in these synagogues,” Grellert says. “I learned about the Holocaust in school, but never about the culture that was lost. So as we pursued this project, we began to discover it for ourselves.”
Along the way, the professors have made contact with hundreds of survivors around the world, in person and through phone conferences and web casts. For the reconstruction of a synagogue in Plauen, they invited an Israeli professor to assist with recreating the Hebraic inscriptions on the walls. In the presence of the lifelike, three-dimensional imagery, the Israeli felt compelled to place a yarmulke on his head. “For him, this was a holy place,” Koob says. “At that moment, I first understood what a synagogue really is.”
In their small but powerful sample, Grellert and Koob have made sure to capture a breadth of architectural styles, and in so doing they also offer a glimpse into German Jewry’s search for identity and acceptance.
Before the Enlightenment in Europe, Jewish houses of worship there were not architecturally significant buildings, explains Carol Herselle Krinsky, a professor of art history at NYU and the author of Synagogues of Europe: History, Architecture, Meaning. By edict, synagogues could not face the public street, so most were simple structures tucked behind the homes of their rabbis.
By the mid-19th century, however, extravagant buildings arose in German Romanesque and then Moorish styles—one critic has written it was as if their builders couldn’t decide between Jewish churches or Jewish mosques—and even modern Bauhaus design. The mixing of styles, east and west, revealed a desired synthesis between roots and German identity, Krinsky says, while the bright colors and rich materials were an assertion of pride and patriotism, a contribution to the German cityscape.
“We have only about ten years to meet anyone who will remember these synagogues,” Koob says. “This is the time when we must prepare the information for the next generation.”
All of the reconstructions are available on the internet, and as part of his Ph.D. work, Grellert created an online archive with information on the more than 2,200 German and Austrian synagogues destroyed or desecrated during the Nazi regime. “I wanted to discover the potential of new media and the internet for the culture of remembrance,” he says. “The internet is not a one-way medium like television; the user can participate in the work.” So far, the archive, which Grellert monitors regularly, has received nearly 3,500 contributions—photographs, sketches, stories—from people in 58 different countries.
Koob recalls one entry submitted by a man who had discovered a series of pictures his father had taken of the great synagogue in Hamburg; they show very clearly how firefighters battled the blazes on either side but intentionally let the synagogue burn.
“To this day, there are people who say this wasn’t planned, but look—it was,” he says. “It was a test run of what the Nazis could do and what they could get away with.”
The work continues with support from various sources. Some communities, Jewish and not, are sponsoring the virtual reconstruction of synagogues in their towns. The curators, meanwhile, continue their tour to raise interest in their exhibition. They are negotiating to show it here at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and there have been overtures from galleries in Argentina, Canada, as well as several in Europe.
Yet even if it travels to every corner of the world, Koob says, that will not be the point: “The exhibition, which wasn’t even supposed to be an exhibition at all, is but a report on a work always in progress—the creation of a new generation’s memory.”