Making a Statement in Berlin – New Synagogue

by Taylor Sullivan

As you peer down Oranienburger Strasse in the heart of Berlin’s Mitte, you are immediately drawn to three things– the life and movement of the wide boulevard, the direct view of the Fernsehturm glimmering in the sun, and the large, gold and blue bulb atop the Neue Synagogue Berlin. To many, it must seem a little confusing to see this large, grand bulb among typical flat-topped buildings that cover the majority of the city, especially since it looks like it was delivered straight from Morocco. Some may notice the typical features of a Jewish synagogue, others might only see the Middle-Eastern flare of the Islamic inspired design. But regardless, people are drawn in.

Walking down the street towards the building, you pass ice cream shops, cafes, falafel stands, and several hostels overflowing with visitors from around the world. It’s loud, often crowded, and you’ll frequently find yourself caught in the background of someone’s photograph. From the way people gaze up at the structure, and the countless number of guided tours loitering around, it is obvious that this elaborate, terracotta brick building deserves attention. This is not only due to its beauty, but also its complex history.

In the late 1800’s, Berlin was the site of a mass migration of Jewish people from all over Europe. Naturally, the Jewish community grew in size and power, and they began to commission the construction of synagogues throughout the city to accommodate for the population growth. Berlin’s Oranienburger Strasse was home to one of the largest Jewish communities of the time – the Scheunenviertel [2]. This neighborhood was to be the home of the premiere synagogue. The Neue Synagoge was designed in 1859 by one of Berlin’s premier architects of the time, Edward Knoblauch. He designed the building in the then popular “Moorish Style,” an Islamic based architecture style drawing inspiration from structures like the palace Alhambra in Spain [1]. This is shown through its three gold-ribbed domes, the striped pattern of the different colored bricks along the facade, and its Islamic-style archways [6]. The synagogue was to be Germany’s largest and most prestigious, and that’s what it was from its inauguration in 1866, through its survival of the infamous “Kristallnacht” in 1938, until its almost complete destruction in 1940 [1].

Yes, the synagogue was nearly destroyed. It was bombed significantly during the war, with remnants of the dome and facade barely in tact. But somehow, the two buildings directly next door remained standing. These two buildings, still owned by surviving Jewish community members, actually became the home base for the new “Jüdische Gemeinde” of Berlin [3]. The then impoverished Gemeinde struggled with preserving the remains of their once beloved Neue Synagogue, and saw little hope in reestablishing it at all during the times of GDR.

After the fall of the wall in 1989, the Jewish community saw an extreme influx of migrants coming into Germany. The newly reunited Germany gave Jewish individuals the opportunity to gain citizenship more easily than other countries, and the scrutiny the German government faced from other countries, along with residual guilt from the war, allowed the Jewish community to thrive once more [4]. This, in addition to the then established Jüdische Gemeinde and the growing population, began the Jewish cultural revival in Berlin.

This Jewish cultural revival fueled the reestablishment of many synagogues, including the beloved Neue Synagogue. In 1991, with the financial help of the federal government, the facade and the domes were fully reconstructed in their grandeur of the pre-war times [3]. The reconstructed part of the building was declared the “Jewish Center,” which houses a museum, offices of the Jüdische Gemeinde, and a small congregation room. Unfortunately, the grand main sanctuary was not restored, but rather sculptures were erected to show the original layout of the basilica-style nave. [1]

The full reconstruction of the Neue Synagogue facade and dome not only re-established a monument in Berlin, it also re-established a physical reminder of the Jewish community in Berlin. The building itself commands attention just as the community does, especially in a place where so much destruction and tragedy in the jewish community occurred. The dome peaks out over the Berlin skyline as if to say “we are still here, and we are still valid.” The pieces of the synagogue left unfinished serve as a reminder that they were damaged, but not destroyed.

The Neue Synagogue could have easily been erased from Berlin’s past, just like many other buildings have been. Instead, it serves as a reminder of the glory of the pre-war past, and a reminder that society can persevere through the hardest of times. Unlike some of the other Jewish monuments in Berlin, the Neue Synagogue celebrates the beauty of Jewish culture, and its ability to reestablish itself in a place people thought wasn’t possible. It stands as a marker of the past, as well as a symbol for the future– strong, prominent, and enduring.

[1] Professor Dr. Gerhard Baader, “Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue” on the Jüdisches Gemeinde official website. http://www.jg-berlin.org/en/judaism/synagogues/oranienburger-strasse.html
[2] Cyril Reade, Mendelsohn to Mendelsohn: Visual Case Studies of Jewish Life in Berlin “Chapter 5 The Neue Synagoge: An Oriental Face to a Modern Body”

[3] Berlin.de “Neue Synagoge” https://www.berlin.de/orte/sehenswuerdigkeiten/neue- synagoge/index.en.php
[4] Paul Bookbinder, “Reborn Jews: A New Jewish Community in Germany” December, 2008.

[5] Bill Rebiger, Jewish Berlin: Culture, Religion, Daily Life Yesterday and Today
[6] Marianne Barrucand and Achim Bednorz, Moorish Architecture in Andalusia

All Images by Nichole Wong

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