When Berlin and Cölln were founded in the late 12th century and later merged to form a twin city, Jewish merchants were already active in this region. From the end of the 13th century onwards, Jews lived permanently in Berlin.
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Jewish-literary roundtable with Maxim Leo in the representative hall of the New Synagogue in Berlin. December 2019. © Centrum Judaicum Photo: Anna Fischer
The Centrum Judaicum was reopened in 1995 after a seven-year reconstruction phase. Today the iconic building is a Berlin landmark, a museum and once again the seat of the Jewish Community of Berlin - and an internationally renowned place of remembrance. The permanent exhibition "Tuet auf die Pforten" (“Open ye the Gates”) on the history of the New Synagogue and its people as well as the temporary exhibitions tell Berlin and German-Jewish history as reflected in this authentic place and its architecture: about the Emancipation Era with its atmosphere of awakening and hope, about acculturation and German-Jewish self-image, about the abuse of the Jewish buildings by the Nazi state, about persecution and murder, and about the reconstruction of the communities in East and West. Our archive, one of the most important on German Jewry, also secures the prerequisites for remembrance, while the radiance, but also the scars of the historical building allow a special form of commemoration. In exhibitions, events, and specific educational programs, we convey the diversity of Jewish cultures and identities as part of Berlin. The presence of contemporary Jewish life in the same building also predestines us in a special way to connect past and present and to act as a bridge between Jewish and non-Jewish urban communities.
Symbolic laying of the foundation stone on November 10, 1988 by Erich Honecker; speaker Erhard Krack, Lord Mayor of East Berlin. © Center Judaicum Photo: Günter Krawutschke
In the 1980s, the East Berlin Jewish community increasingly brought forward the idea of establishing a Jewish museum on the site of the New Synagogue. In the run-up to the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the November pogroms, foreign policy considerations in particular led to the establishment of the New Synagogue Berlin–Centrum Judaicum Foundation in July 1988 by the Council of Ministers of the GDR. Dr. Hermann Simon was appointed director. On November 10, 1988, the foundation stone was symbolically laid for the reconstruction of the heavily damaged front parts of the New Synagogue. This reconstruction, formulated as one of the foundation’s tasks, was now to be completed during the period of reunification from 1989 onwards. The reconstruction only covered the front of the New Synagogue. On the site of the former mainhall of the synagogue, the ruinous remains of which were demolished in 1958, an open space shows the emptiness that had been created. The traces of the destruction were to be visible, and the house was to remain a document of its history. Original parts were preserved as far as possible and replacement elements were marked as new. This principle was only deviated from for the domes, which had to be completely rebuilt.
Wilhelm Krützfeld in the 16th police station at Hackescher Markt, 1939. © Centrum Judaicum, Picture Archive
What exactly happened in and around the New Synagogue in the night of November 9 to 10, 1938 is not entirely clear. What is certain is that National Socialist and marauding groups gained access to the building, wreaked havoc, and began setting fires. However, the New Synagogue did not burn down that night. Contemporary witnesses mention the quick intervention of the doorman and other courageous people; others emphasize the efforts of the police department at Hackescher Markt. The police officers Willi Steuck and Otto Bellgardt, who worked there, warned Jews of raids under National Socialism and stamped fake IDs. It was most likely they were also the ones who drove away the mob and called the fire department. Above all, their supervisor, Wilhelm Krützfeld, who had been head of the police station since 1937 and took early retirement in 1943, is repeatedly mentioned in connection with the preservation of the New Synagogue from complete destruction. In 1992, his grave in Berlin-Weissensee became an honorary grave of the City of Berlin. On November 9, 1993, the state of Schleswig-Holstein renamed the state police school in Malente-Kiebitzhörn “Landespolizeischule Wilhelm Krützfeld.” And on May 5, 1995, a commemorative plaque was placed at the New Synagogue, on which the Berlin Chief of Police commemorates Wilhelm Krützfeld and his “courageous and determined intervention.”
10 years Ahawah, Berlin 1932. Source: Centrum Judaicum, archive
From the open space of the New Synagogue Foundation Berlin, where the synagogue’s main hall used to be, one can see a vacant, red brick building: the former children’s home Ahawa (Love). Designed by the architect Eduard Knoblauch, who, a short time later, was also responsible for the design of the New Synagogue, the building initially served as a hospital for the Jewish community. From 1916 onwards, it housed a public soup kitchen for Jewish children; in 1922, it became the Jewish children’s home Ahawah, which was oriented towards reform education. Initially conceived as a home for refugee children from Eastern Europe, it soon became a safe haven for children from precarious economic and social backgrounds. After the National Socialist assumption of power, the founder, Beate Berger, succeeded in setting up a children’s home with the same name in Kiryat Bialik, later Israel. In the years leading up to 1939, nearly 100 children from the Berlin Ahawah and another 200 children from Europe were brought to Palestine. Most of the residents of the children’s home who remained in Berlin were deported to concentration camps and murdered. During the GDR regime, the Bertolt Brecht High School moved into the building, which Regina Scheer also attended. After reunification, she researched the history of the building and published her results under the title "AHAWAH. Das vergessene Haus: Spurensuche in der Berliner Auguststraße (AHAWAH. The Forgotten House: Searching for Traces in Berlin’s Auguststrasse)." In November 1992, a first commemorative plaque was placed in the courtyard, followed by another in 1998, which was revised and renewed in February 2012.
"Mittenmang and Tolerant" anniversary celebration for 150 years of the New Synagogue Berlin. Mittenmang and Tolerant Anniversary celebration of 150 years of the New Synagogue Berlin The Synagogal Ensemble Berlin on September 11, 2016 on the open space of the New Synagogue. The choir of men and women accompanies Lewandowski's works with organ during the service in the Berlin synagogue Pestalozzistraße. © Centrum Judaicum, Photo: Anna Fischer
Religious interpretation and practice in the New Synagogue corresponded to liberal Judaism, which became the dominant direction in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. This included various elements, such as the use of the German language in the liturgy, an organ and, since 1895, a choir, consisting not only of men but also of women; the women continued, however, to sit in the galleries, separated from the men, during worship services in the New Synagogue. In the 1920s, the Jewish community in Berlin was one of the largest in the world, boasting up to 175,000 members. The New Synagogue was one of the most important manifestations of liberal Judaism, which became the dominant force in many different forms in many countries, in particularin the United States (especially through migrants from Germany).
Envelope with stamp. In September 1990, a set of stamps on the New Synagogue Berlin and Louis Lewandowski was published while still in the GDR. © Centrum Judaicum, Archive
“Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov” (How beautiful are your tents, Jacob) is the opening line of a prayer that is said upon entering a synagogue and is therefore found as an inscription above many synagogue portals. The setting of this prayer to music by Louis Lewandowski for a four-voice choir, a cantor solo, and organ accompaniment is one of the most famous works by the composer, who was conductor of the New Synagogue Berlin since its inauguration. Raised in the Polish-Jewish tradition, Lewandowski came to Berlin as a youth and was patronized by Alexander Mendelssohn. He was the first Jew to be enrolled at the Berlin Academy of Arts and later celebrated as the “Mendelssohn of synagogue music.” Like no other, he stands for the musical reform of the worship service, but also for a synthesis of the orally transmitted Jewish prayer chants of (Central) Eastern Europe and the music of European Romanticism. The fact that an organ was included in the New Synagogue – contrary to the tradition of not having any musical instruments played in a synagogue – was due in part to an expert opinion by Lewandowski, who by this time had already been the choir conductor of the Berlin Jewish community for over twenty years. Lewandowski’s compositions are exemplary for the many influences that flow from the New Synagogue into the world: Generations of cantors grew up with them, and they continue to resound in both liberal and conservative synagogues and concert halls around the globe to this day.
"Opening of the New Jewish Synagogue, Berlin" Wood engraving colored afterwards from: "The Illustrated London News", September 22, 1866. © Centrum Judaicum, Picture Archive
At its inauguration in 1866, the New Synagogue Berlin was described by the non-Jewish press as “the pride of Berlin’s Jewish community, and even more than this, [...] an adornment of the city.” With its almost fairy-tale-like, exotic-looking forms and ornaments, the new magnificent building not only exuded elegance and beauty; with its use of the most expensive materials, it also reflected the socio-economic advancement and, with its size, the steadily growing community in Berlin. More than anything else, the building stood for the growing self-confidence of the Jewish community: The entrance with its large portals was placed on the street and not set back; above this and not above the main synagogue room towards the back, the silhouette was topped by the golden main dome, which was visible from afar. From a Jewish point of view, the recourse to orientalizing and Moorish architecture reflected more than a mere fascination with the Orient and the Alhambra: It also referred, on the one hand, to the Spanish Middle Ages, which was anchored in collective memory as the “Golden Age,” as a model for the coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews; on the other hand, it also pointed to the association with the geographical-cultural origin of Judaism, which can be interpreted as a statement translated into architectural terms by a self-confident Judaism, which relied on its sovereignty. This architecture was the manifestation of the struggle for social equality and a dialog (almost) at eye level.