Synagogue in kreuzberg: under the sign of rebuilding

The synagogue on Fraenkelufer, destroyed by the Nazis, is to be rebuilt to provide more space for Jewish life again.

A proposal: this is how architect Kilian Enders sees the new synagogue building in a first draft Photo: Kilian Enders, D/FORM

It borders on a miracle that these pictures are hanging here. War photographer Robert Capa took them in September 1945. The black-and-white photographs show scenes from the first service after the Shoah, which took place in the synagogue on Fraenkelufer, for the Jewish New Year, Rosh ha-Shanah.

In one of the pictures, Rabbi Martin Riesenburger can be seen with the Torah scrolls, and an American officer is looking up at him. The service took place in the former youth synagogue in the left wing, the only part of the large synagogue building that had survived the Second World War and which had been provisionally repaired after the end of the war.

The synagogue on Fraenkelufer, inaugurated in 1916, was destroyed in the pogrom night of 1938, burned out after a bombing raid in 1943, and was a ruin after the war. Only the facade of the large main building, the actual synagogue, was still standing, as can be seen in old photos. It was demolished, the synagogue was not rebuilt. Until now. The house of worship is to be rebuilt. The need is there.

"A large synagogue was no longer needed after the end of the war," Mario Marcus, treasurer of the newly founded association "Jewish Center Synagogue Fraenkelufer," which was founded specifically to rebuild the synagogue, told the taz. "At that time, there were only five to six thousand Jews living in Berlin in the 1950s." The Nazis had deported and killed everyone else. "So the ruins were taken down, as was done with several other ruins of large synagogues in Berlin," Marcus says.

Besides, no one was sure at the time "whether the Jewish community in the city would survive. And there were synagogues that were intact, after all." For example, the one on Pestalozzistrasse, the lodge on Joachimsthaler Strasse and the small synagogue in the preserved side wing on Fraenkelufer.

Services are still celebrated there today. And in an unspectacular and quite small function room next to the synagogue room hang the photographs of Robert Capa. Another of his pictures shows four American soldiers and officers immersed in prayer, including Harry Nowalsky, an important figure in the history of the synagogue reopening. "In 1945, the area around the synagogue was assigned to the American sector," says Mario Marcus. Harry Nowalsky had taken up residence across the street from the synagogue, had it constantly in mind, and through conversations had it functioning again as a synagogue as early as September 1945.

Pictures now on permanent loan

The photos by Robert Capa came to us on the occasion of the centenary of the house of worship in 2016 "as a temporary loan from the International Center of Photography in New York City for one year," says Dekel Peretz, chairman of the association "Jewish Center Synagogue Fraenkelufer." Two years later, however, they are still hanging here in the building, but now as a permanent loan.

"The fact that we are pushing ahead with the reconstruction of the synagogue is due to the fact," explains Dekel Peretz, "that we have a small Robert Capa Museum here." Ten images by one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. The most important pieces of the twentieth century hang in Berlin – and they are difficult to access because you can only see them when you go to church services. "They belong on display, they actually belong in a museum," says Dekel Peretz.

The board of trustees for the synagogue’s reconstruction was constituted in February of this year. The project has prominent supporters, most notably Raed Saleh, chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in Berlin’s House of Representatives.

"Jewish life is part of our guiding culture, part of our DNA," Saleh told the taz at the time, "that’s why it’s a question of decency that you rebuild Jewish life." At the end of 2017, he had first made the proposal for this.

This fell on fertile ground and found a positive echo in the Jewish community. Because with a reconstruction of the synagogue would be more space – also for the paintings of Robert Capa.

"And the new building should be open to the public," says Dekel Peretz. While there will be rooms that belong to the synagogue and serve the congregation alone, there should also be spaces that are generally accessible and address aspects of Jewish everyday life. This could be accomplished, for example, by a gallery of contemporary Jewish art. "In this way, we want to show that we are Jews, but as Jews we are also a part of Kreuzberg and of Berlin."

The community has grown

The idea to rebuild was also taken up so gratefully for a very pragmatic reason: "Because the community has grown a lot in recent years," says Nina Peretz, chairwoman of the "Friends of the Fraenkelufer Synagogue Association," which has been in existence for several years: "We’ve noticed time and again that on Jewish holidays or at events for families, the rooms are bursting at the seams."

Two Jewish communities Both have the status of public corporations, as do many Christian churches and congregations. The Jewish Community of Berlin, which is much larger with about 10,000 members, is a "unified community" with seven – liberal and orthodox – synagogues, including the one on Fraenkelufer. About 80 percent of the members are immigrants from the former USSR, and the community headquarters are on Oranienburger Strasse. The Addas Yisroel congregation in Wilmersdorf, founded in 1869, is strictly Orthodox. It has about 1,000 members.

Several thousand Berlin Jews do not belong to any congregation. According to population statistics, there were also 5,300 Israelis registered in Berlin at the end of 2018. Other sources speak of up to 15,000 Israelis, mostly secular Jews, in the city.

In fact, the number of Berliners of the Jewish faith has grown strongly. "Today, the Jewish Community of Berlin has about 10,000 members," says Dekel Peretz. In addition, there would be at least the same number of former Soviet Jews who are not members of the community, then an estimated 7,000 or even 10,000 Israelis, many American Jews, as well as Colombian, Argentinean, Italian and French Jews, Dekel Peretz calculates. One can estimate "perhaps 40,000 Jews in Berlin."

All these people find a home at Fraenkelufer: "That’s what’s special about the synagogue," says Nina Peretz. "And we shape the community life ourselves to a large extent. The community work is grassroots work."

The history of Jews in Berlin is almost as old as the city, with the first documented in 1295. They were always subject to social as well as economic discrimination and were expelled several times in the following centuries. The settlement of several families in 1671 can be considered as the date of foundation of the present Jewish community.

Since the 18th century Berlin’s Jews increasingly shaped cultural life. In the course of gradual legal and social equality, their number grew to about 160,000 in the 1920s. Only 8,000 Jews in the city lived to see the end of the Nazi regime. According to figures from the Jewish Community, 55,000 had been murdered, 7,000 had taken their own lives, and 90,000 had fled Germany.

The basics are secured by the Jewish Community: there is a cantor and sometimes a rabbi, and just the building, the former side wing. This is quite important, "we would not want to be active anywhere else," says Nina Peretz. "To maintain this building and fill it with life – that’s what we’ve been doing for several years with considerable effort."

And that attracts people: When we do a children’s program once a month before Shabat, everyone brings in their languages and their rituals that they know from home. The parents lead the rituals themselves, like the blessing of the children or the lighting of candles – so everything here has that special Fraenkelufer touch." Everyone could live out their Jewishness here, whatever that might look like. And, of course, there are offerings here in English and German at the same time. "We have distinguished ourselves over the years as simultaneous translators," says Nina Peretz. In Berlin, by the way, the synagogue is sometimes called the "hip synagogue," and that is not meant disparagingly, but appreciatively.

Without rigid religious leadership

The exciting thing about this new development is that it is, in a way, old hat, "a continuation of the past," as Mario Marcus tells us. "The synagogue was an Orthodox synagogue before the war, but after the war Eastern European Jews met here with German Jews who had survived and returned – an interesting mishmash." Even then, there were no clearly defined structures, no fixed rabbis, and the Fraenkelufer synagogue has always been co-supported by a liberal rabbi.

"Somehow," says Mario Marcus, "it’s always been a people-based community there, with no fixed, rigid religious leadership."

Back to today: so, with so many services on offer and more and more people taking them up, one question became increasingly pressing, Nina Peretz sums up. "In what space should we even do this?"

There’s what’s called the "kiddush room," a small multifunctional space about the size of a classroom. All events and press conferences take place there, and the photographs by Robert Capa mentioned above hang there. In addition, there is a small prayer room in the south wing, which has remained standing – today’s synagogue. The place for learning for children and also the adults is either the garden, when the weather is nice, or in the synagogue by means of a circle of chairs.

"In the end, that was the starting point of our considerations for the reconstruction," Nina Peretz summarizes: "the space problem."

Filling a new building would be easy. After all, there are plenty of ideas. "Many would like to see more educational offerings, for example," says Dekel Peretz. "There should be room for that in the new synagogue." And also for a daycare center. And Mario Marcus adds, "More and more ideas are coming in at the moment." For example, those for accommodations for students.

Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done. There are numerous wishes and requirements as to what the house should unite.

"Many things are not yet ready for discussion," says Nina Peretz. "But what is important for the future is more space for the offers that already exist, so that we don’t have to turn anyone away in the future. And so that certain offerings can be open to the public. So that we can open a kosher cafe, for example, that can also be visited by neighbors or walkers along the Landwehrkanal."

Many of the things that will later be implemented have long existed – just on a modest scale. Concerts, events, Jewish learning and Jewish children’s programs, exchange with neighbors. It’s always super crowded for the Long Night of Religions or a Hanukkah concert open to the public, Nina Peretz says.

Security rethought

Aren’t there any security concerns when it comes to making a synagogue more open to the public than it has been in the past? Mario Marcus says that "architecturally, you might be able to solve this in such a way that you don’t even have to include the synagogue area during the week," so it’s not accessible to the public at all – but an event space, gallery or cafe is.

"Good question about how to rethink security these days," adds Dekel Peretz. "The project provides an opportunity to do that. How can a Jewish cafe be both safe and welcoming, or open to the public? These are the kinds of questions we’re thinking about, and if we solve them well, it could be groundbreaking."

The time frame for this is set: at the constituent meeting in February, it was announced that construction would begin in 2023. "Ambitious by Berlin standards," says Mario Marcus. "Until then, we need a concept, a solution to the land issues, we need an architectural competition – and it also needs to be financed." Start-up funding has now been promised, via the Senate’s own Special Infrastructure Fund for the Growing City (Siwa).

"Estimating costs at this stage of planning is of course very difficult," says Nina Peretz. "It depends entirely on what exactly is being built on site. We’re currently estimating 25 to 30 million euros. So those are the figures we are working with at the moment," explains Nina Peretz.

Support from the USA

An American non-profit association has been set up specifically for the construction project to raise funds in the U.S. – the idea would meet with a lot of interest there, says Dekel Peretz. "The fact that Raed Saleh is supporting the reconstruction was noticed in the U.S., it was reported in a big way."

This support from Berlin’s politicians is very important, adds Nina Peretz. "Raed Saleh approached us and brought the project forward after we had often raised the issue of limited space.

So Saleh knew about the space problem, but the idea for reconstruction came from him, she says. "So we didn’t have to approach the politicians," says Nina Peretz, "they were there from the beginning." And the responsible Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district council also approached the municipality and passed a motion in December 2018 to promote the reconstruction, she says.

What should the newly built synagogue look like? Should there be a facade like the historic building? "The question is yes," says Dekel Peretz, "how to reconcile the old facade with the new ideas for use?"

Mario Marcus, whose great-grandparents prayed in the synagogue in the 1920s, points out: "It wouldn’t make sense to build the shell exactly as it was in the past. That’s because it would be far too large today; before the war, the synagogue was a hall building for 1,600 worshippers at the time. "The surroundings have changed and the reconstruction should be based on that, in discussion with the neighborhood on both sides," Marcus says. And Dekel Peretz adds, "We are in discussion with the neighborhood. There are many options and possibilities, but details are not clear at this time."

In addition, there are, for example, specifications for the construction of a daycare center, which is to be integrated into the new building, these must also be considered, says Nina Peretz. And also the future appearance of the synagogue. "That’s where the architects, Jewish and non-Jewish, are called upon. A nice challenge," says Dekel Peretz, referring to the architectural competition. "We’re looking forward to lots of great ideas."

Foundation stone planned for 2023

Looking at it this way, there are still many unanswered questions. In the coming months and years, they will be clarified. "There will be a social discourse about it," promises Nina Peretz.

Only one thing is clear: "For the new synagogue, it has to be exactly the place where the old synagogue used to be," Peretz says, "not somewhere on a wasteland on the outskirts of town."

The laying of the cornerstone, at least according to the plan, is targeted for November 2023. Completion then for 2026 – for the 110th anniversary of the synagogue on Fraenkelufer.

"The original synagogue was built in two years back then," Dekel Peretz recalls of the construction period. "Well," says Mario Marcus, "people used to build faster."