Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Kaiser Franz Josef Jubiläumssynagoge (Emperor Franz Joseph Jubilee Synagogue) of St. Pölten, Austria: Where Were the Women?

St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Theodor Schreier and Viktor Postelberg, architects, 1913. Restored 1984. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Theodor Schreier and Viktor Postelberg, architects, 1913. Restored 1984. View form women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Ark with inscription noting women's donation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The Kaiser Franz Josef Jubiläumssynagoge (Emperor Franz Joseph Jubilee Synagogue) of St. Pölten, Austria: Where Were the Women?
by Samuel D Gruber
 
I recently wrote about one of the most recent Central European synagogue restorations at the Old Synagogue of Plzen and asked the question about the synagogue, "where were the women?" Now, I take a look a look at one of the first Central European synagogue restorations, that of the Kaiser Franz Josef Jubiläumssynagoge (Emperor Franz Joseph Jubilee)  of St. Pölten, Austria, dedicated in 1913, ruined on Kristallnacht in 1938, and restored in the 1980s, and ask the question again.
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue.  Entrance from main vestibule to women's staircase.Stairs to women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Stairs to women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Stairs to women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Since 1988 the former synagogue has housed the Institute for Jewish History in Austria, founded by historian Klaus Lohrmann, and I want to thank the Institute's long-time director Martha Keil for her enthusiastic welcome (on short notice) and her tour and history of the building. Though I have known of the St. Pölten restoration since I first enter the field of Jewish heritage preservation in 1988, this was my first visit. While Martha was apologetic about the deficiencies of the restoration of more than thirty years ago, in fact, the work at St. Pölten was ahead of its time, and the restoration has held up reasonably well. Much of that is due to Martha's own long commitment to the building which when it was saved form extremely derelict condition had no real plan for future use. The creation, development and sustenance of the Institute has protected the building, and also done much to recovery and present important aspects of the Jewish history and culture of St. Pölten and of Austria. The Institute maintains a full schedule of events, workshops, courses and exhibits.

St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue.Elevation. Source: Center for Jewish Art.
The long planning history and the relatively quick construction history of the St. Pölten synagogue are well-documented and are reported in an essay by Christoph Lind the publication Restoring History? St. Pölten’s Jewish Past and online here. The process was familiar. Need for a new and bigger building, requests denied and then reconsidered, negotiations with city officials, solicitations of designs from noted architects, and then the drawn-out fund-raising campaign. In the end Viennese architects Theodor Schreier and Viktor Postelberg were selected for the job (it should be noted that Schreier was deported at age 70 to Terezin in 1943 where he died). 

St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Portrait of emperor Franz Joseph commissioned for the synagogue by Samuel and Bertha Mandl. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Unusual, perhaps, is correspondence about plans to place a bust of the Emperor Franz Joseph – after whom the synagogue was to be named – in the building’s vestibule. Happily, the idea was scratched, but a portrait painting of the Emperor was commissioned by congregants Samuel and Bertha Mandl instead. The portrait which was rediscovered and identified by Martha Keil in 2000, is back at the synagogue, possibly the very last evidence of the widespread Jewish devotion to the Austro-Hungarian imperial ideal before it all collapsed in World War I and that relatively tolerant age ended forever.


The accounts of the August 1913 dedication are detailed, too. There were many long speeches by Jewish community officials and government leaders. Not surprisingly, everyone who spoke that was a man and I suppose they all wore elegant coats and top hats. But we know there were women there crowding the galleries, and they had played a role in the building of the new synagogue, too, and it must have been a pretty prominent role, too.  They did not address the assembled dignitaries and congregants on dedication day, acknowledgment of their gift took pride of place in an inscription on the Ark.

St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Ark. Detail with inscription noting women's donation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
A women’s charitable association was founded in St. Pölten in 1902 and on the Ark is written in German but in Hebrew letters (but with an umlaut over the aleph) the inscription  “Gespendet vom Frauenverein St. Pölten" ("donated by the St. Pölten’s Women’s Association").
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. View from Ark to women's galleries and choir loft. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Theodor Schreier and Viktor Postelberg, architects, 1913. Restored 1984.  Stairs to women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
At St. Pölten, as in Plzen and almost all the other synagogues in the Empire, women were in the gallery. The inscription, set high on the Ark is one element of the sanctuary of which they would have had a good view. The galleries in St. Pölten were spacious and probably comfortable, but the original seating does not survive. The proportions of the building were much different than the Old Synagogue in Plzen. The main sanctuary was wider, and the distance from the women’s galleries to the main floor was less. Women could sit closer and see more, and probably the sound carried better. An additional gallery space for choir is also set above the women's gallery at the entrance end of the sanctuary, opposite the Ark wall.

The women entered the same door from the outside as the men, but then took one of two stairways upstairs. These were elegant sweeping stairways, much more accommodating – and better to look at – than the tortured twisting stairs at Plzen. With their elegant iron railing, these stairs recalled a concert hall more than traditional Jewish separation – but still, the women were separated and had their special place. From though, they could look at the Ark.  Their Ark. The one they’d donated.

St. Pölten, Austria. Synagogue. Memorial tablet in front of building.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Of course, after the Anscluss of March 2, 1938, and then the Kristallnacht Pogrom on November 10, 1938, when the synagogue was looted, the interior gutted and its contents burned, few Jews remained in St. Polten. Many fled or went into hiding, others were deported. By 1945, however, at least 575 men, women, and children of the Jewish community St. Pölten known by name were murdered by Nazis and their collaborators. A large tablet with the names of many of these victims is erected in front of the synagogue. It was first set up in 1998, then the two  outer panels were added in 2008, and then the small one (in metal), was installed in 2016. The memorial grows as more names are learned. Reading the tablet, where the women were in the synagogue doesn't seem to matter much. Women and men were joined in death, or in the best circumstances, into exile.

We mourn the victims and remember their suffering and loss. We remain indignant that it took the Austrian government until the 1990s and even more recently to admit and discuss Austrian complicity in Nazi oppression and atrocity. We are grateful that the Institute for Jewish History in Austria is telling the stories of Jewish victims, and the history of their communities.





Monday, August 6, 2018

The "Secret" Synagogues of the Terezin Ghetto

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". "May your eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion" (Amidah). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Painted candles flanking the location of the Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue." "But despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. We beg You not to forget us. (Taharun) / "O God who is slow to anger and full of mercy, treat us accordingly to Your abundant mercy and save us for Your name's sake. Hear, our king, our prayer, and from our foes rescue us. Hear, our King, our prayer, and from every distress and woe rescue us." (Tahanun).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The "Secret" Synagogues of the Terezin Ghetto
by Samuel D. Gruber

A few weeks ago I visited Terezin, the 18th-century military city in northern Bohemia (now Czech Republic) that was remade beginning in 1941 into  Germany's "model ghetto" they called Theresienstadt - a vast overcrowded holding pen for discouraged, uncertain, underfed, and exploited Jewish prisoners from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, and other countries which "housed" as many as 58,000 men, women and children held there at one time - always with the overflow population being sent off to death at Auschwitz, and then most of the inmates sent there, too. While Terezin was re-concerted into a town after World War II, today parts are now maintained as the Terezin Memorial.

Terezin was the ante-chamber to Auschwitz for more than a hundred thousand Jews. There are many aspects to the historical town and to the Nazi-created ghetto about which I could write - architectural, urban, interpretive, preservationist, museological, anthropological, etc. Here I only discuss the so-called "secret synagogues," those places where Jews gathered with tacit German permission to pray and follow age-old religious rituals under new and horrific circumstances. Most of the prayer places were used on as an "as needed" basis by adapting other spaces. This is documented in many surviving drawings and in some survivor accounts.

Helga Weissova Hoskova (b. 1929) Hanukah in the attic of block L410, 1943. Helga was 14 years old when she made this drawing. Source: Artists of Terezin.
Only of prayer room with some of it original decoration survives. This space was created by Artur Berlinger, a German WWI veteran, religious teacher, and artist  who was imprisoned at Terezin with his wife Berta from the fall of 1942 until their deportation to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944. During that time Berlinger created the prayer room in an old storage space and conducted regular religious services there.

Artur Berlinger in pre-Holocaust cantor's garb.
This fall I'll be teaching a class at Syracuse University on "The Holocaust, Memory and the Visual Arts," so this prayer room has immediate relevancy for me.There are very few places where art made by Holocaust victims remains intact and in situ, and where the intent can be so clearly understood. We have many surviving artworks - mostly small sketches - made by various artist prisoners of some of the impromptu prayer spaces in the Ghetto, but this is the only such space that survives at all intact. At least one other decorated prayer space is known from a drawing made by Paul Schwarz, who depicts painted lions holding the Tablets of the Law on the Ark wall (Schwarz was subsequently killed at Auschwitz, but his wife survived and saved many of his drawings).


Terezin, Czech Republic. Prayer room in former garage. Drawing by Paul Schwartz. Source: L. Chladkova, The Terezin Ghetto.
I've also been researching synagogue wall painting, so this example of synagogue walls painted in the most difficult of circumstances is of special importance to understanding the overall value of painted inscriptions, symbols and other motifs. These were not mere decoration, but were integral to the authenticity and holiness of the place.

Lastly, I was proud to visit because the second restoration of the Berlanger synagogue after the devastating floods of 2002 was carried out with financial assistance of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, of which I was Research Director at the time.  I had nothing directly to do with the project, but it was a very good one for the Commission to support (raising private funds). Commission member Amy Epstein led the Commission funding effort and Seth Gerszberg made the major donation to the project. Besides the inevitable emotion on entering this little space, after many years I was very excited to see the result of their work.

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Small plaque over entrance to synagogue acknowledging donors to restoration.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, Czech Republic, Small plaque giving information about Artur Berlinger, who created and presided over this worship space. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Berlinger was 53 when he came to Terezin. He had been sent to Dachau after Kristallnacht in November 1938, but after his return continued to lead the remnants of the Jewish community in Schweinfurt, Germany until he was sent on one of the last transports to Terezin. After Kristallnacht he and his wife arranged for their daughters to leave for England on a “kindertransport” and the children survived the war. Artur and Berta were transported to and killed at Auschwitz in September and October 1944.

A calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) that was illustrated by Asher Berlinger in Terezin. Photo: Yad Vashem,
Besides creating the synagogue, Berlanger illustrated  a calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) with printed zodiac symbols on the front cover that was created by Avraham Hellmann and is now in the collection of Yad Vashem. Hellmann had a background similar to Berlanger. He was Head Cantor in the Nikolsburg (today Mikulov, Czech Republic) community as well as being the founder of the Jewish Museum of Bohemia & Moravia. He apparently helped sustain religious life at Terezin before his deportation to and death at Auschwitz, and was especially important in caring for the dead and keeping track of their names and their remains.The relationship of the two men is unknown, but Berlanger's calendar, which has clear illustrations of his little synagogue, came into the possession of Hellman's (who signed it) and was donated to Yad Vashem.The calendar pictures indicate that there was an actual ark,  reader's table and Torah scroll in Berlanger's synagogue.

A calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) that was illustrated by Asher Berlinger in Terezin. Photo: Yad Vashem,
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue." "Know before whom you "stand" is probably the most common passage found in synagogues, and it was used here on the side wall which is where the "ark" - or whatever was used in its place - would have stood. The niche in the wall is flanked by paintings of candles. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue." "But despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. We beg You not to forget us. (Taharun) / "O God who is slow to anger and full of mercy, treat us accordingly to Your abundant mercy and save us for Your name's sake. Hear, our king, our prayer, and from our foes rescue us. Hear, our King, our prayer, and from every distress and woe rescue us." (Tahanun).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill," (Psalms 137:5).
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
During his time at Terezin, Berlinger created the permanent and semi-secret synagogue, probably the most formal of the many prayer spaces used by inmates. Given his skills as an artist it is assumed that he worked in one of the artisan workshops where he was able to get materials to paint the walls which he decorated with carefully chosen plaintive and affirmative inscriptions, and where he conducted religious services. Besides the care given to the placement and calligraphy of the inscriptions, it is the intentionality of scriptural and prayer passages (Amidah, Tahunun) that is especially poignant. 

Unfortunately for the visitor, the multi-lingual translation of these texts are only available in an accompanying book, and not in the prayer hall or immediately adjacent, so that most visitors lose this important aspect of the experience.

This space was rediscovered in 1989 and restored in the 1990s, but then seriously damaged in the floods of 2002, before being restored again. Parts of the inscriptions were irrevocably destroyed and are now documented only in photos. 

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue".Courtyard from where the synagogue is entered (door on right)
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Entryway from courtyard to synagogue.
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
There were other prayer spaces at Terezin that we know only from surviving drawings by some of the ghetto's many artists. Unlike Berlinger's prayer house, most of these spaces would have been contemporary - adapted as needed for services or holiday ceremonies.Jews at prayer were depicted by many of the camp artists. The following illustrations come from a number of sources.

Bedrich Fritta. Jews at prayer.
Leo Haas. Religious Services, Terezin. Source: Art of the Holocaust, fig 750.
Leo Haas. Religious Services. Artists of Terezin.
Moritz Nagel, Prayer, Terezin, 1943.
Jan Burka (b. 1924, Prague). Prayers in the attic, Terezin. Pencil. Source: Yad Vashem.
Ferdinand Bloch. Terezin Services in the Attic. Source:  Jewish Customs and Traditions Jewish Museum of Prague), 34.

Karel Fleischmann. Torah Reading on the Sabbath. Source: Artists of Terezin.


The guidebook Prayer Room from the Time of the Terezin Ghetto by Ludmila Chladkova published by the Terezin memorial and available for sale at the synagogue site was extremely helpful in preparing this post.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

USA: In Livingston, New Jersey, an Iconic Modern Synagogue is Closed; Sold to Church

Livingston, New Jersey. Temple Emanu-El of West Essex
Peter Blake and Julian Neski, architects, 1962. Photo:
Contemporary American Synagogue Architecture (Jewish Museum, 1963)
Livingston, New Jersey. Temple Emanu-El of West Essex
Peter Blake and Julian Neski, architects, 1962. Photo:
Contemporary American Synagogue Architecture (Jewish Museum, 1963)
Livingston, New Jersey. Temple Emanu-El of West Essex
Peter Blake and Julian Neski, architects, 1962. Photo: Courtesy Julian Preisler.
USA: In Livingston, New Jersey, an Iconic Modern Synagogue is Closed; Sold to Church
by Samuel D. Gruber

While I was preparing a recent paper on the popularity of the tent motif in mid-century modern synagogue architecture, I learned that Temple Emanu-El, a well-known example of the form in Livingston, New Jersey, recently closed its doors for Jewish worship and was sold to a church. As with the recent closure of Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, New York, this is another sign of generational shift in Jewish demographics and religious affiliation, as well as in architectural style and popular taste. Both synagogues were featured in the influential exhibition and catalogue Contemporary American Synagogue Architecture held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1963 and curated by the then (largely unknown) Richard Meier.

In the catalog, architects Peter Blake and Julian Neski wrote of their design for Livingston's Temple Emanu-El : “…we thought of the form as a derivation of the ancient Sanctuary-Tent. The shape is dominant, pierced with light, and finished with rich, darkly stained wood….” 

Temple Emanuel in Livingston has a distinctive bifurcated roof of thin gently bent and upward sweeping wooden sheets that gently meet across a line of open light at the apex. Light comes in from above, at the "crease" of the tent, and also pours in from front and back gables of clear glass. 

Several synagogues included in the 1963 exhibit expressed tent-like elements in their roof designs, or recalled in their support structure the modular framework of the Mishkhan, as described in Exodus. 

Since the 1950s, references to more canopies of all sorts become increasingly common in synagogue architecture.  In the face of the destruction of European communities and synagogues in the Holocaust, architects sought designs reflective of the Jewish exodus, exile and diaspora (dispersion), and which gave physical form to the now obvious transient nature of Jewish settlement and security – even in the seemingly safe sanctuary of the United States. The synagogue-tent connection was reinvented, or at least revived architecturally, as Jews searched for an alternative to seemingly failed Classical and Medieval historicist and assimilationist forms.

After World War II, increasingly the tent form replaced the dome as the most popular expressive synagogue roof element. Blown and formed concrete, formed-plywood and other laminates, and even plastic, allowed architects Percival Goodman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lew Davis and Sam Brody, Minoru Yamasaki, Peter Blake and Julius Noski, Sydney Eisenshtat, Kivett and Myers, William Bernoudy, and others, to experiment with the tent for new expressive forms. Many of these work survive - but more and more are being significantly altered, or destroyed outright.

Livingston, New Jersey. Temple Emanu-El of West Essex
Peter Blake and Julian Neski, architects, 1962. Photo: Courtesy Julian Preisler
The building is also important as the work of two notable modern architects. Blake and Neski worked together to design many elegant modern houses that had light footprints on the landscape. 

Peter Blake (1920 - 2006) was a Jewish refugee from Germany who became as a writer and editor one of the leading intellectual and critical lights of American post-war modernism. From his obituary (Dec 6, 2006) in the New York Times:
Born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1920 as Peter Jost Blach, Mr. Blake was sent by his parents to school in England after the Nazis came to power. He attended schools in London until World War II and then moved to the United States, where he enrolled in the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania and worked briefly for the architect Louis Kahn. He became a citizen in 1944 and changed his name to Blake. By then he had struck up an acquaintance with a wide and often rambunctious circle of artists, architects and writers, from Pollock to Charles Eames.
In 1948, he was named curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, where he remained for two years, writing a monograph on the architect Marcel Breuer. Books exploring the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson followed.From 1965 to 1972, he was the editor in chief of Architectural Forum (now defunct), which attracted a wide following with its articles on the home-building industry as well as architectural currents. Mr. Blake then founded his own magazine, Architecture Plus, where he worked until 1975.
In the world of synagogue architecture, Blake is also widely known for co-editing the 1957 book An American Synagogue For Today And Tomorrow: A Guide Book To Synagogue Design And Construction published by the Union of American Hebrew congregations.

Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, New Jersey, was founded in 1955. The congregation closed in 2018, and merged with Temple Sinai in Summit, NJ. The synagogue  was sold and is now the Living Stone Christian Church. The former  school buildings have become part of a Mandarin (Chinese) and Spanish language immersion center.

The rise and fall of the congregation is indicative of general trends in many American suburban congregations founded in the post World War II period. Begun by 11 families seeking a Reform Jewish service in a growing suburb, by 1955 it had expanded to 56 families and by 1961 ground was  broken for the new sanctuary. Th choice of Blake and Neski demonstrates the congregations tastes - and ambition. Tastes and needs change. There was a major expansion in 2004 prior to the congregation's 50th anniversary, including a new main entrance, office space, the library, and the Holocaust Remembrance Center, and Early Childhood Center.

Livingston, New Jersey. Temple Emanu-El of West Essex. Peter Blake and Julian Neski, architects, after 2010 renovation by David and Michelle Plachte-Zuieback. Photo: Scott Brody.

Livingston, New Jersey. Temple Emanu-El of West Essex
Peter Blake and Julian Neski, architects, after 2010 renovation by David and Michelle Plachte-Zuieback. Photo:
Plachte-Zuieback website.
And then in 2010-11 the sanctuary was remodeled in accord with present-day tastes in comfort and decoration. David and Michelle Plachte-Zuieback, leading designers of contemporary synagogue stained glass, created stained glass  a new this sanctuary installation for the Ark wall that consisted of a new maple and cherry wood Aron Ha-kodesh with stained glass doors as well as two stained glass artificially-lit sidelights. At some point is appears the congregation introduced flexible seating, and also strong horizontal interior cornices below the "tent" that changed the spatial dynamic.

These changes were not, however, enough to sustain the congregation. In 2017 it was announced that the congregation would close and then sell its facility due to financial hardship.

I can only speculate on the reasons for the hardship - but they are not difficult to surmise. Jewish populations are declining in post-war Northern suburban suburbs - due to the death or  movement to the south and west by the founding generation, and a low Jewish birth rate and movement away from suburbs by younger generations (in sharp contrast to many urban Orthodox communities). This is combined overall with less synagogue affiliation - even among self-identifying Jews - and amidst competition (and duplication of resources) between surviving synagogues. Combined with this are the often ballooning costs of maintenance, and heat and cooling of mid-century buildings, where often the original material are reaching the end of their anticipated lifespans. There are changing congregational needs that are sometimes met with building new structures and changes in taste which are sometimes met with remodeling.  But even these fixes are often not enough to sustain small congregations which - without financial angels or a large endowment - often exist year-to-year on the edge of a financial cliff, depending on ever-declining dues against ever-increasing costs. Frist building needs are neglected. Then staffs are cut. Then a congregation is forced to close.

These forces have been recognized for at least twenty years, but we are still in the midst of a major synagogue shake-up which means fewer synagogues in the north, with new - but usually smaller - synagogue buildings erected in the south, southwest, and west. Modern-era synagogues in New York New Jersey and other states are at risk - and if we cannot save them, we must at least fully document them while they are in use.