Friday, September 19, 2014

Austria: $150,000 Can Buy a Medieval Synagogue, and Save a Piece of History

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue, Photo: Jewish Chronicle

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue, Photo:

Austria: $150,000 Can Buy a Medieval Synagogue and Save a Piece of History
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Efforts have begun to protect and preserve the former synagogue of Korneuburg, one of the oldest standing synagogue buildings in Europe. Today, Korneuburg is a quiet town on the left bank of the Danube, about 11 kilometers upstream from Vienna. The former synagogue is now an auto repair shop. It built in the 14th century and last used as a synagogue in 1420, at which time Jews were expelled from the area. 

Korneuburg is sadly remembered as one of the many places where a Jew was accused of  desecrating the Christian host (Eucharist wafer) on Yom Kippur in 1297 or 1298.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, this led to the public burning of ten members of the Jewish Community community.  The Host was buried in the town church, where it reputedly performed miracles. The bishop of Passau subsequently ordered an investigation  in 1305, and "it was discovered that the affair was the result of gross deceptions".  The surviving building post-dates these events.

The building is one of several medieval synagogues that once dotted in the region, including Vienna, Bruck an der Leitha, Hainburg, Sopron (Ödenburg), Maribor (Marburg), Marburg an der Lahn and Miltenberg. The synagogue in Vienna was excavated beginning in 1995 and its fragments are now on view at the Judengasse Museum.

While Austria has not made a great effort to preserve the synagogues in Hainburg and Korneuburg, neighboring countries have done more.  In Hungary, the Sopron  synagogue (one of two in the town) was excavated out of later accretions in the 1950s and is now an historic site.  More recently the synagogue in Maribor, Slovenia has  been returned to Jewish use as a Jewish-themed cultural center.  

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue. Reconstruction drawing by Simon Paulus, 2005

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue. Reconstruction drawing by Simon Paulus, 2005

The synagogue was a fairly simple cubic hall covered with a sexpartite vault. The outer dimensions of  are approximately 10.50 x 13.20 meters with a wall thickness of 81-90 cm.  The inner dimensions of the main space are 8.80 m width and 11.40 m long. The building height  to the original eaves was about eight meters. The walls are made of rough stone, but better-cut local stone is used on door and window frames and at the centers and ends of the long north and south walls, probably to ensure the stability of the vaults. 

The nearly rectangular plan was therefore similar to plans of the Miltenberg and Sopron Uj Street #11 synagogues. The surviving plaster cornice indicates the height of the original facade. The Korneuburg synagogue has tall, pointed windows partly filled in with brick; a pointed-arch door was later blocked. Steps led down from the entrance to the level of the prayer hall. Remains of steps visible in 1932 were interpreted as leading to a womens section in a gallery, but this is far from certain. Traces of the Ark can still be seen on the east wall. For more on the synagogue's architecture see Simon Paulus's study on Ashkenazi medieval synagogues Die Architektur der Synagoge im Mittelalter : Überlieferung und Bestand (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007) and in an online article in David.

After the expulsion, the Korneuburg synagogue  was used as an imperial granary, and later had various uses. It was probably used as a mill powered by horses or oxen. The building and the street on which it stands is named Ross Mill (Rossmühle).

There was small Jewish community in the town from mid-19th century until the beginning of World War II .  Of a prewar population of 48 Jews, only twelve survived and only one came returned after the war. Subsequently, 19th -century Korneuburger prayer house was converted to residential use. The larger synagogue in Stockerau was given to the Protestant community in August 1938, they kept the November Pogrom of the destruction was in 1953 bought by this later. Currently, the small Jewish cemeteries are maintained by the two municipalities, the greater Stockerauer cemetery was completely renovated in 2012.   

 Efforts to preserve the synagogue have been led by  Klaus Köhler, a longtime resident of Korneuburg, active with the City Museum.  As student of local history, his specialty is the history of the Jews in the district Korneuburg, and he has published a book on the subject . Ein schrecklich zerrissenes Leben ..."Leben und Schicksal der Juden im Bezirk Korneuburg 1848-1946 ["A terribly shattered life ..." Life and Fate of the Jews in the district Korneuburg 1848 – 1946].  Köhler managed to get the building listed as an historic landmark in 1980 and is in talks with the representatives of the municipality and the owner to find a way to preserve and restore the synagogue.  Public funds to restore the synagogue have been promised by the state but only after the property is purchased – something the state is unwilling to do.  The current owner of the property did not know about its history when he bought it, and apparently would be prepared to sell it. Neither the Austrian Fond nor the Bundesdenkmal can offer funds to purchase the property. 

"For the acquisition of the building, there are two options, a swap for another property or the outright purchase of the building. Both require money that is not currently available" says Köhler. American Jeff  Kellner, who lives in the town and has joined in the effort to preserve the building, says about $150,000 is needed for the purchase.  

While any future use of the building is uncertain, it is most likely it serve a museum.  Architects Serge Bukor and Xaver Marschalek have prepared some schematic designs for a renewed building. Today in Austria the Jewish museums in Hohenems and Eisenstadt are the most successful outside of Vienna.

Remembering Terezin Artist amd Hero Bedrich Fritta (born September 19, 1906)

 Bedrich Fritta. Film and Reality.

 Bedrich Fritta. Old Woman in Terezin

Bedrich Fritta. Courtyard Scene

Remembering Terezin Artist and Hero Bedrich Fritta (born September 19, 1906)

Today is the birthday of  Bedřich Fritta, who we remember as one of the great artists and heroes of the Holocaust, an artist who chronicled the daily life, and the horrors and absurdities of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto with a keen eye and a sure hand. His images could be ironic and he was master of biting satire; but he also evoked profound pathos. Even in caricature, he expressed empathy for his suffering subjects. 

Fritta was born in Weigsdorf (Višňová), Northern Bohemia, in 1906 and trained as an artist in Paris around 1930, before moving to Prague where  he worked as a draughtsman, graphic designer, and cartoonist.  On December 4, 1941, he was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto in the second "construction commando,"  of engineers, craftsmen, and physicians. He was part of the Ghetto elite,  supervising the drawing studio in the technical department of the Jewish self-administration.  As part of the administration, he and his family were mostly safe from deportation to Auschwitz, and Fritta survived the camp for several years.

Bedrich Fritta. Abandoned Luggage

Bedrich Fritta.  Incoming Transport

Imprisoned artists worked in the studio where they produced construction plans and illustrations for reports sent to the SS commandant's office. On the side they side special private work for German soldiers in return for favors. While these illustrations served Nazi propaganda, many of the same artists created hundreds of personal and documentary works that showed a different side of Ghetto life - the horrors of overcrowding, starvation, executions and deportations.  Fritta was a leader of this group. The works of these men and women were expressive and political and consciously acts of documentation, memory and resistance.

For many years after the Holocaust the work of these artists was seen mostly as documentation and used in historical and commemorative contexts, especially as scholars and others came to recognize the myriad ways other than armed revolt in which Jews and other prisoners resisted their captors. The publication of Gerald Greene's book The Artists of Terezin in 1988 made the work of the Terezin artists more widely known, and also emphasized the artistry (under life-threatening conditions) for Fritta and his colleagues and fellow prisoners  Leo Haas,  Otto Ungar, Karel Flieshmann, Malvina Schalkova and others.

Bedrich Fritta. Dwelling of the Feeble Minded

An exhibition last year of Fritta's drawings at the Jewish Museum Berlin also stressed Fritta's artistic achievement, showing him to be among the very best artists in the tradition of  George Grosz,  Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz who combined expressionism with political and social meaning. 

The exhibition website provides images of many of Fritta's surviving works. 

The drawings of Terezin artists were often smuggled out in the hope that they would reach the outside world to reveal the truth about life in the camp.  Some of these drawings made it to the Red Cross in Switzerland and were shown to Nazi officials in a naive attempt for accountability.  The result was severe reprisal against the artists. In the summer of 1944  Fritta and colleagues Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, and Ferdinand Bloch were convicted of "atrocity propaganda." The artists were sent to the Small Fortress with their families and were imprisoned and tortured in the Gestapo jail. Fritta's wife Johanna died there, and Fritta and Haas were soon deported to Auschwitz where Fritta died  in November 1944. 
Leo Haas survived and adopted Fritta's son Tomáš, who is widely remembered as the subject of an endearing illustrated birthday book, emphasizing optimism, made by his father.

Bedrich Fritta.  To Tommy on his Third Birthday, January 22, 1944

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Poland: New Monument at Rajgrod Jewish Cemetery

Raigrod, Poland. Monument at edge of Jewish cemetery. Chen Winkler, designer, 2014.  Photo courtesy FODZ.

Poland: New Monument at Rajgród Jewish Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber  

A few days ago I reported on the new monument erected at the Jewish cemetery of Serock, Poland.  Today, (September 18th) another monument will be dedicated in Poland - this time in the small town of Rajgród in the northeastern part of Poland between Grajewo and Suwalki. 

The new monument is built on the edge of the old Jewish cemetery, now completely covered with forest. Like all the erection of many of these individually inspired projects the project took several years to organize and finance. Descendants of jews of the town, including  Avi Tzur from Israel who initiated the project,  visited and first discussed a memorial in 2011. Unlike many Jewish cemeteries in Poland, this was not owned by the local municipality, but rather by the Forest Authority based in Warsaw. 

A Jewish community existed in Rajgród from the 16th century until World War II. In 1857 the Jewish population was 1,569, or 90% of the population. In July 1941 the Germans established a ghetto for all local Jews. During this period approximately 100 Jews were murdered in Rajgród. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942, the remaining Jews were sent first to Grajewo, than to the Bogusz transit camp and then later to their deaths at Treblinka. There were no survivors.  

The monument was designed and made by Chen Winkler in Natanya, Israel and then shipped by sea from Ashdod to Gdansk, Poland, where it was loaded to a truck to travel the final  200 km to the site, where it was assembled on site by local workman. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) was responsible for administration, management, and legal and technical work on the project. Funding came mostly from descendants of Jews from Rajgród, now scattered in many countries across the globe. On the monument is inscribed:"The Rajgrod Jewish cemetery was founded in the 18th century and was destroyed during World War II."

Winkler is a prominent sculptor and maker of monuments in Israel, especially for the Ministry of Defense. He mostly uses natural materials found in Israel and employs a variety of forms in his work. These include the pierced or cut-out stone, sometimes with the Jewish star, seen in the Rajgród monument. On Israeli military monuments these stars can be seen as Zionist and patriotic symbols. At Rajgród the star is more broadly emblematic of the Jewish people; the population buried here, and those victims who had no proper cemetery burial at all.  

On the new Rajgród monument the Star of David is intersected by a break in the matzevah-like upright stone slab. The break in the stone, now an accepted Holocaust monument motif, represents a break in a life (like the earlier symbol of the cut-down tree), but also a break in the community, and even a break in history.  This device was probably first used to great effect in the Jewish cemetery monument in Kazimierz Dolny, south of Warsaw. This type of break is used effectively in Warsaw at the Umschlagplatz Memorial, where the break give view to a living growing tree - a bit of optimism about the possibility of renewal after destruction - perhaps for a people, it not for the individual.

 Warsaw, Poland. Umschlagplatz Monument. Hanna Szmalenberg and Wladyslaw Klamerus, designers, 1988. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2008).

Kazimierz Dolny, Poland. Jewish cemetery monument. Tadeusz Augustynek, designer, 1983-85. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

The Rajgród monument allows the viewer to look through, too, but more into the dense forest that now covers the cemetery.  It is window to the past, but not perhaps not so optimistic about the future, or at least the future of the Jews in Poland.  And indeed, no jews live in Rajgród anymore, and few Jews live in this part of the country. I am also reminded in the form and the isolation of the monument of a memorial on the site of the Concentration Camp in Ereda, Estonia.  There the Soviet-era designers could not use the Star of David as a symbol, so instead incorporated and pierced two towers, suggestive of the Tablets of the Law, into the design.

 Ereda, Estonia. monument at Concentration/Labor camp site.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2003

According to Monika Krawczyk, CEO pf FODZ, "The travel by sea and importing it to Poland, required enormous effort connected with taxes and customs - where we had to prove that the monument is an artistic object to be located in the war cemetery - that way it could have been exempted from VAT and customs duty".  There are many monuments scattered through the forests of Poland, commemorated events and graves from World War II.

Karen Kaplan from the United States also helped  raise funds for the project. She recently published a memoir Descendants of Rajgród: Learning to Forgive about her father's escape and survival during the Holocaust and about how he and she coped with the legacy of destruction.  

About the monument, Krawczyk writes: "Personally, I am very moved (even though it is already the 7th commemoration project for FODZ this year), because this forgotten very tiny community produced sons and daughters who never forgot, and did everything for saving the memory of those who perished. And their strong will travelled across the oceans, conecting Brazil, USA, Israel to this village in Poland."

Congratulations to all who worked on this project, and our thoughts are with you and with all the perished Jews of Rajgród.

[Thanks to Monika Krawczyk for information used in this post]

Monday, September 15, 2014

Remembering Architect Erich Mendelsohn (died September 15, 1953)

Erich Mendelson (1887-1953)
Remembering Architect Erich Mendelsohn (died September 15, 1953), the Émigré Architect who Spread Modernism to the Post-World War II American Jewish Community
by Samuel D. Gruber 
The great 20th century architect Erich Mendelsohn died on this day in 1953 - just as he was enjoying his reestablishment in his new country, and his acceptance as one of the leading architects of post-World War America. Mendelsohn's post-war synagogue projects - of which only two were complete at the time of his death – launched the era expressive modernist synagogues, and had great influence on the other religion's houses of worship, too.
Mendelsohn’s career in Germany, England and Palestine was successful, innovative and influential –even though he had left Germany along with so many other Jewish artists, architects and academics. He had many Jewish clients and several important Jewish projects before coming to America for the last stage of his work, but his American synagogues are his Jewish works that have had the most lasting effect in the past half century.

Today, Mendelsohn's designs of synagogue centers in St. Louis (B’nai Amoona) and Cleveland (Park Synagogue) remain well known among architects, though they are less celebrated at large. In the public mind Mendelsohn’s achievement in modern synagogue design were soon over shadowed by the media attention to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park. The work of prolific modern synagogue architect Percival Goodman, which owed much to Mendelsohn, is better known among the American Jewish public because of the sheer number of Goodman synagogues.
Mendelsohn arrived in America in 1942 with his career, dignity and ambition intact and was engaged as a leader in the first round of American post-war synagogue construction in the later 1940s. He and a few other refugee architects) helped create the architectural language for synagogues and Jewish institutional buildings that was quickly adopted by American colleagues including Goodman, and dominated for several decades. Though Mendelsohn’s American work is always forward-looking, he acknowledged the legacy of the Holocaust in his design with Ivan Mestrovic for a great memorial planned for Riverside Park in New York (never built).

Design for American Memorial to the Six Million Jews of Europe, Erich Mendelsohn and Ivan Mestrovic, 1949

The following account and description of some of Mendelsohn’s late work comes from my paper “Émigré Architects and the Spread of Modernism in the Post-World War II American Jewish Community,” in the session Jewish Architecture and Jewish Space in the Post-Holocaust World: Between Modernism and Postmodernism at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (Boston, 2010): 
Erich Mendelsohn was born in 1887 and practiced architecture in Germany, Holland, England and Palestine before arriving in the United States in 1942. His architecture reflects many different styles – he was an impatient man – something of which can be seen in the directness and fluidity of his drawings, but also in the career trajectory that led him through many distinct career phases in several countries. Still, through it all he was an expressive modernist with a love of concrete and glass. Mendelsohn’s final body of work - designs for six American synagogues - was intended to excite worshipers’ imaginations and to seduce their minds into contemplation. 

The sanctuaries of these synagogue centers are characterized by elegant curves unadorned with decoration. When Mendelsohn died in 1953 at age 66, this series of large synagogue and community center commissions had both revived his career and his creative energies and had stimulated the creative juices of a new generation of America designers of religious buildings. While Mendelsohn only completed two synagogues before his death (the others were completed following his designs), they indelibly put his stamp on the subsequent half century of synagogue design in American and abroad. Mendelsohn writing about synagogues in 1946, before any of his new designs had been created, stated that:
“This period demands centers of worship where the spirit of the Bible is not an ancient mirage, but a living truth, where Jehovah is not a desert King, but our Guide and Companion. It demands temples that will bear witness of man’s material achievements and, at the same time, symbolize our spiritual renascence. A question no architect can pass upon, but the answer will inevitably be recorded in the pages of history now being written.”
Mendelsohn began to receive commissions for new synagogues in the mid-1940s, beginning with B’nai Amoona in St. Louis in 1945. Mendelsohn, because of his Jewish credentials and his established reputation, was sought out by progressive synagogues. He was recommended to B’nai Amoona as the architect of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, to which American Jews had contributed financially. For synagogue congregations eager to break with the historicism of the past – especially in light of the horrors of the Holocaust – Mendelsohn’s international stature as a modernist was also important. An exhibition of Mendelsohn's work had traveled to the City Art Museum in St. Louis during March and April 1944. It was Mendelsohn’s architectural mission from 1946 until his untimely death to create an expressive language in which to develop a very practical Jewish communal arrangement for the modern age.

St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona. sketches by Eric Mendelsohn, 1945 ff.

By 1945 Mendelsohn was creating the first of a series of hundreds of dynamic sketches for synagogues, which would come to comprise one of the most powerful series of modern architectural drawings of the 20th century. Dynamically drawn with broad pencil strokes, Mendelsohn’s first drawings for B’nai Amoona show the sanctuary developing from a cylindrical form to its eventual rectangular shape. In the final version the expressive energy was provided by the sweeping parabolic concrete roof supported on massive curved steel beams. The rest of the building is constructed of concrete blocks with brick surfaces. Though Mendelsohn did directly reference the Holocaust, his energetic design, which also emphasized education, was clearly intended to reinvigorate – (symbolically at least) post-war Judaism.
The use of a parabolic roof derived from Mendelsohn’s earliest work when he was experimenting with the creative potential of concrete and steel. Indeed, B’nai Amoona and Mendelsohn’s subsequent synagogues provided Mendelsohn, in the words of Rachel Wischnitzer, of architecturally "going back" home. 

 St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona model by Eric Mendelsohn

 St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona, original Ark wall and bimah.  Eric Mendelsohn, arch.
 St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona plan of complex by Eric Mendelsohn

His synagogue sanctuary designs more closely recall his early German designs such as the famed Einstein Tower in Potsdam, than his later more rationalist offices buildings, hospitals and other large commissions. Mendelsohn conceived of the plan arrangement for the various parts of the complex, balancing the sanctuary with administrative and education buildings around a central courtyard, though the articulation of the individual elements took time to resolve. After years of planning, construction began in 1948.
Meanwhile in 1946, Mendelsohn began working on Park Synagogue in Cleveland which  took shape as a low elongated building from which a cupola emerged, a shape that reflected the topography of the site -- 30 acres of densely wooded, undulating land, cut by the ravine of a stream, which gave Mendelsohn greater freedom than the urban environment in St. Louis.  The building was dedicated in May 1953. The final design is a long wedge-shaped plan with a distribution of parts not unlike the earlier B’nai Amoona – but strung along a central axis rather than tightly held together in an enclosed square plan.

 Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo from Bruno Zevi, Eric Mendelsohn Opera Completa, 1970

 At the tip of the wedge, projecting like the bow of a ship is a small daily chapel. Though a strong design element it is overshadowed by the immense hemispheric dome that weights the entire composition. The placidity of the dome counters the dynamic thrust of the horizontal wedge of the building’s base. Inside, the sanctuary is quite striking because of both its enormity and because the dome appears to float down to engulf the congregants, rather than to soar aloft, away from them. Emphasizing this intersection of earthly and heavenly space, the massive bimah cuts into the hemisphere of the dome in an act of expressive architectural integration. Mendelsohn was a master in the use of light – with which he flooded the interior to great effect. Much of the light comes through the drum itself, which is transparent – made of glass extending into glass-lined ambulatories. The light, which filters through the glass drum also serves as a lifting force, seemingly supporting the concrete dome as if the dome were levitating on air. The low dome symbolizes the closeness of heaven and earth, and increases the intimacy of the large building mass. Mendelsohn said on this subject: "Thank God, the building rises with the contour of the land and doesn't shake its fist at God."

Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

 Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

Mendelsohn had begun designs for synagogues that were never built, or were finished by others. Like the first synagogue designs, they utilized the concept of a central court around which all the constituent parts of the complex faced. But like the earlier designs, the sanctuary structure is given the greatest prominence and the most forcefully expressive articulation. The central court planning concept and the relationship of sanctuary to ancillary buildings as worked out by Mendelsohn remained extremely influential in American synagogue designs for decades to come.
For further reading:

I first wrote about Mendelsohn's synagogues in my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (New York Rizzoli, 2003), from which some of this text is drawn.  There are several other noteworthy studies of these buildings.  I especially recommend:
Zevi, Bruno. Erich Mendelsohn Opera Completa: Achitetture e immagini Architettoniche (Milan: ETAs/KOMPASS, 1970), 303 ff.

Morganthaler, Hans R., “'It will be hard for us to find a home': Projects in the United States 1941-1953,” in R. Stephan (ed.), 1999. Eric Mendelsohn, Architect 1887-1953. (New York: Monacelli Press, 1999). 
James-Chakraborty, Kathleen,  In the Spirit of Our Age: Eric Mendelsohn’s B’nai Amoona Synagogue. (St. Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press, 2000).

Leedy, Walter. Eric Mendelsohn’s Park Synagogue: Architecture and Community, (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2012)