Monday, May 27, 2019

The Only Modern Synagogue from the GDR (former East Germany): The Neue / New Synagogue in Erfurt

Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

The Only Modern Synagogue form the GDR (former East Germany): 
The Neue / New Synagogue in Erfurt

Built in 1952 it is Still in Use, Serving a New Community of Russian Jews
by Samuel D. Gruber

This spring my friend Prof. Steven Fine of Yeshiva University is the Judaist in Residence at the at the Max Weber Kolleg of the University of Erfurt, Germany. He’ll enjoy his visit to this fascinating city, once an important medieval city and later an industrial center of the former GDR.

Today, almost three decades after German reunification, the city still bears many signs of its Communist past, particularly on the periphery, but dramatic efforts have been made to restore and revive the historic center with public amenities for residents and accessible tourist sites for visitors. Prominent among these are rediscovered remains of the town’s medieval Jewish history, including an impressive medieval synagogue, a medieval mikveh, and dozens of carved gravestones that were once part of medieval Jewish cemetery.  I spent a lovely day in Erfurt last November, where I visited these medieval Jewish sites and I hope to write about them in the future. Fortunately, they are well presented on-line, and I encourage my readers to investigate via the website Jewish Past and Present in Erfurt. 

An unexpected bonus of my visit was the discovery of a mid-century modern synagogue - the only modern synagogue built in the former GDR (East Germany). The New Synagogue is built on the site of the previous 19th-century brick synagogue that was destroyed on Kristallancht in November 1938.

When  Hitler came to power in 1933, There were 37 mostly small  Jewish communities in Thuringia, with 4,500 Jews. Erfurt, was home to 1,290, but by 1939 only 232 Jews remained, the rest having (wisely) chosen emigration and exile. In 1942, those who remained were deported to Terezinstadt and other concentration camps. Only a few survived until 1945.

Erfurt, Germany. Great Synagogue. Dedicated 1884, destroyed 1938.
Erfurt, Germany. Great Synagogue. Dedicated 1884, destroyed 1938.Elevation drawing of Ark wall.
Erfurt, Germany. Great Synagogue. Dedicated 1884. scenes of destruction in 1938. Photos on view in exhibition at small Synagogue..

After the end of World War II, the Erfurt Jewish community had only 15 members, but the community quickly grew as Jewish survivors from other regions, especially Eastern Europe, settled in the city.  In 1946, the Jewish community council requested the city of Erfurt return of the property where the Great Synagogue had stood, and this occurred in 1947. Architect Willy Nöckel was engaged to design a new synagogue, and prepared drawings and a model (I don't have any biographical information on Nöckel). His first two proposals were rejected, but finally construction began in 1951 on a more modest synagogue that was dedicated on August 31, 1952.

Nöckel’s first design of 1948 exploited the shaped of triangular shape of the plot, and he created a design focused on a domed sanctuary. Coincidentally, German-Jewish refugee architect Erich Mendelsohn was grappling with a similar solution for his Park Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. Nöckel’ domed design was rejected by authorities in 1950 on the grounds that the building with a circular prayer room would not fit into the city’s townscape. It was deemed both “too big” and “too sacral”. This was one of the first- perhaps the very first – instances of the new German Communist regime grappling with Jewish building needs. I’m sure a close reading of the meeting minutes – if they survive- would be revealing.

Most obvious, is Nöckel’s first design’s recollection of the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, designed by community architect Alexander Beer. This domed structure, though designed in a stripped-down modern fashion, looked back to ancient and Neo-classical buildings from the Pantheon to Schinkel's Berlin Altes Museum. The facade of the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagogue drew on Romanesque forms - popular in German synagogue design since the early 1800s. This synagogue, only opened in 1930, was also destroyed on Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938.
 
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Sketch plan of 1st design, 1948. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Model of 1st design, 1948. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Model of 1st design, 1948. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Germany. Prinzregentenstrasse Synagogue. Alexander Beer, architect, 1930. Photo: Abraham Pisarek.
Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Presentation drawing. Photo:   Bruno Zevi, Eric Mendelsohn Opera Completa, 1970.

 Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Bruno Zevi, Eric Mendelsohn Opera Completa, 1970.
For the  Jewish community the third time was the charm, and in 1951 a simpler gable roof design was finally approved. The architect created an L-shaped plan that does not take full advantage of the site, but does allow varied facades to be seen from different directions, and allows entrance from two sides The new building dedicated on August 31, 1952. It consists a large community house for offices, social services and events that resembles a traditional burgher house with a high pitched roof that abuts the rectangular hall-type of sanctuary. A formal three-bay entrance to the sanctuary is pushed to the very end of the lot. Though it is the most architectural formal element of the design, it has little monumental power. The overwhelming effect of the ensemble is of a vernacular urban building, and it can pass for a post-war rebuilding of an earlier structure. 

There is a Magen David in a round winder at the top of the main gable, and a star and Hebrew inscription from Psalm 118:19 over the main entrance on Juri-Gagarin-Ring. The passage is "פִּתְחוּ-לִי שַׁעֲרֵי-צֶדֶק" ("Open to me the gates of righteousness"). The passage continues - though it is not written - "I will enter into them, I will give thanks unto the LORD."

These is the only original external signs of the Jeiwsh identity of the building. Now there is an historic marker on the building and a vertical sign on the street with historical information about the Great Synagogue and the New Synagogue.

Inside, he sanctuary is a simple rectangular hall, with three types of fenestration indicating the three sections of the interior: vestibule, seating space, and bimah. Though now mostly entered from near the Ark, there is a formal entrance through a vestibule with stairs to an upper gallery, and entry into hall. The gallery was built for women, but I'm not sure if women now have a section in the downstairs sanctuary, too. An early photo shows only men in the main sanctuary. Typical of 19th and 20th century Reform synagogues in Germany there is a central aisle, and the bimah and Ark are combined at one end of the worship space. As far I can tell, however, the building was intended for a traditional (Orthodox) community and remains so.

Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Historic photo.



The Erfurt Synagogue proved to be the only completely new synagogue to be built in the GDR after the Second World War.
  
Nöckel’s three designs gives us some idea of the possible direction that synagogue architecture in Germany might have taken if the Nazi's had not taken power, the Jewish communities destroyed, and Germany's Jews exiled and murdered.  Coming of soon after the end of the war, and the establishment of the Communist regime in East Germany, the New Synagogue harks back to the modernism that was catching on in the 1920s and early 1930s – but a modernism that was leavened with traditional forms and motifs.


Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Model of 3rd design. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Model of 3rd design. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Historic photo.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Over the entryway is written ""פִּתְחוּ-לִי שַׁעֲרֵי-צֶדֶק" ("Open to me the gates of righteousness") from Psalm 118:19. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark and bimah. Willy Nöckel, arch. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, arch. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, arch. Dedicated 1952. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
The women's gallery is relatively small, and is set over the vestibule in the rear of the hall. The floor is raked, but still sight lines of restircted. When seated the women would see the top of the Ark and ony some seats allows a view of services itself on the bimah below. View of the men's seating arrea is entirely blocked by the parapret wall (mechitza). Though when standing, one gets a fuller view.

Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Vestibule with stairs to women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber. 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber. 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber. 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber. 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Ark. Willy Nöckel, architect. Dedicated 1952. Women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber. 2018.
Soon after the opening of the New Synagogue the community shrank again as members emigrated to the new State of Israel, or former West Germany or the United States. Jewish survivors in East Germany left in large numbers, when they could. They were driven by fear of inspired by anti-Zionist trials show trials, as in Prague in 1952. After this period of exodus, only the Erfurt Jewish community continued at all, while the Eisenach, Gera and Muhlhausen communities were dissolved.at the time of German reunification in 1990, there were only 26 individuals  registered with the community, Since then, however, what was a moribund community has been transformed by the arrival of hundreds of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Now about 500 self-identifying Jews live in Erfurt and the New Synagogue is again the center of an active community. Weekly Shabbat services are celebrated. But based on my brief visit if you want to engage – you’d better speak Russian! The future of the community remains uncertain, however, since so many of the Russian arrivals are now getting  older, and the younger generation is much small in number.

Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Historical signage. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Erfurt, Germany. New Synagogue. Historical marker. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.