Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Happy Birthday Irwin Chanin (1891-1988)

NY, NY. The Century. Central Park West. Irwin Chanin, architect. (1930). Photo: David Shankbone

NY, NY. The Majestic. Central Park West. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1930-31). Photo: David Shankbone

 NY, NY. The Chanin Building. 122 East 42nd Street. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1929). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

 NY, NY. The Chanin Building. 122 East 42nd Street. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1929). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

Happy Birthday Irwin Chanin (1891-1988)

Today is the birthday of New York famed architect and real estate developer Irwin S. Chanin, whose company designed and built the Century and Majestic apartment towers on Central Park West, and the Chanin Building on 42nd Street among many other New York landmarks. These Art Deco and Art Moderne towers are among the finest and most-loved skyscrapers in the city (certainly loved by me). They helped define the modernism of the city for several generations. 

Chanin was a one of small group of adventurous Jewish New York architects such as Eli Jacques Kahn  and developers like Abe N. Adelson who pioneered Art Deco and Art Moderne towers in the city.  Irwin and his accountant brother Henry began the Chanin Construction Company in 1919.  Two other brothers, Sam and Aaron, were also involved in the company, but to a lesser degree.  This type of family business recalls that of Albert Kahn and his brothers in Detroit.

 NY, NY. The Chanin Building. 122 East 42nd Street. lobby detail. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1929). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

 NY, NY. The Chanin Building. 122 East 42nd Street. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1929). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

 NY, NY. The Chanin Building. 122 East 42nd Street. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1929). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

NY, NY. The Chanin Building. 122 East 42nd Street. Irwin Chanin, architect  (1929). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
David Dunlap celebrated Chanin's achievement in the New York Times obituary he wrote when Irwin died in 1988 at the age of 96.

Irwin S. Chanin, an architect and builder whose skyline signature was formed of jazzy Art Deco towers and whose legacy to Broadway was a half dozen elegant theaters, died of natural causes Wednesday at his Manhattan home, his family said. He was 96 years old. 

Mr. Chanin was the president and founder of the Chanin family enterprises that built some of New York's most eye-catching structures in the late 1920's and early 30's. The Chanins helped make popular a streamlined, geometric, modernistic style of architecture.

In that exuberant vein were the Chanin Building, a 56-story office skyscraper at 122 East 42d Street, and two twin-towered stuctures that epitomize Central Park West: the Century Apartments, between 62d and 63d Streets, and the Majestic Apartments, between 71st and 72d Streets.

The Chanins had earlier made a name for themselves on Broadway by building six legitimate theaters: the 46th Street, Biltmore, Mansfield (now the Brooks Atkinson), Theatre Masque (now the Golden), Royale and Majestic. They also built New York's ultimate movie palace, the Roxy. Modern City in Theatrical Terms
According to Dunlap, Chanin was born in Brooklyn, but "in his youth, his family left Bensonhurst to return to Poltava, Russia, from which his father, Simon, had emigrated. In 1907, the Chanin family returned to this country." 

Chanin graduated from Cooper Union in 1915. Cooper Union named its school of architecture his honor in 1981.
Read the entire tribute here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

USA: 1920s Synagogues Highlight Hartford's Early Jewish Architects and Changing Synagogue Design

Hartford, CT. Former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue. Berenson and Moses, architects, 1922. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.
Hartford, CT. Former Augudas Achim Synagogue. Berenson and Moses, architects, 192?. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Hartford, CT. Former Emanuel Synagogue. Ebbets & Frid, architects, 1927. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

USA: 1920s Synagogues Highlight Hartford's Early Jewish Architects and Changing Synagogue Design
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) A visit to Hartford, Connecticut last week allowed me to quickly revisit three imposing 1920s North End synagogues. It has been twenty years since my last look and I'm glad to see that all three buildings remain intact, in use and well maintained. All three are interesting as good examples of how and where American Eastern European Jews were heading toward to a more public architecture in the years after World War I, thus joining the Reform movement in the insertion (and assertion) of Judaism into the official American religious landscape.  

The siting of two of the three synagogues - Agudus Achim and Emanuel - across from a major urban park are part of national movement the saw the location of synagogues in prominent places where they could easily have been civic monuments, like libraries or museums. This trend already began in the1890s, with the erection of the Reform Temple Beth El and the Portuguese (Sephardi) Orthodox Shearith Israel facing Central Park in New York.  But perhaps this point is best made in St. Louis, Missouri, where the former Byzantine-style United Hebrew Synagogue, built in 1924 on the edge of Forest Park, is now the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. (Thanks to Google maps and satellite photos it is now easier to locate old synagogues in their larger geographic contexts, something most historians have failed to do).

St. Louis, MO. former United Hebrew Synagogue, 1924.

Two of the three Hartford buildings are also of note because they highlight Hartford's Jewish architects who flourished during this period.  
Architect and engineer Maurice H. Golden (1898-1976) was the first Jewish architect in the city doing business in Hartford as Golden, Storrs & Company. According to the research of David F. Ransom, Golden was born in Odessa (then Russia, now Ukraine) and emigrated through Winnipeg, Canada before arriving in Hartford in 1919. He later served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. In addition tor residential and commercial buildings, he designed the State Police Headquarters in Hartford, the library of the University of Hartford, and several high schools. In 1926 he submitted a design for Hartford's Agudas Achim (Agudas Achim Anshei Sefard) and these were published, but then the congregation switched to (also Jewish) architects Julius Berenson (dates unknown) and Jacob Moses (1884-1956). But in 1929 Golden's design for Adath Israel Synagogue in Middletown was built. 

Middletown, CT. Adath Israel Synagogue on the edge of Union Park. Golden, Storrs & Company, 1929. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009.

Berenson and Moses mostly built houses in Hartford's north End and South End between World War I and the Great Depression. This was typical of most Jewish architects of their generation who could not easily break into public architecture, except with Jewish clients. In this way they buitl two synagogues for Orthodox congregations, both of which are still standing. Both draw on traditional round-arched Romanesque motifs.  Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, opened in 1922, also uses the still-popular two-tower facade motif.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is the more traditional in architecture and liturgy. Its round-arch style with prominent corner towers would have been familiar, since several other two-towered Romanesque-inspired synagogues already existed in Hartford.  The city's first synagogue, a Reform temple built for congregation Beth El, designed by local architect George Keller in 1876 (after the congregation rejected New york Jewish architect Henry Fernbach as too expensive), had two prominent towers surmounted by cupolas. The Orthodox Ados Israel was similarly designed by the Irish immigrant architect Michael O'Donohue in 1898. Other Connecticut Orthodox congregations built their synagogues with impressive facade towers. B'nai Jacob (1912, demolished 1962) and Beth Israel Synagogue (1925), both in New Haven, had twin towers. The practice had been imported from Europe in the mid-19th century, where the double towers often distinguished synagogue from churches, but may also have represented the two columns of Salomon's Temple. Whatever the origins, in the third quarter of the19th-century it was the norm of the day for many Reform Congregations, and by the 20th century designers of Orthodox synagogues were copying the style. 

Hartford, CT. Ados Israel Synagogue, Market St  (1898, demolished 1963. Photo: Connecticut Jewish History, Fall 1992.

Hartford, CT. Former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue. Berenson and Moses, architects, 1922. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Inside, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol had a traditional East European Orthodox arrangement of a long rectangular space flanked by women's' galleries leading to a separate bimah (but close to the Ark wall and an ornate Ark set before a painted wall pieced by a large wheel window above the Ark.  The mural was surely interesting (I don't know if it still exists). It represented unusual themes; "the road the heaven" to the left of the Ark, and "Noah's Ark" on the right. 

 Hartford, CT. Wedding at former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue (1973). Berenson and Moses, architects, 1922. Photo: Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford
Hartford, CT. Former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue. Berenson and Moses, architects, 1922. Photo:
Connecticut Jewish History, Fall 1992.
In their next synagogue, designed for congregation Agudas Achim when they replaced Maurice Golden as architect, Berenson and Jacobs created a facade not to dissimilitude from Hamedrash Hagadol, with the same square squat corner towers flanking a triple arched entrance way. In this work, however, the treatment of the flank is more sophisticated and robust, in part no doubt because the synagogue corner location made this facade equally visible to passersby.  The synagogue may also something to the Orthodox Kodimoh Synagogue, built in nearby Springfield, Ma, built in1921-23, 

At Agudas Achim, the towers are compressed and almost vestigial, and the form draws on popular contemporary Byzantine and Art Deco massing. David F. Ransom also sees echoes of the contemporary Colonial Revival style in the side-elevation fenestration, and in the use of white trim for the windows and horizontal string courses. Inside, the roughly square sanctuary had galleries for women on three sides and an open cupola over the center of the hall. The Ark was within a large arched niche on a stage-like platform which seems also to have served as the bimah (but I have not seen photos of the entire inter when the building was a synagogue), an indication of acceptance by the Romanian congregation of center modern practices. 

Hartford, CT. Former Augudas Achim Synagogue. Berenson and Moses, architects, 1927. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.

Emanuel Synagogue was Hartford's first Conservative congregation. Founded in 1919, the congregation worshiped in a former church until they built their new synagogue on Greenfield Street in 1928, on the same block with the recently completed Agudas Achim. The new congregation had grown rapidly with its appeal as a "Jewish Modern Synagogue." Emanuel was Hartford's largest synagogue when it opened for the high holidays in 1927, with a seating capacity of 1,000. The two neighboring share a lot in their design. Both are big brick block-like buildings on corner lots with nearly square sanctuary spaces and both are emphasized by triple doorways on the facade and impressive windows on the flank. But inside the experience would have been quite different as the large Emanuel had no galleries and was surmounted by a low dome encompassing the entire space. The congregation faced one direction, toward a stage-like bimah in a recession in the Ark wall. 

Hartford, CT. Former Emanuel Synagogue. Ebbets & Frid, architects, 1927. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014.
Hartford, CT. Former Emanuel Synagogue. Photo: Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford
Hartford, CT. Former Emanuel Synagogue Now Faith Seventh Day Adventist Church  Photo: Faith Seventh Day Adventist Church
Hartford, CT. Former Emanuel Synagogue Now Faith Seventh Day Adventist Church  Photo: Faith Seventh Day Adventist Church
 .Golden, Berenson and Moses were not the only Jewish architects practicing in Connecticut during the interwar years.  Adolph Feinberg, an immigrant from Austria, also worked in Hartford, and he designed the (former) Tefereth Israel Synagogue in New Britain in 1925 and Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford.  Also in 1925, Joseph Weinstein of New Haven designed Beth Israel Synagogue in that city. Nathan Myers, who was based in Newark, New Jersey, designed Beth El Synagogue in Waterbury in 1929.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

USA: A Well Designed Hillel House at Trinity College

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

USA: A Modern Hillel House at Trinity College
by Samuel D. Gruber

(updated 10/9/2014)

Thanks to Lisa Kassow, Robert Kirschbaum and Peter Aaron

While visiting Trinity College last week to give a lecture for the Jewish Studies Program, I had the pleasure of visiting the The Zachs Hillel House, one of the most attractive Hillels I've seen in my travels. There is a long tradition of creating distinctive - and distinctively modern - Hillel Houses.  In the early decades of Hillel several talented young architects such as Max Abramovitz and Sidney Eisenshtat cut their teeth with Hillel commissions. In the 1990s Harvard alumni were able to engage star architect Moshe Safdie to design their Rosovsky Hall a substantial and formal building.

At Trinity, the more modest Zachs Hillel house fits in well on its residential street, keeping the narrow form of the neighboring wood-frame houses, though rising a story higher.  The dynamic roof line creates a special look - but one not at odds with the high-gabled neighboring houses. It is a good lesson that contextual architectural does not have to be slavishly imitative.

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

Designed by Boston-based architects Leers Weinzapfel Associates, with Natasha Espada as lead architect, it opened in 2001. The $2.8 million facility was made possible through the generosity of Henry Zachs ’56 and family. The building sits on a tight urban residential lot and packs a lot into its 8,000 square-feet space. There is a functional basement (with a ping pong table, pool table and TV and home theater system), and two stories above ground, with the upper story that houses the multipurpose prayer space built at double height. The house boasts a complete kosher kitchen, a large dining room, a library, a recreational area, a living room, and several smaller meeting rooms. 

 The front of the house facing the campus is open and public, while the rear facing the neighborhood is more enclosed. This means that the building really has two entrances, but unforeseen by the architects, most students using the building enter from the rear - not the street. They enter directly into the dining room (perhaps intentionally) rather than the cozy book-lined sitting room, which was designed as a welcoming space. 

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo Samuel D. Gruber 2014

The most impressive space is a large multipurpose room for prayer, lectures, and other gatherings on the second floor.  This is reached by a long staircase.  The room is beautifully finished in cherry wood, and is open and inviting.  Seating is flexible and all the furniture is portable. In the early evening when I was visited, the fading light was beautiful.  According Lisa Kassow, Director of Hillel, it is even more magnificent in the late afternoon when students, staff and community gather for Kabbalat Shabbat services. According to Kassow: 
Often, there are very dramatic shadows created by light coming through the slats on the upper sections of the tall windows. The room becomes a magnificent space of natural light and shadow painted in intensely warm cherry and pine wood tones. Grey translucent window shades create muted silhouettes of the tree tops and buildings around us. I often think of it as a beautiful Sukkah in a tree house, which was the inspiration for the Mizrach art piece that hangs on the wall facing east which says -  ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלום Spread over us a shelter of peace  -  from the Hashkiveinu prayer in the evening service.
Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

Whether intentional or not. the position of the space is in an ancient tradition (the Talmud recommends that a synagogue be high), best experienced in the historic upper level synagogues of Italy.  Today, the practice is less common, but it been wonderfully executed by architect Carol Ross Barney in Evanston, Illinois for the Evanston Reconstructionist Synagogue.

Evanston, Illinois. Evanston Reconstructionist Synagogue. Carol Ross Barney, Architect. View in the sanctuary to the treetops. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2010 

When I visited and wrote about that synagogue in 2010, I didn't know about the Hartford Hillel, which predates it, and is prescient in its placement of the well-windowed worship space high high among the trees.  The wood finish of the interior walls and the expert wood cabinetry of the Ark and readers' table, made in 2005 by Mark Leue of Williamsburg, Massachusetts bring the natural element indoors.

Artist and Trinity College Professor Robert Kirschbaum and his work Squaring the Temple on the Zachs Hillel House stairway. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photos Samuel D. Gruber 2014
One approaches the second story mufti-purpose worship space by a steep stairway that is a dramatic note of the interior space.  It has been used accordingly for art exhibits and even the performance of a Purimspiel.  Today a series of works on paper, three etchings in the series Squaring the Mount by artist Robert Kirschbaum who teaches at Trinity, hangs on one wall.  The theme of the work - the changing architectural emphasis on the Temple Mount, expressed through pure geometry shapes - coincides nicely with the lines of the Hillel building, and its historic purposes. I was glad to sense this even before Bob sent me his own explanation of work, from which I quote just a part
The etchings depict the plan of the Temple Mount as it exists today, a form largely unchanged since the Herodian era (67 BCE to 70 CE).    Each print contains the rectangular plan of one of the historical phases of the Temple: Squaring the Mount, #2  delineates Solomon’s Temple, #3, the Hasmonean-era Second Temple, and #4, Herod’s Temple.  A square equal in area to each of these rectangles is also constructed; and there is an indication for the position of the Foundation Stone -- considered the axis mundi, the site of Abraham’s altar, and the central point of the Temple’s inner sanctum (the Holy of Holies).   So, one can “read” each image right to left:  On the right, the plan of the Mount and a version of the Temple.  In the center, the process by which each is transformed into a square.  On the left, the resulting squares in a concentric array, each respectively encircled.  The circles are re-struck in the right-hand panels, using the foundation stone as their center, completing the cycle.
I am honored to have my prints installed in the Zachs Hillel House, the locus of Jewish communal and spiritual life at Trinity College.  It seems appropriate that they are located on a lintel situated between the more secular communal areas of the building’s first floor, and the sanctuary above.  They are most often viewed from the stairwell, as one rises, or descends, from one “realm” to another.  And because of the particular nature of the installation, the repeating arcs and circles of each panel -- nine in all -- reinforce the symbolism of the lintel, in the architecture of the ancient Near East, as a depiction of the heavens, traversed by the solar disk.   I am most pleased by this synergy between my art and the building’s architecture.  In close proximity to the sanctuary, I trust that my work will trigger a conversation between the viewer, the worshiper, and their surroundings, fusing symbol and object, spirit and substance, and leading to a deeper awareness of the sanctity of the space which surrounds us a.

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Ark and reader's table made by Mark Leue. 2005.  Photos Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sam Gruber's Upcoming Talks & Lectures (Fall 2014)

Burlington, Vermont. Mural of former Chai Adam Synagogue after consolidation and first cleaning. Photo: Ben Resnick 2014
Sam Gruber's Upcoming Talks & Lectures (Fall 2014)

In the next six weeks, beginning Monday, September 29th at the Center for Jewish History in New York, I'll be giving several talks and presentations in different cities on a variety of topics.  Here is a run down.  I hope readers of this blog in New York, Hartford, Pittsburgh and Austin will be able to attend.  In any case, please spread the word.  All events except the Southern Jewish Historical Society keynote are free and open to the public, but some require you to RSVP. I'll have lecture dates for the spring posted soon. 

The Lost Shul Mural: Reclaiming, Restoring and Preserving a Treasure from the Past

September 29, 2014, 6:30 pm
Center for Jewish History, New York, NY

The rediscovered lost mural of the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, VT reveals a painted window onto a vanished past. Join me as I discuss the art, history and preservation of the mural with Murray Zimiles, painter, curator and authority on Jewish folk art, and Ann-Isabel Friedman, Director, Sacred Sites Program, New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Springfield, Massachusetts.  Temple Beth El.  Percival Goodman, architect. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

A Century of Synagogues: Judaism, Americanism and Modernism
October 2, 2014, 4:30 pm
Trinity College, Hartford, CT
(Mather Hall Rittenberg Lounge) 

In the last century, American Jews have built synagogues at a rate never seen in the world before, and in the process they have integrated the synagogue into the American landscape, and Judaism into the American cultural mainstream. American Jews were quick to embrace modernism in the 1940s, and since that time synagogue design has been in the forefront of modern religious architecture. Noted architects and artists – Jewish and not – have taken up the challenge.
This illustrated lecture explores the evolving form and meaning of the American synagogue, especially in the 20th century, as shaped by architects and their congregational patrons. Through synagogue design, I'll trace changes in the organization of the American Jewish community and its relationship to American culture as a whole. The location, size, shape, and stylistic language adopted for synagogue designs throughout the century is a reflection of the changing needs and values of American Jews.

 Venice, Italy. Sotoportego de Ghetto Novo. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2006

The Italian Jewish Ghetto in Context: A Culture of Enclosure and Control
October 17, 2014
Carnegie Mellon Univ, Pittsburgh (Sawyer Seminar lecture) 

For further on attending contact Hikari Aday

The creation of the Venice Ghetto in 1516 was a dramatic development in the distinction between Christians and Jews, following decades of calls by preachers for the removal of Jews from town centers throughout Italy. From the thirteenth century on, many Italian rulers had talked about separating Jews from the population at large, but none until now had carried out the threat. But the Venetian Ghetto was not only about the isolation and control of Jews, but about the separation of Venetians, particularly good Venetians, from any outsider or undesirable group.  While extreme, the Ghetto was part of a range of customs, laws and policies to accentuate differences in class, gender, religion, place of origin and legal status. This paper examines these developments as well as the urban and architectural expressions of separation epitomized in the Jewish Ghetto. 

Brenham, Texas.  B'nai Abraham Synagogue.  photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1988

Saving Synagogues: Different Goals, Different Strategies in Brenham, Brookhaven, Birmingham and Beyond
October 24, 2014
Keynote address, Southern Jewish Historical Society,Austin, Texas

In advance of the planned move of the historic Brenham (Texas) synagogue to the Dell Jewish Campus in Austin, this talk discusses the wide range of preservation options to consider by small congregation across the south, and elsewhere

Austin ,TX. Congregation Agudas Achim, interior.  Lake / Flatow, architects. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Arise and Build: American Synagogues & Jewish Identity
October 26, 2014
Congregation Agudas Achim, Dell Jewish Campus, Austin, Texas
10:00 a.m.
For further information

Through synagogue design, I'll traces changes in the organization of the American Jewish community and its relationship to American culture as a whole.  The location, size, shape, and stylistic language adopted for synagogue designs throughout the century is a reflection of the changing needs and values of American Jews.  The architecture of Congregation Agudas Achim, one of my favorite contemporary synagogue spaces, is a great example of modern congregation embracing traditional forms but in a contemporary idiom.

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 and 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]