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]

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)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poland: Holocaust Memorial in Serock, Dedicated on August 27, 2014

Serock, Poland.  New Monument at Jewish Cemetery, just before completion.  Photo courtesy of Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland

Poland: Holocaust Memorial in Serock,  Dedicated on August 27, 2014 

  (n.b. post revised and expanded 9/15/2014)

by Samuel D. Gruber

An unlikely partnership has produced a new Holocaust memorial at the once devastated Polish Jewish cemetery in Serock, located about 25 miles north of Warsaw.  Begun by the desire of a thirteen-year-old Washington, DC girl, the project engaged a Polish Foundation, a United States Government Commission, and local authorities and residents. 

For a Bat Mitzvah project, Hannah Champness decided to raise money to build a monument at the destroyed Jewish cemetery in Serock, the town where her grandmother Diana Albert (Doba Ita Drezner) was born and where she hid (with her brother) before landing in the Warsaw Ghetto, before eventually escaping and finding refuge with a Polish family.  Later, Diana Albert came to America, the sole survivor of her family.

Serock, Poland.  U.S. Commission member Lee Seeman speaking at dedication of new monument at Jewish cemetery, Aug 27, 2014.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Commission for Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad

Champness was able to enlist the assistance of the United State Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, and especially Commission member Lee Seeman, of Great Neck, New York, who has been involved in several similar documentation and commemoration projects (I worked with Lee a decade ago documenting and marking the sites of labor camps in Estonia).  Lee was already aware of the plight of the cemetery in the town (where her friend Congressman Gary Ackerman's family originated), so she decided to take on the project.  

Over a period of several years Seeman and Champness raised money for the work by talking it up to almost everyone they knew, and the Commission helped solicit funds (by law, Commission sanctioned projects must be funded form private donations).  The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ), which has restored many cemeteries and built several memorials such as the one in Radom, arranged and oversaw the building of the memorial on land donated and made accessible by PKO Bank Polski. The Bank was a willing and active partner in the work.  Though a relatively small project - compared to a big synagogue restoration - the project was complex, and developed as a model collaborative effort with many key participants along the way.

The stele-style monument is located at the site of the town's Jewish cemetery of which the Nazi Germans  destroyed most visible evidence.  It incorporates matzevah fragments in what is now an time-honored cemetery-Holocaust memorial type (see construction photos here). 

The multilingual inscription on the monument, reads in part: 

This area comprises the Jewish Cemetery of Serock. Jews were buried here from the 18th century until 1939, when Nazi German forces ordered that all traces of the cemetery be obliterated. For many years, the gravestones on the wall were piled up on a nearby site. This memorial pays tribute to a once vibrant Jewish community and honours those citizens of Serock who were murdered in the Holocaust solely because they were Jewish.

Broken pieces of some gravestones were found in recent years after being piled not far from the cemetery site, an these were cleaned and incorporated into the memorial. I presume they have been transcribed and translated.

The monument was dedicated at a public ceremony on August 27, 2014 (see photos here). Hannah Champness, now sixteen years old, gave an intelligent and moving presentation about the project and in tribute to her grandmother, and the murdered Jews of Serock.  Watch her here.  This should be played for teens everywhere as a Holocaust history lesson, but even more so in how committing to a cause can have real results.

The dedication ceremony also included remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull, who said that “One of our most sacred duties is to keep the memory of the crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II. So it could never happen again ...The monument in Serock is an important symbol of American support for the Polish efforts to ensure that no one ever again has to be a witness or a victim of the terrible crimes that took place here in Serock and many other cities and towns in Poland and Europe.” 

Other participants included Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, Serock Mayor Sylwester Edwin Sokolniki, Legionowo Powiat Starost Jan Grabiec, Agnieszka Zawadzka of the Mazowieckie province Voivod, Piotr Kadlcik of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, Justyna Borkiewicz of the PKO Bank Foundation. Piotr Kadlcik, said “When the ceremony ends we will go to our homes. But this monument will remain here... a testimony to what once was here in the Jewish community.” 

The U.S. Commission first began similar work - which many others have since carried forth - when in 1998 it built and dedicated a monument at the Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Wyszkow, not far from Serock.  Writing in article about the project and monument, Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Jewish Community in Warsaw and Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, recollect that "since the two towns were historically connected, many former “Vyshkovers” shared family links to Serock, and by then the idea of a Serock cemetery commemoration had been conceived." 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

USA: Remembering Artist Ben Shahn and Architect Max Abramovitz at Buffalo's Temple Beth Zion

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau 

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

USA: Remembering Artist Ben Shahn and Architect Max Abramovitz at Buffalo's Temple Beth Zion
by Samuel D. Gruber

Yesterday was a day shared by two Jewish titans of 20th century American art and architecture.  The artist Ben Shahn was born on September 12, in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, and architect Max Abamovitz who was born in 1908, died on this day in 2004 in Pound Ridge, New York.

Both men had long and productive careers shaping their fields in the last century.  But they share something else; in the 1960s, shortly before Shahn's death in 1969, the two worked together to create Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York.  The building is one of the era's most dramatically expressive synagogues.  I wrote about Beth Zion in my 2003 book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community, illustrated with fine photos by Paul Rocheleau.  In remembrance of Shahn and Abramovitz, and to make this masterpiece more widely known, I've included some of my book text here with many of Paul's photos.

Evanston, Il. Bnai Brith Hillel Fdtn, Northwestern University (demolished).  Max Abramovitz, architect, 1948-52.  Photo: Faith and Form (1976), p71

Abramovitz spent most of his career in professional partnership with Wallace Harrison (1895-1981) and the two were highly successful advocates of an elegant modernism in the post-war years, and they soon became favorite architects of the Rockefellers and many other institutional patrons.  Mostly, as designers, they worked independently and over time Abramovitz favored a most robust, expressive language with generous use of formed concrete.  As the Jewish partner, he was more drawn to Jewish communal and synagogue projects. The firm’s first buildings in this area were two Hillel Centers on university campuses in Evanston and Champaign, Illinois, designed as early as 1947 but not completed until 1951 and 1952.  When an undergraduate at Illinois in 1928, Abramovitz wrote a paper on synagogue architecture. (I have a copy - it is probably one of the first  synagogue projects to come out of an American university).

The Champaign Hillel design was published in Architectural Record in 1948, and the Hillels were very similar. They featured round-ended chapels surrounded by an arcade of reverse tapering columns, and a central open court around which meeting rooms and offices were placed. The chapels were small, though the Champaign building allowed for an expansion of the space for holiday seating.  These designs owe much to the overall configuration of parts laid out by Erich Mendelsohn at B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, but the style of the buildings is a cool clear modernism composed of simple shapes, clean lines and minimal decoration with any of the drama or emotionalism that Mendelsohn imparted to his sanctuary designs. The buildings were scaled to human use. Unfortunately, they were not built to withstand local weather conditions. The Center of Evanston was replaced by a new sturdier structure in the late 1990s.

Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo.  William Kent, architect, 1890. 

 Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo.  Max Abramovitz, architect.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

  Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo.  Max Abramovitz, architect.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2002)

Later, when Max Abramovitz came to synagogue design in the 1960s, he created something quite different from his earlier work. Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, though founded as an Orthodox congregation in 1850,  had allied itself with the Reform movement by 1863, and was a leading congregation in the Reform movement.  In Edward A. Kent had designed an imposing new synagogue for the congregation dedicated in September 1890. It was one of the first domed synagogues in North America and was in use until gutted by fire on October 4, 1961. 

Abramovitz designed a new synagogue center, built just a short distance up Delaware Avenue which was dedicated in 1967. Over the decades, the 1891 synagogue had been enlarged with classrooms and other facilities so that at the time of its destruction, it formed a substantial complex. The rebuilding attempted to recreate this mix if uses through a unified integrated design.  The unusually shaped exterior of the sanctuary is fortress like and somewhat off-putting, but inside Abramovitz created an expressive masterpiece, one of the few fully uplifting emotional responses to architectural modernism in America, and his best work in concrete.

Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, interior.  William Kent, architect, 1890.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion, view from bimah to main entrance.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau 
The building, which in the words of a contemporary critic appeared “at once ascetic and Baroque.” In its underlying humanism the building stands in stark contrast to many contemporary Brutalist-style buildings of the period that use similar materials.  While the brush hammered concrete of the synagogue is closer to the rough surfaces of Paul Rudolph’s buildings than to the smooth, grainy concrete forms of Louis Kahn, overall, the expressive use of the material has its closest sources in contemporary European religious structures such as Le Corbusier’s Chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1951-55) and Giovanni Michelucci’s church of Church of S. Giovanni off the Autostrada del Sole (1962), near Florence, Italy.

From the outside, the building appears bowl-shaped. The impenetrable Alabama limestone walls flare outward as they rise, and are shaped with ten scallops per side. The main entrance is from Delaware Avenue, though today, it is more common to enter the sanctuary from behind the Ark, through a lobby that joins the space to the larger synagogue-center. Above both of these entrances are large stained glass windows, each an inverted wedge that creates a break in the sanctuary’s solid shell.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion. Entrance stained glass of 150th Psalm.  Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau.

The Delaware Avenue entrance is through a low doorway under one of the large windows and a projecting flat concrete slab canopy supported by two concrete columns, which taper from top to bottom (a device Abramovitz used earlier in the Northwestern University Hillel in Evanston). The austere entrance and severe solid exterior walls do not bode well for the worshipers’ experience. The stained glass -- the closest thing to a façade on the building -- was designed by Ben Shahn and depicts, through colored calligraphy, the 150th Psalm, which was sung at the dedication of the first Temple on Delaware Avenue in 1890, and was a favorite theme for Ben Shahn.

Praise God in His sanctuary;
praise Him in the sky , His stronghold.
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
praise Him for His exceeding greatness.
Praise Him with blasts of the horn;
praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance;
praise Him with lute and pipe.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals;
praise Him with loud-clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise the Lord.

The colorful composition is remarkable in many ways, but unfortunately, when not lit from within, it is hard to read from the outside – and appears more as a black void than as an instructive and celebratory artwork. Inside, the window is divided by the landing of the stairway to the balcony, thus it cannot be seen in its entirety.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Moving from the cramped vestibule through low doors, one enters the sanctuary where the ceiling rises to a height of 62 feet. It appears to hover, suspended as a taut canopy stretched across the bowl of the worship space. The edges of the ceiling are not flush with the walls. Light from hidden skylights filters through the open spaces, falling along the sloping walls to reveal a range of soft earthy colors in the rough concrete. A big balcony sweeps from the back of the sanctuary all the way to the ark, where it meets two 30-foot tall concrete pylons flanking the ark, holding them in a pincer-like embrace. These massive towers, which in fact are enormous upright concrete slabs, splay out across the bimah to stand as sentinels guarding the ark. Upon them are inlaid with mosaic tile huge Hebrew letters designed by Ben Shahn, representing the Ten Commandments, the essential words of Jewish law.  

The towers serve to frame the synagogue’s second huge stained glass window, set behind the ark. Like the front façade widow, this I also designed by Ben Shahn as a large inverted wedge. It represents in symbolic form, and with his famous calligraphic technique, the story of Creation. Looking closely, one can discern a huge upturned hand that molds primordial chaos, and the passage from Job 38: 4-7, which gives architectural expression to the creation of the universe to the building captions the scene.  
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set it cornerstone
When the morning stars stand together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy? 

 As if illuminated by the colored light from the Creation window, a large glass and brass menorah shines on the bimah, and a simple multi-faced eternal light is suspended from above. As already mentioned, many people enter the sanctuary from behind the ark, utilizing parking facilities and the synagogue center complex which includes a museum, social hall, classrooms, offices, and other public spaces and encounter Abramovitz’s design somewhat in reverse. However, this process was understood from the start, and the walk behind the ark and to the prayer hall is made much more dramatic than from the formal entrance. One passes through a narrow defile, squeezed between massive concrete walls. Looking up, the shapes of walls, window and ark towers veer away. Light filters through the stained glass, from an ocular skylight above the ark, and from above the ceiling. The effect of this passage from profane to sacred space is magical and almost mystical in its effect.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion, Menorah.  Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

In contrast to the expressive and awe-inspiring qualities of the sanctuary, Abramovitz also designed a smaller chapel.  This appealing room is simpler and subtler, and exercise in modernist right angles and restraint. I think Gordon Bunshaft, the great rationalist of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, who grew up attending the older William Kent synagogue, would have preferred this space.

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion chapel. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 See also:

“Temple’s Slanting Walls Create an upwardly Directed Symbolic Form,” Architectural Record (March 1968), 133.