First Traces: Synagogue Heidereutergasse

First off, let me introduce you to my attempt at maintaining a blog that will chronicle not my daily ablutions, but rather thoughts I am having related to what I am studying, reading, viewing, etc. My hope is that this will induce a writing-habit.

Let’s begin! (By which I mean *I* will begin and *You* will read and hopefully nag me when I fail to make appearances)

“Jewish Berlin” is a phrase I am confronted with a lot. I hear it, I read it, and I use it in my own work with relative frequency. However, what these two words (the latter a bit more innocuous than the former) signify is not self-evident. It is unclear whether “Jewish Berlin” is referring to the current Jewish community – Jews who are alive and live in Berlin; synagogue services; Jewish social and charity organizations; the large Russian-Jewish population, and so on – or to a past community, a former life in which Berlin was home to a thriving, diverse and much larger Jewish population, a time before the deportations and mass killings of the 20th Century. The distinction does not end there. If we are speaking of a past “Jewish Berlin,” are we talking only of the visible reminders of that history – the structures that continue to make their presence known in the cityscape?: The New Synagogue; Moses Mendelssohn’s grave; the cemetery at Weißensee; the Jewish High School; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to name a few sites. Or do we include in that collection all those locations that have been painted over, built upon, and removed from living memory? This city – an urban palimpsest (see A. Huyssen) – is a tangle of layers. Nothing has smoothly sedimented: epochs and memories find their way to the surface. Other spaces can only be read about, searched for, and imagined.

I am attending a course at the Humboldt Uni. entitled: “Auf den Spuren jüdisches Leben in Berlin-Mitte” (roughly: Tracing Jewisn life in Berlin-Mitte). Spuren – traces – are popular here. Many residents and tourists with cryptic fantasies are drawn to the suggestion of the past. Different from “historical sites,” the trace functions as a keyhole of sorts. The trace is a tantalizing glimpse into a forgotten moment. The trace can be seductive as it does not offer a complete picture. It might not even offer anything at all. Traces can be strung together forming the plural “traces of Jewish life,” for example, which function as an ethereal city-guide, moving visitors along an invisible path of suggestive history.

I provide you with this introduction, as I will probably muse upon the idea of the “trace” at a later point, and will certainly be writing more upon my encounters with these various traces.

Our class visited the Old Synagogue in the Heidereutergasse. Or more aptly, the ghost of the Synagogue as the original foundation of the building is just a grass-covered square, boxed-off and shaded by multi-story GDR structures. The East German TV tower, situated just a street away, peeks out over the roof of an adjacent building. Guests at the hostel across the street stand out on the sidewalk smoking. A man parks his SmartCar in the Heidereutergasse, his radio blaring.

An information plaque stands at the edge of the park, facing the backside of a large Plattenbau. It informs the reader of the great Synagogue that once stood on the dingy plot of green-space they see before them.

The Rise and Fall of the Synagogue in the Heidereutergasse:

An Edict was issued in 1671, the year that 50 Jewish families were allowed residency in Berlin after having been forced from Vienna, which stated that no synagogue would be allowed in the city. In 1700, a generation later, the “court-Jew” Joof Liebmann was granted permission to establish a private synagogue in his home. Another Jewish purveyor of the court then bought himself the same privilege, establishing prayer rooms in the Heidereutergasse. Around 1708, the Jewish community began raising their demands for a public synagogue – a demand that met resistance from the owners of the private rooms of worship who had payed a lot for that privilege.

In 1712 the foundation stone for the Synagogue was laid. On the 14th of September, 1714, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), the Synagogue was officially inaugurated. The christian master builder, Michael Kemmeter, constructed the Great Synagogue (as it was named) in a baroque-style. At that time it was, as sources say, the most magnificent synagogue in Germany. The exterior of the Synagogue was rather simple; it had no towers or cupolas lest it be mistaken for a Christan church. Inside the building was a baroque Tora Ark – on April 20, 1718 the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I visited the Synagogue and donated a curtain (Parochet) to cover the Ark.

In 1745 Rabbi David Fränkel (Moses Mendelssohn’s teacher) opened up a Jewish school (Bet ha-Midrash) in a newly built annex. The Synagogue was later renovated by christian architect Eduard Knoblauch (student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel) in 1856, and outfitted in a more classical style. With the construction of the Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburger Strasse, the Synagogue in the Heidereutergase was renamed the Alte Synagoge (old synagogue).

The Old Synagogue was more traditional in comparison to the New Synagoge – which was constructed to fill the needs of the growing Reform community in Berlin. Women and men remained separate in the Heidereutergasse – whereas the Synagogue in the Oranienburgerstr. offered mixed services, organ music, and later prayer books translated into German.

The Synagogue was ransacked and poorly damaged by SA men during Kristallnacht of 1938. The building was then taken over by the German Reichspost. The Synagogue was later badly destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. Although a reconstruction was possible, the ruins of the Synagogue were removed in the 1960s (in the GDR).*

It is hard to imagine the scale of such a structure on what looks to be a measly plot of land. The large East German constructions make it hard to fathom that the “most magnificent synagogue in Germany” once stood here. Other traces occupy the same plot as well. Perpendicular to the Heidereutergasse is Rosen Strasse – the site of a successful resistance movement against Nazi forces. Jewish men were detained in a building on the street, and their non-Jewish wives showed up everyday, demanding their release. Their movement was successful and there are several abstract sculptures of pink-colored stone located on the square that memorialize their effort.

It might seem horrifying that such a grand and important structure like the first synagogue in Berlin could slip so deeply into obscurity. When one is accustomed to “tracing,” however, the invisibility or general neglect of such history no longer seems surprising. Most of the past “Jewish Berlin” has been reduced to informational placards, a simple address, or absolutely nothing at all.

Although I have grown used to carrying around house numbers in my pocket, standing before high-end designer shops trying to imagine a Kosher butcher occupying the same storefront, I still get angry. I think what most upsets me about this occupation with traces, with uncovering forgotten sites, is that it begins to sound like a treasure-hunt. A sense of satisfaction accompanies discovering an address or plot – but to what end? The truth remains that the disappearance of “Jewish Berlin” was the result of violence and hate. Buildings, often the casualties of war, are either rebuilt or make way for new constructions. The fact that many of these former sites of Jewish life had the potential to be restored but were not speaks to a perpetual disinterest by the majority society for things that deal with “other” histories.

Becoming attune to the proliferation of traces can be overwhelming. The amount of things that one cannot see is staggering. What, then, is the proper way of dealing with and confronting the trace? What sort of attention or recognition do such traces deserve? This is the question I am currently grappling with. To erect further memorials to a destroyed history is enervating. Historical accountability or curiosity becomes messily entangled with nostalgia – a dangerous emotion when dealing with histories that are not ours. Of late I have been opting for the maintenance of emptiness.

* Most of the information from: Rebiger, Bill. “Synagoge Heidereutergasse.” Das jüdische Berlin. Kulur, Religion und Alltag gestern und heute. Berlin: Jaron Verlag, 2000. 76-77.