10 November 2023

Remembering the Holocaust
85 years after ‘Kristallnacht’

The cupola of the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue dominates the streets in Spandauer Vorstadt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

On the night of 9 and 10 November 1938, Nazi Party members, members of the Hitler Youth and many other people went on a government-sanctioned rampage against Jews throughout Germany and Austria.

That night 85 years ago is remembered as Kristallnacht or the ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ and for many it marks the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust.

Jewish-owned businesses, schools, hospitals and synagogues were set on fire, were ransacked and had their windows smashed. Within two days, over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged and 1,000 synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were burned down. Up to 100 Jews were killed that night, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to ‘work camps’ that soon became death camps.

The façade of the New Synagogue survived Kristallnacht and World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The New Synagogue on Oranienburger strasse narrowly escaped being destroyed that night through the brave intervention of a district police chief, Wilhelm Krützfeld. With its domes, exotic and eastern Moorish style, and its resemblance to the Alhambra, it is an important work of architecture from the mid-19th century in Berlin.

Jews have been living in Berlin since the end of the 13th century. They were expelled in 1573, but they returned to the city over the next 100 years, and in 1671 the Elector Friedrich Wilhelm granted two Jewish refugees from Austria and their families the right to settle in Berlin.

The Jewish population in Berlin continued to grow in the 17th and 18th centuries, despite efforts by the Kings of Prussia to limit their number, and Jews in Berlin were prominent in many aspects of the city’s economic, intellectual and cultural life.

The site of Berlin’s first synagogue at Heidereutergasse, dedicated in 1714 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first synagogue in Berlin opened in 1712. At first, it was known as the ‘Great Synagogue,’ but later it was known as the ‘Old Synagogue.’ Berlin became the first centre of Haskalah, the Jewish cultural enlightenment movement, and its most renowned exponent, Moses Mendlessohn, lived in the city. The Judische Freischule, established in Berlin in 1778, was the first Jewish institution of learning that taught the German language.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the Jewish population of Berlin increased from 3,300 in 1812, to 28,000 in 1866, to 142,000 in 1910. The rapid rise was the result of a mass influx of Jews from provincial towns and from the eastern provinces of Imperial Germany, especially from Posen (today Poznan, Poland) and from Eastern Europe. A high percentage of Berlin’s Jewish population, therefore, was made up of Ostjuden or Jews from the East.

The New Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße was built in 1859-1866 as the main synagogue of the Berlin’s Jewish community. It was designed by the architect Eduard Knoblauch (1801-1865). When he died in 1865, the project Friedrich August Stüler took responsibility for completing the building and for its interior arrangement, design and decoration. The synagogue opened in 1866 in the presence of Count Otto von Bismarck, then the Minister President of Prussia.

The front of the building, facing Oranienburger Straße, is richly ornamented with shaped bricks and terracotta, accented by coloured glazed bricks. Beyond the entrance, the building’s alignment changes to merge with pre-existing structures. The main dome with its gilded ribs is an eye-catching sight. The central dome is flanked by two smaller pavilion-like domes on the two side-wings. Beyond the façade was the front hall and the main hall with 3,000 seats. Due to the unfavourable alignment of the property, the building’s design required adjustment along a slightly turned axis.

The New Synagogue was the largest synagogue in Germany at the time, seating 3,000 people. The building housed public concerts, including a violin concert with Albert Einstein in 1930. With an organ and a choir, the religious services reflected the liberal developments in Jewish worship at the time.

This was one of the few synagogues in Germany to survive Kristallnacht or the November Pogrom 85 years ago on the night of 9 and 10 November 1938, when Nazi mobs broke into the Neue Synagoge, desecrated Torah scrolls, smashed furniture and furnishings, piled them up and set them on fire.

Wilhelm Krützfeld, head of the local police precinct, was on duty that night. He ordered the Nazi mob to disperse. He told them the building was a protected historical landmark and drew his pistol, warning he would use it to uphold the law for its protection. This gave time for the fire brigade to arrive and put out the fire before it spread to the main building, and the synagogue was saved from destruction.

The New Synagogue remained standing, and was repaired by the congregation, which continued to use it as synagogue until 1940. The main hall was also used for concerts and lectures since other venues were blocked for Jews. The main prayer hall was last used by the congregation on Sunday 31 March 1940, this time for the final concert in a series of benefit concerts for the Jüdisches Winterhilfswerk or Jewish Winter Aid Fund, helping poor Jews who were denied government benefits.

On 5 April 1940, the Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt was forced to announce that services in the New Synagogue had been cancelled until further notice. Members of the congregation were told to remove their belongings from their shelves in the prayer hall by Monday 8 April 1940. The uniform department of the German army seized the building and used the main hall for the storage of army uniforms.

The Jewish Community continued to use the office rooms in the front section of New Synagogue, including the Repräsentantensaal or hall of the assembly of elected community representatives below the golden dome. Some members of the congregation even held occasional prayers in this hall until September 1942, when they were forced to abandon the front section too.

Many of Berlin’s Jewish institutions, including synagogues, schools and cultural sites, were destroyed during World War II. In the end, even the New Synagogue was severely burned during Allied bombing in the Battle of Berlin, between 18 November 1943 and 25 March 1944, when the New Synagogue was hit on the night of 22–23 November 1943.

The building to the left from the New Synagogue and the second one to the right at Oranienburger Straße 28 survived World War II intact, and the Jewish community returned to the building in 1946.

The Jewish Community of East Berlin decided to demolish the ruined rear sections of the building in 1958, including the soot-blackened ruin of the main prayer hall, leaving only the less-destroyed front section.

The damaged, but mostly preserved, central dome on top of the front section was also torn down in the 1950s. At the time, East Berlin’s Jewish Community, impoverished and diminished after the Holocaust, could not foresee any future opportunities to restore the New Synagogue.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, rebuilding of the front section began. The Centrum Judaicum Foundation opened in 1988 aFrom 1988 to 1993, the structurally intact parts of the building close to the street, including the façade, the dome and some rooms behind, were restored as the Centrum Judaicum or Jewish Centre.

The crown of the main dome was put in place on 5 June 1991. Since 5 September 1991, the restored gate of the New Synagogue – once the largest and most beautiful synagogue in Berlin – displays in gold Hebrew lettering the inscription it bore when it was first dedicated: ‘Open the gates to let a righteous nation in, a nations that keeps faith’ (Isaiah 26: 2).

By 1994, the Grand Staircase had been restored. Although the main sanctuary was not restored, a small synagogue congregation was re-established in May 1995, using the former women’s wardrobe room. The rebuilt New Synagogue opened in 1995 as a museum, cultural centre and community offices.

The new cornerstone of the New Synagogue was laid symbolically on 9 November 1998, 50 years after Kristallnacht (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The new foundation stone was unveiled on 9 November 1998, 50 years after Kristallnacht. The present building on the site is a reconstruction of the ruined street frontage with its entrance, dome and towers, with only a few rooms that have survived behind it. It is truncated before the point where the main hall of the synagogue began.

Jewish services are now held again in the New Synagogue. The congregation is the only Masorti synagogue in Berlin. Most of the building, however, houses offices and a museum. Today, there are 19 or so synagogues or Jewish houses of prayer in Berlin, compared with 94 synagogues in 1932. Most adhere to the Liberal rite, with a few Orthodox and reform synagogues. The Rykestrasse Synagogue, which opened in 1904, is the largest synagogue in Germany. It too survived Kristallnacht and reopened in July 1945 immediately after the war. The synagogue was fully restored in 2004 to mark its centenary.

Nine million people, including six million Jews, were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. A room in the Memorial Information Centre and Museum on Cora-Berliner-Strasse has a continuous audio-loop reciting the names of every known Holocaust victim. It takes six years for the audio loop to complete one cycle.

Since the reunification of Berlin and Germany, the German government has worked to make Berlin a city that once again welcomes Jews, and the city and other foundations have created sites and memorials throughout the city to honour the six million Jews murdered by Hitler’s Germany.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or Holocaust Memorial, is near the Brandenburg Gate in the city centre. It was designed by the US architect Peter Eisenman and unveiled in 2005, to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was built on land once known as the ‘death strip,’ between East and West Berlin.

This memorial, covering 205,000 sq ft of unevenly sloping ground, is filled with 2,711 unmarked grey stone slabs arranged in a grid pattern, each with a unique shape and size and some as tall as 13 ft. The number 2,711 also corresponds to the number of pages in the Talmud.

Berlin is now home to the world’s fastest growing Jewish community, believed to number about 45,000 people. Initially, Berlin attracted Jews from the former Soviet Union. The community kept growing with the arrival of thousands of Israelis and smaller numbers of young immigrants from Australia, France, the US and elsewhere. This is a diverse and sometimes divided community, from ultra-Orthodox to various reform branches to non-believers.

A plaque commemorates the centenary of the New Synagogue and recalls Kristallnacht (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Since 2009, the Irish Embassy in Berlin has been located at 51 Jägerstrasse. The house was built in 1789 and once belonged to the Mendelssohn family, serving as their home and business premises.

Daniel Anthony Binchy (1899-1989), who was the Irish minister (ambassador) in Germany in 1929-1932, wrote a paper for the Jesuit journal Studies in March 1933, warning of Hitler’s imminent rise to power and the threat he posed to Germany’s Jews and to peace in Europe. It was a prescient warning, and although it was largely ignored, his sharp analysis shows Europe knew the dangers Hitler posed six years before World War II.

Jewish heritage sites and Holocaust monuments throughout Europe have been targeted in the last month, amid the general upsurge of antisemitism since the brutal Hamas massacre of civilians and the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The European Commission has issued a statement in recent days describing several specific incidents and deploring what it terms a ‘spike of antisemitic incidents across Europe.’

Petrol bombs were thrown at a synagogue in Germany, stars of David have been sprayed on residential buildings in France, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Austria, Jewish shops and synagogues have been attacked in Spain, and many protesterss across Europe have chanted hate slogans against Jews.

In Britain, according to the Jewish community’s security organisation, CST, there have been 893 antisemitic incidents from 7 to 31 October, an increase of 609% compared to the same 25-day period last year.

In Austria, the ceremonial hall at the Jewish section of the main Central Cemetery in Vienna was set on fire on the night of 31 October-1 November, and a swastika and the word ‘Hitler’ were spray-painted on the outer wall.

Stickers with ‘Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas’ and ‘Hamas, Hamas, Zionists to the Gas’ were stuck on walls in Copenhagen.

In France, the Interior Ministry has reported 1,040 antisemitic incidents and 486 arrests since 7 October. In Germany, there has been a 240% increase in antisemitic incidents since 7 October, compared to the same time last year.

In Paris ‘Jews Out’ and ‘No Jews Allowed’ were painted on a shopfront and on the footpath and almost 80 Stars of David were painted on apartment buildings and banks. ‘A good Jew is a dead Jew,’ ‘Death to Jews’ and swastikas were painted on a kindergarten wall in Strasbourg. The Duchère synagogue in Lyon was vandalised and spraypainted. ‘Death’ and Stars of David were painted on a kosher restaurant in Villeurbanne.

In Berlin’s central district of Mitte, two petrol bombs were thrown at the building housing the Kahal Adass synagogue on Brunnenstraße in the early hours of 18 October. Police said they smashed on the pavement before dying out and caused no damaged.

In other parts of Germany, a Holocaust memorial plaque in Bilon was spray-painted. A Holocaust memorial in Hannover and paint was daubed on memorials to synagogues in Gelsenkirchenm and Tann that had been destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938.

A mural at the Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki was defaced with the scrawled slogans, ‘Jews = Nazis’ and ‘Free Palestine.’

The wall and gate of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto were vandalised with scrawled slogans.

Madrid’s main synagogue was defaced on 8 October with graffiti that read ‘Free Palestine’ beside a crossed-out Star of David, a day after the 7 October attacks by Hamas in Israel.

Anti-Israel protesters in Sweden staged their protest in front of the synagogue in Malmo.

The European Commission says antisemitic incidents across Europe ‘have reached extraordinary levels in the last few days, reminiscent of some of the darkest times in history. European Jews today are again living in fear.’

My generation may be the last to say we met and knew survivors of the Holocaust. The 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht today is one opportunity to ensure their stories continue to be told and the memories are handed on to the generations that follow so that all know of the evil consequences of not speakking out against antisemtism.

Shabbat Shalom

The memorial sculpture of 13 figures representing the women of Ravensbruck was designed by Will Lammert (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


N: Aunyn said...

"The cupola of the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue dominates the streets in Spandau" - no, the New Synagogue is situated in the Centre of Berlin. The neighbourhood was called "Spandauer Vorstadt" (Vorstadt = suburb) - because the street lead to Spandau.

In the 1990ties Berlin was the fastest growing Jewish Community in the world.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you for your correction, I appreciate your comments. I have corrected the caption, Patrick