Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hide The Synagogue!

Okay, kids, want to play a neat game? Fine! With the cooperation of the City of Berlin, and of course the necessary backing of the Burden Of History, let's play Hide the Synagogue!

I owe this to my pal Ina, editor of the estimable Neid magazine, your basic average hiphop feminist art magazine. Ina has become fascinated with Berlin's Jewish sites, although she's not Jewish herself, and one day last year we went to an exhibition in the New Synagogue of architectural models of German synagogues. There was also an exhibition of various furnishings from Berlin synagogues, including a couple of tapestries from the Old Synagogue. Now, I knew we were in the New Synagogue, which had been built in 1866, so I asked Ina where the old one was.

"Your're kidding," she said. "It's in your back yard. It's on Rosenstr., just a short walk from Hackescher Markt."

I was astonished. It was virtually in my back yard. I mean, I knew Rosenstr., and had walked down it a few times, but since it was just a short street that didn't go anywhere in particular, I wasn't there too often. What I knew it for was a particularly hideous bit of public sculpture which memorialized a brave bit of resistance to the Nazis. It was made into a film in 2003, but, like most German films, it barely played in America. What happened was, in 1943 the Nazis raided a bunch of factories and seized Jewish men who were working there, taking them to a top-secret prison they had improvised in the Jewish Community administration building on Rosenstr. Word got out almost immediately, and some non-Jewish women who were married to some of the detainees started a demonstration in front of this building. At the end of a week, there may have been as many as a thousand women in the street chanting "Murderers!" and "Give us our men back!" Ultimately, the Nazis were humiliated into releasing the prisoners, even 25 they'd already shipped to Auschwitz! In 1995, a really, really ugly stone monument was erected in the lot opposite the former prison on Rosenstr., and that was all I knew about the place.

I mentioned this to Ina, and she agreed that this was the place. "It's got a historic marker sign and everything, though. Trust me, it's there."

So I went looking. And walked right past it. Walked clear out the other end of Rosenstr. and onto Karl-Liebknecht-Str. Then I turned around and walked back. And this, more or less, was what I saw.

Now, knowing what I know today, I can see the synagogue and the historical marker. And no, it's not the red pile on the left; that's the Frauenbloc -- Women's Bloc -- monument. I didn't want to singe your eyes with a full shot of it.

See the synagogue? I didn't think so. Here, let's see if this helps.

Ah, yes, over there in the corner! The sign! Alas, there's no synagogue to be seen, because it got hit with a bomb in World War II, and thanks to the DDR, ever ready to promote Judaism as a culture, not a religion, the remaining bits were knocked down rather than restored, even though the building dated from 1714, which is pretty old by Berlin standards. Also, due to an idiosyncracy of German-Jewish relations, most of the synagogue was still intact despite the damage: it was forbidden for Jews to build buildings higher than German ones, so many synagogues had the majority of their space below ground. A simple little building could conceal a gorgeous sanctuary. (This law was off the books by 1866, when the New Synagogue was built, obviously).

So now that we've walked into the corner of the park and noticed the sign with its back turned to the public, we can check out the remains of the foundation and read the sign:

You can see the Frauenbloc monument in the distance, and you can tell from the buildings across the street where Rosenstr. is. Here's a closer look at the foundation.

So we found it, kids! Despite the best efforts of the city of Berlin to hide it, we found the synagogue where Moses Mendelssohn, Salomon Maimon, David Friedländer, Henriette Herz, Rahel Levin, and thousands of less famous Jews worshiped for over 150 years (and, of course, some stayed on after the new one went up), where some of the intellectual lights of Berlin professed their faith and went through the rituals of life and death.

Hey, at least, unlike at the Rosenthaler Tor, there's acknowledgement that it was there. But there are no signs pointing to it, and no other hints that it's there. That I managed to pass it so many times without even seeing the sign is testament to how well hidden it is. Once again, faced with a positive monument in the city's history, the city chooses to celebrate the incident which will cause Berliners to reflect on the shame their city was guilty of and ignore a site of which it could deservedly be proud.

And speaking of Rosenthaler Tor, I think I've found a solution to the non-commemoration of that, too. But I'll have to hike up the hill some nice day and get a shot of it, so that'll have to wait for another day.


Almost forgot: much of the historical information on both the Old Synagogue and the Frauenbloc monmument came from the excellent Goldapple Guide to Jewish Berlin by Andrew Roth and Michael Frajman. Maybe Andrew's still reading this blog and can e-mail me with details as to how my other readers can get a copy of this invaluable resource.

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