12. Between Memory and Normalcy: Synagogue Architecture in Postwar Germany
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277 Chapter 12 Between Memory and Normalcy: Synagogue Architecture in Postwar Germany Gavriel D. Rosenfeld Not long ago, on September 21, 2008, one of Germany’s newest synagogues, Congregation Beit Tikvah, was formally dedicated in the Westphalian city of Bielefeld. Architecturally, Beit Tikvah is a simple whitewashed structure with striking arched forms that evoke the rounded stone tablets of the Ten Commandments . As is true of nearly all Jewish houses of worship erected in postwar Germany, Beit Tikvah was built to replace its predecessor, Bielefeld’s Turnerstrasse synagogue (1905), which was destroyed on Kristallnacht in November of 1938. Beit Tikvah was also built to accommodate the needs of Bielefeld ’s growing Jewish community, which, like others in Germany, has dramatically swelled in size thanks to the influx of Jews from the former communist East in the years since 1990.1 In one respect, however, Beit Tikvah is architecturally unique. It is the only synagogue in the Federal Republic that used to be a Protestant church.2 Originally erected in 1898, the Paul-­ Gerhardt-­ Kirche stood as a church for over a century until it was acquired in 2007 by the Bielefeld Jewish community, which was looking for new worship space. Soon thereafter, the community hired local architect, Klaus Beck, to renovate the building. In pursuing the project, Beck combined the old with the new, preserving the church’s ground plan but transforming its steeple and pointed windows into rounded forms graced with Hebrew characters. Today, the building’s transformation is undetectable. Few pedestrians who pass by Beit Tikvah would have any idea that it was once a church. The unique construction history of Beit Tikvah is symbolically significant on many different levels. For one thing, it speaks to the current state of Christian-­ Jewish relations in Germany. Initially, some of Bielefeld’s Christian 278    Three-Way Street citizens were deeply concerned about the church’s evolution into a synagogue, seeing it as a worrisome sign of waning religiosity. After all, the building’s sale to the Jewish community in 2007 went forward after church leaders concluded that dwindling attendance augured poorly for its future viability. The decision was controversial, however, and a radical group of dissident congregants went so far as to occupy the church for three months to try and hinder its sale to the Jewish community.3 There is no evidence that antisemitism fueled this activism . In fact, after the protests faded and the synagogue was finally dedicated several months later, many Christians stressed that the building’s transformation symbolized the common religious roots of Christianity and Judaism. Bielefeld’s Jews were naturally happy to share such expressions of interfaith fellowship. But most preferred to see the building as a sign of a different kind of reconciliation—­ between Germans and Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. When the prime minister of Nordrhein-­ Westfalen, Jürgen Rüttgers, declared in a speech delivered at the synagogue’s dedication that the new building symbolized “confidence and hope,” the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, agreed, stating that the building symbolized “the renaissance of the Jewish community in Germany.”4 The significance of Beit Tikvah extends beyond Christian-­ Jewish relaFig . 12.1. Klaus Beck, Congregation Beit Tikvah, Bielefeld, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Andy1982 at Creative Commons.) Between Memory and Normalcy    279 tions, however, and touches on intra-­ Jewish relations as well. Indeed, the building’s construction history can be interpreted as the by-­ product of important transnational forces that have shaped postwar Jewish life. One of these is immigration. The originator of the synagogue project was the Bielefeld community ’s longtime leader, Irith Michelsohn. Born in 1953 in Tel Aviv of German immigrant parents, she later returned to the Federal Republic and eventually assumed a leading role both in the local Jewish community of Bielefeld and nationally in the Reform-­ oriented Union of Progressive Jews.5 Despite her ample leadership skills, however, Michelsohn had an imperious management style that ended up causing controversy. Her pursuit of the synagogue project sparked a major conflict within the Bielefeld Jewish community, some of whose members saw it as violating halakhic rules against utilizing profane structures for religious purposes (opposition to the project prompted thirty members to split from the congregation in 2007).6 As a result of the burgeoning discord, Michelsohn (together with the other members of the synagogue’s five member board, including Cologne-­ born cantor Paul Yuval Adam) was voted out of office in 2008 and...



Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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