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After Miraculously Escaping Nazi Destruction, Munich Synagogue Is Saved Again

Munich's new Ohel Jacob synagogue
Munich's new Ohel Jacob synagogue
Eva-Elisabeth Fischer

MUNICH - Our meeting takes place at Munich’s old Jewish synagogue on Reichenbachstrasse. Rachel Salamander and her Synagogue Reichenbachstrasse charity co-chair, attorney Ron Jakubowicz, are telling us about their plans for the synagogue’s future.

The mission of the charity, which was launched in November 2011, is to save and restore the pre-war synagogue that was turned into a wood and metal workshop after the infamous November 9, 1938 Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” when Nazis smashed windows, looted and burned Jewish synagogues, shops and homes.

Both the German state of Bavaria and its capital city Munich, represented personally at the gathering by German Minister of Culture Wolfgang Heubisch and Mayor Christian Ude, not only support these goals but have now budgeted substantial funds to see them realized. The project will receive additional funding from sponsors, and Heubisch presented 200,000 euros from federal heritage conservation funds.

The money from the state of Bavaria will also be drawn from its heritage conservation budget, since the Reichenbachstrasse synagogue is considered a jewel of Neue Sachlichkeit architecture (the modern architecture movement that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s). Architect Christoph Sattler, a founding member of the association, believes that it will take 6 million euros to restore the building following architect Gustav Meyerstein’s original 1930 designs. Ideally, Sattler says, the restored synagogue could be re-opened in the first half of 2015.

The exterior of the synagogue is inconspicuous, and although the inside was never as ornamentally extravagant as was the style in eastern European synagogues at the time it was built, it was colorful -- with turquoise walls providing contrast for yellow marble and a soft beige glass ceiling. The area around the raised platform known as the bimah was painted in Pompeian red.

Out of the "backyard" and into the city center

The fact that the building does not stand out from the row of houses surrounding it, is not only due to its style – a style that lies somewhere between Bauhaus and Art Deco. In 1931, when the synagogue was consecrated, economic depression in Germany had helped fuel virulent anti-Semitism. Later, the synagogue’s bland exterior was also reassuring to the handful of Jews who after the holocaust, understandably eager to keep their heads down, got together in 1947 and with very modest resources reconverted the building back into a place of worship.

Well before Munich’s new Ohel Jacob synagogue was inaugurated in November 2006, Charlotte Knobloch, the long-time president of the Jewish Community in Munich – the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG) – and president of the Jewish Council in Germany, had started to campaign against the low profile, “backyard existence” of Jews in Munich.

As luck would have it, Munich’s new main synagogue and new Jewish cultural center was able to be financed without having to sell the Reichenbachstrasse synagogue.

During our meeting, Rachel Salamander made compelling arguments for the old synagogue, saying that it was the duty of second-generation holocaust survivors – Jews and non-Jews alike – to bring new life to the synagogue that was in Munich’s Jewish neighborhood.

With the exception of memorial plaques, there are hardly any traces of Jewish life in the city, she said. She called it "the presence of absence.” She added that it makes no sense to lament the loss of Jewish life and culture and yet allow the historic Reichenbachstrasse synagogue to slide into decay.

Like Rachel Salamander, many who came to the synagogue on this grey January morning were overcome by emotion. Along with other women, she located her nameplate in the women’s section, where she attended services until Nov. 9, 2006, when the Ohel Jacob Synagogue was consecrated.

Ellen Presser, head of Munich’s new Youth and Cultural Centre, remembered attending this synagogue as a child. To this day, she said, she could hear the terrible cries of survivors during Yizkor memorial services for the deceased on Yom Kippur.

Rachel Salamander says that in the future, not only Jewish but also inter-confessional religious services will be held at the Reichenbachstrasse synagogue.

The intention, she says, is for the building to become a place of meetings and discussions for all Munich citizens.

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