Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Tishrei 5764 - October 13, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Virtual Preservation of Botei Knesset Around the World

Clouds of smoke billow from the dome of the beis knesses. Black soot bellows up darkening the German skies. Anxious Jewish faces peering out of windows snatch a glance at the abomination, looking on helpless and horrified as kodshei Yisroel go up in flames. This image appears over and over on the small screen at the entrance to the unique exhibition of reconstructed botei knesses at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The message of this unique project: they can burn and destroy, desecrate and annihilate -- but the memory persists.


Before World War II, Germany had 2,800 botei knesses that served as communal centers filled with tefillos. Some of them reflected the Jews' power in the country and were built with great splendor inside and out. But when Hitler's madness began to take over the German streets and to burst onto the scene in the form of official laws, they were suddenly in great danger. The assassination of a German diplomat by an enraged Jewish youth whose family had been expelled from Germany was the green light for a blood-bath (see sidebar). On Kristallnacht, also called the Night of Broken Crystal, at the height of a pogrom steeped in hate, over 1,400 botei knesses were desecrated and destroyed.

In the memorial corner, built as a closed circle at the exhibition, the names of botei knesses turned into ash are documented, with before-and-after photographs of botei mikdosh me'at that once stood and then were no more.

They are gone but they have not vanished, at least not from the screen of memory. This is the foremost goal of the creators of the "Synagogues in Germany: Virtual Reconstruction," a traveling exhibition that spent six weeks in Israel last summer -- its first stop outside of Germany. Of course, rebuilding all of the botei knesses would be infeasible, but to immortalize them in our consciousness is certainly possible. In order to insure the results speak in the language of today and resonate around the world among young and old alike, the project designers opted to employ a modern medium: the computer. The original models appear on the screens, allowing the viewer to roam through them as if on a walking tour of the shul itself, bringing history back to life.

German Gesture

What is surprising about the virtual restoration program is the German partners who joined the Israelis in the historical rehabilitation campaign in order to close loose ends from the past and present. The other moving aspect besides the virtual perpetuation is the unusual gesture on the part of young, non- Jewish students who decided to invest their time and ability into documenting botei knesses that disappeared into the flames, perhaps to seek some sort of forgiveness.

"The initiative was conjured up in the head of a 30-year-old German lecturer, ten years ago, when the beis knesses in the city of Lubeck, Germany was burned," explains Mrs. Sarah Harel of the Diaspora Museum, who worked on the project. "A group of architecture students at the University of Technology in Darmstadt decided their research, documentation and restoration project would act as a counterweight to the rise in antisemitism and neo-Nazism in Germany as well as new legislation against minorities. The goal was twofold: to raise awareness of important historical monuments destroyed by Nazi violence and to immortalize the vibrant Jewish life that existed in Germany in the past, and its decimation.

"It began with the restoration of three synagogues in Frankfurt, displayed in miniature in a number of places in Germany, and its success and the interest it aroused gained momentum, transforming into a wave of restorations that eventually turned the project into a traveling exhibition. Bonn, the former capital of Germany, was the first exhibition site to allocate a major exhibition hall in which to present the exhibition, an act that accentuates its great importance in the eyes of the German people."

German interest in Jewish religious history is a research topic in and of itself. Several restoration initiatives were conceived and even funded by German institutions and often financial backing came from the Germans rather than the members of the Jewish community. "Perhaps this stems from an inner sense of guilt stirring in German youths," says Dr. Adina Merille of the Department of Art History at Tel Aviv University, an expert in the restoration of German botei knesses and the head of the restoration project. On a trip to Berlin even she herself was astounded by the degree of interest the Germans showed.

She clearly remembers a surprisingly insightful question by one of the German students who showed greater knowledge of the details in the Jewish tradition than many German-Jewish students. He wanted to know whether, in the 1920s, care was taken to build botei knesses facing toward Jerusalem and the location of the bimoh in relation to the aron kodesh. What begins as a mere interest in architecture soon transforms into general enthusiasm for religion. In order to gain greater and greater understanding, some of the German students even began to study Hebrew and went to botei knesses to hear the tefillos and observe Jewish culture up close.

In general Dr. Merille feels interest in the subject of botei knesses is also on the rise in Eretz Yisroel. "Twenty-five years ago, when I tried to teach a course on synagogue architecture in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I didn't have any students! Today, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and back-to-roots trips in Eastern Europe, apparently people have become more open to history and synagogues. Two years ago, a seminar course on synagogues was opened and in Tel Aviv there are courses on synagogues that draw a large crowd."

The Labor of Documentation

To date, 16 botei knesses have been restored and of these, 14 have visited Israel: models of botei knesses in Berlin, Dortmund, Dresden, Hanover, Kaiserslautern, Cologne, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, Plauen, Mannheim and three in Frankfurt that were destroyed during the period of Nazi rule, especially on Kristallnacht. Due to space limitations, only ten of them were on display at the Diaspora Museum.

Out of the carefully packed crates comes the equipment which, because it is virtual, appears dull and gray at first, computerized and very unimpressive. The screens are installed on the walls and opposite them the computer stations are set up and beside them go documented pictures painstakingly drawn to bring the story to life for every visitor.

Each station is distinguished from the next by a different color. Every one of them is a whole world unto itself, a picture of a thriving kehilloh that was maliciously cut down.

This feeling begins to course through one's veins as he sits down to watch images of the drawings that document every stage of the seemingly impossible task of restoration. Pictures of the beis knesses in all of its former glory appear on the giant screen--the external structure, the entranceways, the aron kodesh, the paroches-- even the light rays streaming in through the ornamented windows. The little computer screen assembles the living puzzle bit by bit, accompanying us through the laborious restoration process.

First is an authentic photograph of the original shul as it appeared in the best of times. Beside it is a horrific photo of the waves of destruction and the charred remains they left behind. And finally the restored version.

In the beginning there is only a flat, meaningless outline imitating the outline of the original. Then more and more lines are drawn in, forming nets of woven lines giving the image three-dimensional volume. The sophisticated restoration program (called MAYA) makes it possible to create dimensions in proportion.

It's hard to believe botei knesses no longer in existence can be recreated from scratch -- yeish mei'ayin -- using only museum archive photographs and records that document every detail. This unique virtual meleches machsheves requires thousands of hours of painstaking labor down to the last detail.


A beis knesses from Hanover's Bergstrasse pops up on the screen; on Kristallnacht it went up in flames and the next day the remains were demolished with explosives.

Nothing was left of the impressive building with its large dome and three seating levels and seating for 650 men and another 450 in the ezras noshim to meet the needs of the Jewish population in 1861. At the time, there were more than 1,100 Jewish residents. Yet on the screen it looks almost real, as if one could step inside and walk around.

At the other stations, visitors take part in the rehabilitation of other botei knesses reduced to ruins by the Germans. The rectangular form of the beis knesses on the Luisenstrass in Kaiserslautern with its 420 seats, plus another 220 in the ezras noshim, takes shape on the little screen in all its splendor. In the Palatinate District much importance was attached to its dedication ceremony in 1886, which the local press described enthusiastically, but in 1938 the city council decided to demolish it, saying it did not fit the city's German "image." Following the demolition work a Nazi Party organ wrote, "A happy report that fell like a bomb, another Oriental [sight] that will vanish from the German panorama."


The Great Synagogue at Hanszaksplatz in Nuremberg also raised the Germans' ire, apparently because its grandeur stood out in the cityscape. The Lutheran Church periodical of the time described it as "the crowning jewel of their [i.e. the Jews'] victory," and after the Nazis rose to power it became a focal point for venomous propaganda. It was destroyed three months before Kristallnacht, but on the screen it appears in all its former glory.

The new beis knesses at Herzogmaxstrasse in Munich, built in response to the remarkable growth of the city's Jewish community, was razed on June 7, 1938 with Hitler himself ordering the work. The three-seating-level beis knesses was the third largest in all of Germany with 1,000 seats for men and another 800 seats in the ezras noshim. On June 7, 1938 Hitler himself visited the site. The next day the kehilloh was notified it was slated for demolition and the very next day demolition work commenced.

The last station represented the youngest shul in the collection, the beis knesses on Sonfelderwangelstrasse in Plauen. Completed in 1930 it served the Jewish community of Plauen, which became the fifth largest kehilloh in Saxony. Perhaps it was the rapid assimilation of its founders and congregants that brought about the early demise of the 800-seat synagogue. A Jewish architect decided to do away with the separation of men and women and to build it in a modern, "international style." On Kristallnacht the building and its foreign ideas went up in flames.

The congregants of Cologne's Glukengasse Synagogue, which was completed in 1865 after four years of construction, also received a ringing slap in the face. The outer construction of the beis knesses combined several different architectural styles. Dominated by Spanish construction from the Islamic period, it was also influenced by Persian and Indian styles. The square-shaped heichal is crowned with a dome covered with copper plates.

During World War I, the kehilloh had the plates removed to supply copper to the German arms industry as its contribution to the war effort. Of course, this act was not enough to save it; on Kristallnacht it was completely leveled. Five years later, the land was transferred to the municipality, which built Cologne's new opera house on the site.

Beis Knesses Turned Parking Lot

The botei knesses that vanished from the face of the earth did not vanish from the archives. The exhausting search among the documents, old photographs and dusty certificates, the supplementary interviews and the perusal of 19th century architectural journals (when most of the restored botei knesses were built) made it possible to bring back the buildings from top to bottom. Advanced technologies and innovative architectural programs allow every detail to be recreated and immortalized.

"They restored everything," says Mrs. Reuven excitedly. "The light fixtures, the decorative images, even the tiles and the light that pierced through the windows and their actual location among the homes on the streets to provide an impression of the atmosphere and life that took place in the vicinity of the botei knesses -- even the cloudy or clear skies. The fact that the restoration is computerized is another building block in the full perpetuation that can last for decades or centuries, unlike pictures or live models, which are subject to wear and tear and damage over time."

Says Dr. Merille, "This is a true, worldwide contribution since the exhibition is accessible, via computer, to all countries and brings back the history some people are trying to erase. At one of the sites in Germany a parking lot has been built where a beis knesses once stood. The handful of Jews in that city are very elderly and there is nobody to recall the holy predecessor to the parking lot. Therefore, to me, obtaining the documents to prove this is essential so that we at least know which beis knesses was destroyed there and the chilling history of the seemingly innocent parking lot..."

Battle Against Time

Everybody has a similar interest: to bring as many botei knesses as possible back to life, at least virtually. Professor Cohen of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, who has been active in beis knesses restoration projects around the world, calls this a battle against time. Many disused botei knesses stand abandoned and neglected, raising concerns that the authorities could demolish them at any time due to a lack of interest. She feels pressed to document as many botei knesses as possible before they are destroyed and fall into oblivion.

When she arrived in Germany in 1994 to conduct research, she was astonished to discover that besides the 1,400 large botei knesses burned down on Kristallnacht there were another 800 to 1,000 botei knesses -- or structures that served as botei knesses in small towns -- which are now in private hands. They were turned into residences and some of them were renovated. "Sometimes it is still possible to see they were once botei knesses, sometimes not," says Prof. Cohen despondently. "I found homeowners who had built staircases and altered the original structure. One homeowner placed her bed in the ezras noshim."

With the help of mostly non-Jewish architecture students from the University of Brunswig in Germany, Prof. Cohen is now taking part in an original project to document homes that were formerly botei knesses. Once the present owners realized the goal was not to dispossess them of their homes, they were glad to cooperate, permitting the over 200 students to come in and measure, sketch and document in order to build models. This is one of the largest such "restoration" projects in existence.

The project has already been underway for ten years in five different states in East Germany, new states that emerged after the unification, where construction is progressing at great speed and the sale of houses that were once botei knesses is a tangible threat, making the project a race against time.

Over 100 of these botei knesses have already been restored in the form of beautiful, 1:50 wooden models. A very involved, creative enterprise, every such model built by three students requires over 1,000 hours of work, including drafting, photographing and construction. Prof. Cohen's big dream is to bring the rare and unique exhibition to Israel, but she has been unable to find anyone to sponsor the project. Packaging and transporting the fragile models is a complex and expensive undertaking.

Between Destruction and Creation

This race against time is a very costly undertaking, making it difficult to increase the pace of the restoration work. Each restoration takes years and can cost up to $1 million, says Mrs. Reuven. The cost of setting up exhibitions -- the computer stations, the projectors and the documentary films -- is also high. Nevertheless the existing restorations seem to have whetted the appetites of other researchers. The students of Darmstadt continue toiling away at other restorations and additional kehillos and cities have also initiated restoration projects for razed botei knesses.

When the exhibition travels to venues in Europe and the US the project could embrace the whole world, providing a sense of closure for Holocaust survivors. In the exhibition the restored botei knesses pass before our eyes and the sound of the traditional chazanus from these kehillos plays in the background. We feel as if we were visiting them, touching yet not touching the terrible past. The sounds of weeping alongside the astonishing restorations produced is a meeting of sorrow and joy, destruction and creation. The essence of this exhibition is a summary of our lives throughout the generations to this day.

Show Me the Shul You Built and I'll Tell You Who You Were

The first botei knesses were built during the Second Temple Period, in the first and second centuries BCE in the time of the mishnah.

During the Middle Ages in what is now Germany, botei knesses were built according to one of two styles. The first features a heichal divided by pillars into three sections, like the botei knesses in Worms and Prague.

The second, simpler style features a large, undivided heichal, like the botei knesses in Rofech (Alsace) and Speyer. Models of the botei knesses in Prague and Worms from the Middle Ages are on permanent display at the Diaspora Museum.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries botei knesses were at first much simpler. The different styles of the shuls reflected the improvement in the Jews' legal and social status. Externally most small-town shuls differed from normal homes only in minor details, such as the size of the windows or a protrusion in the eastern wall. When the Enlightenment began and with it the freedom to establish kehillos in large cities, the change became apparent in the design and stylistic architectural of the botei knesses. Unfortunately, some of these modern botei knesses reflected leanings toward non-Jewish culture, modernization and efforts to demonstrate progressiveness and openness.

The first of these modern botei knesses was dedicated in Karlsruhe in 1798. The 19th and 20th centuries brought further spiritual decline among a segment of German Jews who roamed in other pastures and tried to make their botei knesses look like churches. With the development of the Reform Movement in the 19th century, some "enlightened" Jews even dared to alter the interior design, foregoing fundamental elements of the traditional shul. They moved the bimoh to the eastern end near the aron hakodesh, eliminated the ezras noshim and even held sermons in German and prayers with organ accompaniment.

A survey of architectural and stylistic changes in the botei knesses of the 19th century, their size and location, reflects the wealth and status of the Jews of this period, but most of all it shows the toll progress took on them. Construction styles also hint at the local Jews' places of origin. The pseudo-Oriental style at the beginning of the second half of the 19th century is indicative of the Jews from the East. Later Gothic styles were adopted to fall into line with German nationalism, to find favor in the eyes of their fellow countrymen and to blend in. Well-known botei knesses from this period in Dresden, Hanover and Munich closely resemble Christian cathedrals. After the Nazi rise to power, no new botei knesses were built in Germany.

Restorations Around the World

The restoration of botei knesses in Germany was just one of numerous efforts worldwide to preserve botei knesses. Many researchers have turned their restoration endeavors into their life's work and they see it as an important mission. One of these researchers, who takes every destroyed beis knesses--even in the most remote corner of the world--to heart is Professor Cohen, director of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. She travels to every part of the globe to locate deteriorating botei knesses and to try to take part in their renewal. When this is impossible, she at least ensures they are preserved on computer as quickly as possible before they are gone without a trace.

So far she has participated in over 70 trips to 39 countries and has participated in at least 45 restoration projects. She has already been to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan twice each to take innumerable measurements. Leading a team of four students, an architect and a photographer they go from one site to the next, racking up the miles in their rental car, often working day and night for two to three weeks to document the botei knesses and the tashmishei kedushoh inside.

They work feverishly, feeling they are in a race against time. The kehillos are shrinking and the botei knesses, with all their contents, are in danger. In Bukhara, for instance, many religious articles are sold to collectors in local bazaars after being stolen from botei knesses or carted off to a different location where nobody remembers where they came from or which kehilloh they belonged to. There may be as many as 300 tashmishei kedushoh in a single beis knesses, making the task of restoring them particularly exhausting. In the city of Kobeh in Azerbaijan, for example, many hours of hard work were required to restore all of the inscriptions on the yodayim used for the reading of the Torah, but this did not deter them.

"It has gotten into my blood," says Prof. Cohen. "I can't sleep at night when I see that things are being destroyed. We try to reach all of the historical botei knesses from before the War. Those from the present period, the next generation will document in another 20-30 years."

When the documentation campaign got underway 25 years ago, nobody had an inkling of the dimensions of the destruction that took place. But the more she visited kehillos and saw buildings on the verge of collapse and indifferent kehillos, the more passionate she became in her lofty mission, which she terms a "rescue" mission in every sense of the word.

In the former Soviet Union, for instance, she found splendorous 17th- and 18th-century botei knesses ready to fall and with no chance of preservation. At the shul in Razhani, Ukraine there was a gaping hole in one of the walls. A local architect claimed the structure was sure to collapse and indeed within two years Prof. Cohen received a photograph of the pile of stones where the beis knesses once stood. Many abandoned, neglected botei knesses are dying away quietly, either because the kehilloh is poor or has thinned out and is unable to renovate.

A kehilloh in India, for example, has an abandoned beis knesses on a plot of land that someone is interested in purchasing. Chances are good it will be demolished, therefore all that remains is to at least preserve it on computer somehow, says Prof. Cohen, to prevent people from someday claiming Jews never lived in the area, for without Jewish cemeteries or botei knesses there will be no way to disprove them. Thus the virtual restoration of the beis knesses is in a sense the restoration of the kehilloh, its rabbonim and life there.

In the US, there is an international organization that provides funding for the virtual restoration of all cultural monuments. Recently, it decided to select ten botei knesses from around the world to serve as examples of Jewish culture, but Prof. Cohen feels she is unable to choose. "I want to save all of them and not many are left. Who am I to choose between one building and the next?" She estimates there are currently 5,400 botei knesses in danger. Not large, active botei knesses but structures that have been turned into storehouses and even restrooms.

One of them is the magnificent shul in Slonim, Byelorussia, located in the middle of what is now the local market and completely inactive. Somebody opened one of the walls and built a set of restrooms. Prof. Cohen raised an outcry in the European Committee and today it is privately owned and efforts are underway to restore it physically. "It's so painful," she says, "especially botei knesses that have passed into the hands of [non-Jews] so that instead of the sound of Torah being heard there, other, impure sounds are heard. In numerous cities, the abandoned, neglected buildings were taken over for tourism purposes, converting the botei knesses into museums, archives and even churches and simply to enrich the municipal purse."

One beis knesses in Serbia was turned into a church yet the "luchos habris" remained inside. In the city of Szeged, Hungary, large amounts of money were spent to restore the big, spectacular shul, nearly the size of the enormous botei knesses burned in Germany. Most of the year it serves as a lucrative museum, while on holidays it serves as a beis knesses.

An impressive shul in Subotica in Northern Serbia near the Hungarian border was taken away from the Jewish community over 50 years ago and converted into a theater, which has since fallen into neglect. Nobody seems to care that the adjacent buildings, the slaughterhouse and beis medrash, will also disappear eventually, certainly not the handful of old men who remain in the kehilloh.

In Fez, Morocco, the government helped the small remaining community to restore the beis knesses -- only to turn it into a profitable tourist attraction. This pattern is repeating itself in other countries as well. A beis knesses in Cairo was restored and turned into a tourist site alone. The Czechs are working hard to renovate dozens of small botei knesses scattered in small towns because they justify the investment costs by drawing many tourists. Prof. Cohen sadly calls them "former botei knesses" and tries to at least preserve the legacy that will not return.

Unfortunately such events take place not only in forgotten places where no Jew has set foot for decades, but also in the heart of London, New York and other places. In East London, for example, at least 12 old botei knesses are slated for demolition in order to build houses. Local Jews are not just apathetic and willing to sell the botei knesses, but they don't even take the trouble to make the sale known, instead relating to the mikdosh me'at as a financial asset.

Restorations are sometimes used for unexpected purposes. Prof. Cohen does not overlook botei knesses in Eretz Yisroel, going from one to the next to document physical details and learn about the kehillos and customs of Jews from various backgrounds. Every beis knesses is carefully measured and entered into the architectural databanks. The tashmishei kedushoh are photographed and thus turn into a valuable resource. The police often make use of these photos when articles are stolen and even Interpol, the international police, rely on them. In Hungary, for example, when a large collection of tashmishei kedushoh was stolen, these photos and records were utilized to track down and investigate them.

The students have already learned how to determine, based on the type of ornamentation on the rimon, the fabric, the paroches or aron hakodesh, which community it belongs to, whether Georgian, Moroccan, Ashkenazi or Tunisian. The Hebrew University has a computerized index of Jewish art considered the world's largest virtual Jewish art museum. Efforts are currently underway to develop a program to convert it into an online database for anyone to access. This databank has been growing for 25 years. Today it contains 250,000 articles and 1,100 botei knesses are documented on paper and computer.

According to Prof. Cohen such restorations and archives are of even greater significance. Beyond the gratification documenting the kehillos brings, these projects make it possible for builders to mimic the style of any beis knesses they choose, be it 17th-century Ukraine or 16th- century Tunisia.

The Flames of Vengeance and Hatred That Consumed the Botei Knesses

The nefarious campaign to destroy Germany's botei knesses dates back to January 30, 1933 when Adolph Hitler, may his name be blotted out, was first appointed chancellor of Germany. It began with general riots not directed toward any specific ethnic group: the burning of the Reichstag, the national parliament in Berlin, and then the rise in political persecution of Nazi opponents. Then suddenly it shifted onto the Jews.

On April 1, 1933 a boycott of Jewish merchandise, businesses, doctors and lawyers was declared. One week later, a racist law was legislated, a reform of professional clerical work intended to drive Jews, with the exception of World War I veterans, out of civil service.

Approximately one month later, the blows became public with a mass book-burning of works by Jewish authors. Later, legislation was passed revoking the German citizenship the Jews had been granted in 1918. Events stepped up with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, which allowed only those with German blood or nearly German blood to be citizens; others were denied political and civil rights. In addition the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor disallowed marriage between Jews and Reich citizens and annulled previous marital bonds of this kind.

Bylaws defined the term "Jew" according to the family tree, revoked the Jews' voting rights and required all Jewish government workers who had not yet been fired to be dismissed from their jobs immediately. The government also ceased providing protection for what it called "Jewish places of cult worship," which had formerly been given protection through their status as religious associations. And in the spring and summer of 1938, new laws were passed to remove Jews from economic life by issuing them a special identity card they had to present everywhere upon request.

On October 28, 1938, the first of many expulsions took place when 1,700 Polish Jews, most of who had lived in Germany for an extended period, were sent back to Poland. But when the Poles refused to take in their former citizens they had to stay in no-man's land.

A young Jew named Hershel Grynszpan, whose family had been forced to stay between the two countries, lost his composure and as an act of protest on November 7, 1938 he assassinated German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath at the German Embassy in Paris. At this point, events began to spin out of control, with one act of vengeance following the next. Two days after the assassination, the terrible pogroms that came to be known as Kristallnacht broke out, leaving hundreds of botei knesses in ruin.

The Nazi government decided to respond to the assassination with an organized pogrom aimed at the Jews and Jewish institutions. Over the course of two days, over 1,400 botei knesses were desecrated and destroyed, 7,500 business were looted, 91 Jews were murdered and 26,000 were sent to concentration camps. A law passed after the rioting allowed the Germans to confiscate all Jewish property, a collective punitive tax of one billion marks was levied on them and they were required to pay for all the damage done on Kristallnacht (the Reich kept all of the damage payments from the German insurance companies), including the cost of clearing the rubble left from the botei knesses.

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