Germany's biggest synagogue reopens Friday

After over sixty years, Rykestrasse Synagogue recovers its splendor.

synagogue germany 298 88 (photo credit: )
synagogue germany 298 88
(photo credit: )
Werner Bab remembers how his father would take him to Shabbat services at Berlin's Rykestrasse Synagogue in the 1930s, soon after the Nazis had risen to power. "The rabbi's homily was very political in those days, and all the Jews who came had just one topic - how to get out of Germany," said Bab, an 82-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. "But what most impressed me as a little boy was the sheer size of the building." More than six decades after the end of the Third Reich, Rykestrasse Synagogue - Germany's biggest and an architectural and historic landmark - reopens Friday after being closed for more than a year for restoration work to recover its pre-war splendor. The synagogue's beautiful interior, which seats up to 1,074, was allowed to deteriorate for decades because it was located in communist-run East Berlin, where concern and maintenance funds for houses of worship were in short supply due to the atheist government. Located in the now-trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, the red brick facade appears modest in comparison to the huge prayer hall that can be seen only as one enters a court yard behind the entrance. The synagogue, built in 1904, was set on fire during Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis attacked synagogues and Jewish businesses on November 9, 1938. But since it was in a densely populated neighborhood, authorities quickly doused the flames. Sources differ as to what happened to the synagogue next; some say it was used by the Nazis as a horse stable, but others say it was used to store textiles. In any case, the synagogue was not as badly damaged as other Jewish prayer houses and was reinaugurated in 1953. Ruth Golan, the architect in charge of the restoration, said she and her partner Kay Zareh tried to restore the original appearance by studying the few remaining pictures from the synagogue's opening in 1904. "We used scalpels to take off layer after layer from the ceiling to restore the original paintings," said Golan, who was born in Jerusalem but spent most of her adulthood in Germany. "Unfortunately, because of the limited budget some of the ornaments could not be restored." The building's facade and roof were renovated in 2000 for $5 million - which was paid for by the city - and another $4m. for the interior's restoration was provided by a city-owned lottery. The celestial blue dome with its gold-colored stars above the altar was restored to its former beauty. But most stained glass windows were redesigned in a modern style with excerpts from Genesis - in Hebrew and German. During the Soviet era, some of the windows had been walled up. "And we also had to redo all the woodwork - it was penetrated with mold," Golan, 62, said. Even before Germany was reunified in 1990, Bab sometimes crossed over from West Berlin, where he lived, to the east to welcome Shabbat in the synagogue of his childhood. "Back then there were only a few people at the service," Bab said. "Only when the Soviet immigrants started immigrating after the fall of the Berlin Wall did it start getting fuller again." Today, Berlin has the biggest Jewish community in Germany with 12,000 registered members and eight synagogues. According to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, an estimated 250,000 Jews now live in the country, with some 110,000 of them registered religious community members. The numbers are still a far cry from Germany's flourishing Jewish community of 560,000 before Hitler and the Nazis came to power. On an ordinary Shabbat about 20 regulars come to worship, said Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, who will reinaugurate the synagogue. "However, on the high Jewish holidays we sell about 300 tickets for Rykestrasse." Werner Bab is looking forward to the inauguration but he is bothered that he will have to pray under constant police protection. While all Jewish institutions - even book stores and kosher groceries - have 24-hour police guards and concrete or metal barriers, the synagogue on Rykestrasse even has a police station inside the building as the German government does not want to take the risk of vandalism or worse. "I find it so sad that we need police protection when we want to pray together," Bab said. "After all that has happened we still have to live in fear as Jews."