The Slavic village on the river

The city of Dresden is an attractive destination for history buffs and lovers of art alike.

The Bruhl Terrace (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
The Bruhl Terrace
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
While the article on Weimar in the December 12 issue of the Magazine explored the cradle of German enlightenment and humanism, Dresden takes center stage this week. The state capital of Saxony, it is known as “Florence on the Elbe” because of its rich artistic treasures. In addition, the history of Dresden is compelling in its relationship to Jews and in its main tourist attractions.
The city was founded on the site of a Slavic village on the Elbe River in the late 12th century. By the 15th century, it had become the residence of the Saxon dukes and electors. The most famous was Augustus II (1670-1733), also known as Augustus the Strong, and his son Augustus III (1696-1763). These rulers persuaded talented Italian architects and craftsmen to come to Dresden and build magnificent baroque structures. They were also major patrons of the arts and gathered many of the best European musicians and painters to the city. As a result, Dresden became a leading cultural center.
In 1813, it was the site of one of Napoleon’s last victories. At that time, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, which became part of the German Empire in 1871. In 1918, at the end of World War I, the last Saxon king abdicated.
From the end of World War II until German unification in 1990, Saxony was part of the German Democratic Republic, which was under Soviet control behind the Iron Curtain. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, Saxony and the rest of the German Democratic Republic became part of free united Germany in 1990.
Because of its Baroque architecture and world-class museums, Dresden is considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Though it was almost completely destroyed by massive bombing raids in February 1945, today it has a population of over 500,000 people.
Jewish presence
A Jewish community existed in the city during the early 14th century, but in the Black Death persecutions, most were massacred and the remainder expelled. Several centuries later, Jewish bankers, including Berend Lehmann, raised vast sums of money for Augustus the Strong to bribe Polish nobles to elect him king of Poland. As a reward, Augustus appointed Lehmann court financier and permitted him, his family and other wealthy Jewish bankers to settle in Dresden. Thus there was a renewal of the Jewish community, and a synagogue and cemetery were established.
His successor Augustus III, however, was not so sympathetic to Jews, and he levied a tax on every Jew passing through the city. The Jews in Dresden were subjected to strict regulations, and their rights of residence were limited. By the end of the 18th century, there were about 1,000 Jewish residents in the city.
Emancipation of the Jewish communities in Europe began with Napoleon’s conquests. However, it was not until 1868 that restrictions were removed from the Jews of Dresden and they secured civil rights.
In 1925, there were approximately 6,000 Jews in the city. By May 1939, the community had been reduced to 1,600 as a result of emigration, deportation and arrests. Between January 1942 and January 1944, a total of 1,300 Jews were transported to concentration camps, and at the end of World War II the Dresden Jewish community numbered only 41. Growth began again in the 1980s with the migration of Jewish families from the former Soviet Union; today, the Jewish community has 730 members.
All the synagogues in Dresden were destroyed on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. Exactly 63 years later, the city’s revitalized Jewish community dedicated a new synagogue at the site of the magnificent old synagogue, which architect Gottfried Semper had designed and which was built between 1838 and 1840. The new synagogue is a large modern, cubic structure. It has an unusual double construction – a solid concrete exterior with a tent-like hessian structure inside. The solid-stone outer structure makes a statement about permanence. In contrast, the fabric covering the inside is of a temporary nature, akin to the Tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites during their 40-year sojourn in the desert.
The architects divided the complex into three sections, with the synagogue on one end and the community building on the other. Between these two buildings is a central courtyard with a grove of 16 trees. This open space is on the site of the original synagogue. The boundary wall of the courtyard also incorporates a small stone fragment that remained from the early edifice.
The synagogue has no windows, suggestive of the introverted nature of Jewish life in Dresden; the community center, in contrast, is open, with many windows overlooking the central courtyard. One can look into this inviting and welcoming structure, which represents the point of contact between the Jewish community and the rest of Dresden. The active Jewish Center has a dedicated staff and runs courses in Hebrew, Jewish religion and history.
Tourist sites
Eighty percent of Dresden’s historic center was destroyed in World War II. During his rule, Augustus the Strong had brought in Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto – also known as Canaletto – who captured the distinctive silhouette of Dresden in his famous canvases; architects later used these paintings to help in the reconstruction of the destroyed city.
Under the Soviet and East German authorities, many important landmarks were restored to their former splendor, including the Semper Opera House and the Zwinger Palace museum complex. The urban renewal process took on increased momentum after German unification, but much remains to be done, and work will continue for many decades.
Brühl’s Terrace
This terraced promenade was part of Dresden’s original rampart to protect the city and is situated between the River Elbe and the Old Town. The terrace offers magnificent views of the Elbe as well as the Neustadt, the district on the opposite bank. Famed German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe named the terrace the “Balcony of Europe.” It is approachable by a monumental staircase flanked by four sculptures, each symbolizing one of the seasons.
There is a striking difference between the historic center and the new synagogue in terms of their rebuilding strategies. For the historic center, the aim was an exact reconstruction of the destroyed city. However, the architects of the synagogue, because of its painful history, jettisoned the past and designed an ultramodern structure. Making the juxtaposition more compelling is that the synagogue lies at the end of Brühl’s Terrace, with the latter’s reconstructed buildings reminiscent of pre-World War II Dresden.
The Royal Art Academy and the Albertinum, or New Masters Gallery, are among the prominent buildings on the promenade. The Albertinum houses a 19th- and 20th-century painting gallery, as well as an outstanding sculpture collection. There are stunning paintings ranging from the work of German Romantic-period painter Caspar David Friedrich, to the work of Dresden- born modern artist Gerhard Richter.
Also on display are paintings from Die Brücke (The Bridge). This group of German expressionist artists formed in Dresden in 1905 and included Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Their paintings are characterized by bright colors without any element of abstraction. The group had a major impact on expressionism and modern 20th-century art.
Church of Our Lady
After it was destroyed in 1945, the ruins of this church were left untouched until 1994, when the painstaking reconstruction of the church began. The restoration process, which was almost completely financed by private donations, was completed in 2005, a year before Dresden’s 800th anniversary.
The church is in the heart of the city, in the locale known as the New Market (Neumarkt), which still bears evidence of destruction resulting from the war.
Also in this area is the Jewish Courtyard (Judenhof), which is the only remnant of the Jewish presence dating from the Middle Ages.
Zwinger Palace
Construction of this complex began in 1711 during the reign of Augustus the Strong, and it is one of the finest examples of late Baroque architecture in Germany.
The Zwinger encompasses a large inner courtyard surrounded by richly sculptured pavilions. This area was used for court festivities, tournaments and fireworks.
Crowning one of the pavilions is a prominent statue of Hercules carrying the world on his back, by sculptor Balthasar Permoser.
Today, this Baroque complex of pavilions, galleries and inner courtyards is home to a number of first-class museums, including the Old Masters Gallery. Augustus the Strong started the collection, which contains Renaissance and Baroque paintings by German, Italian, Dutch and Flemish masters. Its most famous painting is probably the Sistine Madonna by Raphael. Many of Bellotto’s paintings of historic Dresden are also on display.
Another notable museum in the complex is the Porcelain Museum, which houses one of the most opulent collections in the world. It has outstanding examples from Meissen, a town near Dresden, where the technique for creating porcelain was discovered in the early 1700s. This technology had previously been known only known in China and Japan, and there are wonderful examples from those two countries on display as well.
Green Vault
This site houses one of the richest treasure chambers in the world. Founded by Augustus the Strong, it is filled with elaborate artworks of gold, silver, gems, enamel, marble, ivory, bronze and amber, all displayed without protective glass. The Green Vault is in the Royal Palace, which also includes many treasures in the New Green Vault museum, as well as an impressive collection of Ottoman art.
The Procession of Princes
This ceramic mural over 100 meters long depicts Saxon electors and kings on horseback with their foot soldiers. The name of each ruler is inscribed below his image. It begins in 1127 with Elector Konrad the Great and ends in 1918 with the abdication of the last Saxon king. The original mural goes back almost 450 years, but it was repainted on several occasions. Due to exposure to natural elements, the original painting had become mostly invisible, and early in the 20th century, it was replaced with 25,000 hand-painted ceramic tiles from the porcelain manufacturer in Meissen.
Semper Opera
Dresden has a rich tradition of music. Semper, the architect who designed the city’s main synagogue, also built its famous Italian Renaissance-style opera house in 1841. The opera house was completely destroyed in the 1945 bombing, but after extensive reconstruction, it reopened in 1985.
The oval-shaped building features a large central portal topped with a monumental statue by German sculptor Johannes Schilling, depicting Dionysus – the Greek god of wine and patron of drama and theater – together with his consort Ariadne. They are seated in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by four panthers. On either side of the portal are statues of Goethe and fellow German writer Friedrich Schiller, as well as Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare and Molière.
German Military Museum
This building was originally an armory. The museum features a chronological journey through Germany’s turbulent and violent military history. The thematic exhibition displays war as being interwoven with the general history of a nation, emphasizing the political, cultural and social history.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the museum is the transparent steel-and-glass arrowhead projecting into the façade of the neoclassical building, designed by Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind. This fascinating construction provides a viewing platform that overlooks the city.
The next article, exploring the city of Leipzig, will appear on January 9.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, was a guest of Christoph Münch, Dresden Marketing GmbH, and of Dr. Nora Goldenbogen, chairwoman of the Jewish Congregation, Dresden.