79 Years Later: The synagogue that survived Kristallnacht

How did this German synagogue survive Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass”?

THE INTERIOR of Bad Nauheim’s synagogue. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE INTERIOR of Bad Nauheim’s synagogue.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As is commonly said, a picture is worth a thousand words. But a few photos I found while going through a box of pictures that had belonged to my late in-laws, Anne and Joe Osofsky, sparked a thousand questions.
The black and white snapshots were of a synagogue in Europe built in the International or Bauhaus style developed in the 1920s. A large group of American GIs was standing in front of it. One photo bore a legend on its reverse side indicating that the pictures were taken during the rededication of the synagogue apparently right after the end of World War II.
Where was this synagogue? If it was in Germany, how did it survive Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass” – when Jewish homes and stores were pillaged, Jewish men rounded up throughout Germany and sent to concentration camps, and most of the country’s synagogues set aflame in November 1938? And how did my in-laws, who were young people in America during World War II, receive these pictures?
I was unsuccessful in discovering the location of this synagogue until I turned to a friend in Germany for help. Andreas Lehnertz, a doctoral student at the Arye Maimon Institute of Jewish History at Trier University, was able to work some Web magic, and in less than a day I received the answer: The synagogue was indeed located in Germany – in the spa town of Bad Nauheim in the Hessen province, some 28 km. from Frankfurt am Main.
Some additional research on my part yielded some fascinating information about the synagogue and its rededication after the war.
The modernist building was designed by the famous German-Jewish architect Richard Kaufmann, originally from Frankfurt am Main, who made aliya in 1920 and went on to design the agricultural community of Nahalal as well as Beit Aghion – better known as the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. He also planned Jerusalem garden neighborhoods such as Rehavia, Beit Hakerem and Talpiot, as well as the towns Afula and Herzliya. His style was influenced by the Dutch architect Mies van der Rohe and emphasized simplicity, grace and function, as well as connecting with the local landscape.
The Bad Nauheim synagogue designed by Kaufmann had replaced an earlier synagogue built in 1866 that seated only 90 worshipers (50 in the men’s section and 40 in the women’s). The new building, dedicated in 1929, had room for 250 men and women, the latter being seated in a balcony. While there are records of Jews living in the town back to the medieval period, it was only in 1830 that a community was officially established. The 1929 structure, located at Karlstrasse 29, houses a mikve as well. It was one of the last synagogues built in Germany before the ascent to power of National Socialism and one of the few to survive Kristallnacht.
Photos from the 1929 dedication show a procession of well-dressed German Jews, some of the men wearing silk top hats, carrying beautifully ornamented and crowned Torah scrolls under a canopy to the new synagogue.
In one, a fashionably dressed lady is reaching out, as if about to kiss the Torah. Young girls in their holiday dresses smile demurely at the cameras while they wait for the procession to reach them. It would have been hard for the participants in the synagogue dedication to imagine that, in less than a decade, their modest but lovely house of worship would be attacked and desecrated by a mob of their neighbors.
BAD NAUHEIM, known for its hot springs, attracted many visitors, including Jews, looking for health benefits. There were a number of kosher hotels, and a significant percentage of the doctors who served the townspeople and guests were Jews.
Prior to the Nazi takeover, antisemitism was somewhat muted – the presence of paying guests who were Jews made overt hostility bad for business. Some hotels nevertheless made a practice of not accepting Jewish customers. There were ample facilities that served a large Jewish clientele.
The many guests from all over the world – including Dwight Eisenhower, who would later instruct the US Army Air Force to refrain from bombing the town – probably mitigated open antisemitism to a certain degree and may well have played a part in the preservation of the synagogue.
After the Nazis rose to power, it was impossible to ignore the exclusion of Jews from German life, the race laws and the growing hatred of Jews in the years leading up to Kristallnacht. As Jews were made to feel more apart and less accepted, many turned inward. A good number became involved in Jewish organizations and learning about Judaism for the first time.
The Jewish Women’s League and other organizations offered cultural and educational activities to boost morale and pride. Martin Buber, the illustrious Jewish scholar, gave a lecture on talmudic literature at the Bad Nauheim synagogue in 1935; Nazi thugs pelted the windows with stones, causing them to shatter, but Buber continued his lecture as if nothing had happened, ignoring a violent incident that must have terrified his listeners.
Excluded from society, subject to random violence and often unable to work, many German Jews sought to emigrate. But without a Jewish state and with quotas in force in many countries, including the United States, options were few. Suicide was one method of escape – a route that 10 Bad Nauheim Jews took during those terrible years of Nazi rule.
Widespread violence, the looting of businesses and homes, and the destruction of synagogues erupted “spontaneously” on the evening of November 9, 1938, and continued well into the next day. This came to be known as “Kristallnacht” because display windows of Jewish-owned stores and synagogue windows were shattered all over Germany. The official pretext for the violence was popular rage over the assassination of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris by a young Jew, Herschel Grynszpan.
Grynszpan’s parents had emigrated from Poland to Germany decades before but never became citizens.
They were among a group of 12,000 Jews without German citizenship who had recently been expelled and forced to cross the German-Polish border. Poland refused to accept some 8,000 of these Jews, who were left to remain in a refugee camp under dire conditions.
Grynszpan, 17 and living illegally in Paris, purchased a revolver and bullets and went to the German embassy in the city, asking to see an official. Vom Rath was a professional diplomat who had expressed anti-Nazi sympathies and protested against the treatment of the Jews, and was under investigation by the Nazi Party.
Likely unaware of these facts, Grynszpan fired five bullets at vom Rath, who later died of his wounds.
Grynszpan did not attempt to escape or evade arrest by the French police and openly confessed his crime.
He had written on a postcard to his parents: “With God’s help. My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me.”
Within hours, the German government retaliated by expelling Jewish children from German schools and closing Jewish newspapers and cultural and civic organizations, effectively ending organized Jewish communal life. Jewish men up to the age of 60 were subject to arrest and internment in concentration camps.
The pogrom that took place all over the country signaled the end of nearly a millennium of German-Jewish symbiosis. At least 91 Jews were killed in the violence.
Covert letters had been sent to local police and fire departments, instructing them exactly what to do – and what not to do. The violence and destruction were meant to appear spontaneous and disorganized but it was obvious that the government supported and encouraged the mobs.
Not all Germans supported the rioting. Some sympathized with their Jewish neighbors and were shocked at the senseless violence. Others were deeply offended by the chaos that so manifestly contradicted the German sense of Ordnung (order) and discipline. Even some high-ranking Nazis disapproved, being interested in confiscating Jewish property for the good of the Reich rather than allowing it to be destroyed or looted by the rabble.
IN BAD NAUHEIM, as elsewhere, Kristallnacht was traumatic for the Jewish community. On November 10, local Brownshirts gathered at a tavern and set out from there, with the active assistance of other residents, to destroy Jewish homes and shops. They looted and threw merchandise into the street. Hitler Youth joined them in removing clothing and furniture from destroyed homes and burning them.
The vice mayor and head of the local Nazi cell attempted to restrain the mob to some degree, especially when it came to private homes and the synagogue – an attempt that was only partially successful. The hooligans broke into the synagogue and defaced the large Stars of David on the building’s facade. Ritual articles and costly rugs were destroyed, although some holy objects had been removed to a different location for protection.
They set the building aflame – but it was extinguished by town residents recruited for the task. A French Red Cross delegation was visiting Bad Nauheim to observe its spa and therapeutic facilities, and municipal officials did not want foreign visitors to be eyewitnesses to the barbarity.
This is what ultimately saved the synagogue. Yet the damage was significant.
“When I went to the synagogue the next day,” the cantor’s wife recalled, “I found a scene of destruction. The windows had been smashed open, doors were broken, and furniture was chopped into pieces with axes.”
On the same morning, the pupils of the Jewish school were rounded up and marched barefoot, at gunpoint, to the yard of the police station. Afterwards, they were allowed to return to the school. Kurt Meyer, a schoolboy at the time, later remembered: “We watched from the perimeter of the schoolyard as these same men gathered the prayer books and the Torah, poured gasoline on them and burned them in the center of the schoolyard. All the kids were confused and crying.”
The teachers’ rooms, offices and classrooms of the Jewish school were burned as well.
Several community notables were forced to run through the streets of the town bearing degrading placards. Jewish men up to the age of 60 were arrested and taken to Buchenwald. One died there a week later.
The head of the community, Albert Spiegel, took his own life, as did another store owner.
In March 1939, the synagogue building was sold to the city to be used as a warehouse. In 1942, the last 300 Jews of Bad Nauheim, who had been held in the local old-age home, were sent to extermination camps. Very few survived – and fewer still returned home.
The city was captured by soldiers of the US Army on March 29, 1945. The condition of the synagogue was described in the US Army newsletter IX Corps Scroll, published on June 24, 1945: “On visiting the synagogue for the first time, [surviving German Jew Peter Busse] found it a storage pit of iron, hemp rope, steel rope, and other heavy material. The walls were covered with fecal matter, the windows were broken, the floors damaged and torn up. There were no pews left at all, the Almemor [bima] and pulpit were destroyed.”
Former Nazi party members were made to clean out the synagogue under the supervision and instructions of an American military rabbi, Capt. Samuel Blinder.
The newsletter went on to report: “Within eight days, the iron store had been removed and on April 27, the first divine service was held by the American Chaplain Feldheym.”
This was the first time since 1938 that a prayer service was held in the synagogue.
Jewish-American soldiers, including Bad Nauheimborn Rolf Baum, who had emigrated to the US and enlisted in the army, participated in the first public prayer service. Also present were three local Jews who had been liberated from the concentration camps, as well as Marcus Wachtel, who had been hidden during the war by a local innkeeper.
AFTER THE official German surrender on May 7, 1945, close to 1,000 Jews were living in Bad Nauheim. This number included American soldiers, many of them children of German emigrants to the US, as well as displaced persons from Eastern Europe who had been slave laborers or death-camp survivors.
Non-Jewish residents were opposed to the reconstitution of the Jewish community, but the US military government, probably influenced by Jewish chaplains and servicemen, along with a sense of justice and revulsion toward the Nazi persecution of the Jews, insisted that the synagogue be rededicated.
Chaplain Blinder, who officiated at rededication ceremony on June 24, 1945, wrote: “Not only have the Jewish people been devastated, but their institutions as well. Schools, hospitals, libraries, synagogues. Of the latter, very few remain in Germany. Most of them have been burned, razed to the ground, and the few that remained were used by the Nazis for warehouses, shops, or as a dumping place for all kinds of junk. Because of this fact we are particularly happy, to celebrate today the dedication of the restored synagogue in Bad Nauheim. Though none of the Jewish community remain, it will serve as a house of worship for American soldiers of Jewish faith. And if ever a Jewish community returns to life here, then they will have this synagogue for their use.”
The synagogue continued to serve American Jewish serviceman during the post-war occupation. Only a few of the surviving Jewish residents came back and made their home in Bad Nauheim, setting up a community council.
In more recent years, Jews from the former Soviet Union emigrated to Germany, and many were encouraged by the German government to settle in less populous Jewish communities such as Bad Nauheim. Today, an active congregation supports the synagogue, and services take place regularly under the leadership of Rabbi Reuven Unger.
There is an adult education program, a choir and children’s activities. An inter-religious cooperation society meets there, and regularly scheduled tours of the synagogue and other houses of worship encourage tolerance and cooperation toward achieving tikkun olam (repairing the world).
But what connection did my late in-laws have to the synagogue rededication? The remarks on the back of the photos are our only clues. One of the GIs seems to have been a friend of my mother-in-law and sent the photos.
Unfortunately, any accompanying letter has been lost, so we will probably never know his name. But the pride and hope expressed by this unnamed Jewish soldier continue to inspire and warm our hearts, 72 years after the Bad Nauheim synagogue’s restoration.