Michael Meng’s Shattered Spaces is a study of the physical legacy of destruction left in many German and Polish cities that were once rich with the sights and sounds of Jewish life. It’s also a study of remembering, an examination of how memories of the war have shaped encounters with Jewish ruins. In the piece below, Meng takes us through a series of sites that reflect the past in different ways.
Multiple histories and layers of time interact in Berlin and Warsaw, two capitals with deep traditions of Jewish history, culture, and religion. Before the Holocaust, few other cities in the world had such dynamic Jewish populations as Berlin and Warsaw. In 1945, little more than Jewish ruins—silent synagogues, empty homes, deserted streets—marked what was left of Jewish life in both cities. Some Jews did rebuild their lives in Warsaw and Berlin, but absence dominated the early postwar decades. In East Berlin and Warsaw, this absence was made all the more palpable with the emigration of Jews in the wake of two major antisemitic campaigns in 1951-53 in East Germany and 1967-68 in Poland.
Today, antisemitism exists among segments of German and Polish society, but things have changed dramatically in both countries over the past four decades. Since the 1970s, a profound interest in Jewish culture, history, and religion has emerged among many non-Jewish Germans and Poles. At the same time, the Jewish communities of both countries have grown, especially after the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989.
This complex, multilayered history unfolds today along the streets of Berlin and Warsaw. The knotted threads of past, present, and future run through the built environment as with few other objects of human experience. Time oozes through physical sites, saturating them with meanings, contexts, and stories, whether spaces are new or old, preserved or neglected, occupied or vacant, present or absent, fragmented or whole. Indeed, Jewish spaces uncover Europe’s myriad histories of renewal and ruination—its histories of acculturation, emancipation, tolerance, genocide, forgetting, remembering, and rebuilding. While the Holocaust runs wide and deep in our imaginations of Jewishness in Germany, Poland, and Europe, it exists among many other histories and temporalities, including the contemporary revival of Jewish life.
Experiencing Jewishness in Berlin and Warsaw involves, then, reflecting upon the webs of past, present, and future. Below are a few sites that reflect the intricacies of time.
Unveiled in 1866, the New Synagogue (Oranienburger Str. 28/30) stands today as one of Berlin’s most distinct Jewish sites. Christian architect Eduard Knoblauch designed the synagogue in Moorish style, topping the building with a magnificent golden dome. Located in the district of Mitte, the synagogue existed among other Jewish institutions, bakeries, and bookstores in an area that was the closest thing Berlin had to a Jewish neighborhood. While the synagogue survived the Nazi attack against Jewish property in 1938, it was severely damaged by allied bombs. From 1945 to 1989, the facade stood as a ruin in East Berlin. In 1995, the surviving shell was restored, but the rest of the building was not. The bombed-out sanctuary remains, integrating the ruination of genocide, war, and postwar neglect into the building’s structure. The synagogue serves as a small prayer house for Berlin’s Jewish community, an archive for historical research, and a museum that narrates the building’s history.
In 1912, Berlin’s Jewish community unveiled the Fasanen Street Synagogue (Fasanen Str. 79-80), grandly built in neo-Romanesque style, displaying the acculturation and emancipation of German Jewry . The Nazis destroyed the building’s interior, but the outer shell survived. In 1957, West German officials cleared the ruined building and constructed in its place a Jewish community center. Designed in plain, functional style, the building became a central space for West Berlin’s Jewish community, which was led by Heinz Galinski from 1949 to 1992. The building’s modern style marked a new beginning, but incorporated parts of the old building into the new structure—such as the synagogue’s portal—signaled the importance of memory to Jewish life in post-Holocaust Germany.
Today, sixty years after Hitler’s defeat, Berlin reflects Germany’s complex postwar transformation like no other city in the country. Many of Berlin’s prewar Jewish sites, especially in West Berlin, no longer exist, because of the Holocaust but also because of postwar urban renewal, which erased almost all of them in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1970s, Berliners have been rediscovering the few Jewish sites left. The city’s local district museums have been crucial to these memory projects, such as the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg District Museum (Adalbertstraße 95A). The museum lies in a vibrant, transnational space, where a large population of German Turkish residents and other migrants live. Along with other Germans and residents, Turkish migrants are pursuing memory efforts in fresh ways (a recent project was “Jewish Life in Kreuzberg – Exhibition and Workshop” and another in the district of Neukölln was “It is Also My History”). Home to Germany’s largest Jewish and Turkish populations, Berlin is uniquely placed to forge new ways of thinking about the role of memory in Germany’s diversifying society.
Almost all of Warsaw’s prayer houses were small, unadorned buildings placed in areas where Jews worked and lived. On the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Warsaw had only three architecturally visible synagogues: a rotunda building in the district of Praga that was erected in 1836 and destroyed in 1961; the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie street that was unveiled in 1878 and demolished in 1943; and the Nożyk Synagogue (Ulica Twarda 6) that was built in 1902 and survived the war. The Nożyk Synagogue served as a prayer house after the war, but fell into ruination after the antisemitic campaign of 1967-1968. Today, Warsaw is home to a growing Jewish community. The Nożyk Synagogue serves an Orthodox community led by Rabbi Michael Schudrich of New York City, and a liberal synagogue opened in 1999, which is led by Rabbi Burt Schuman of New York City.
Jews lived in all parts of prewar Warsaw, but they concentrated in several districts around the city center, especially Muranów. In 1943, the Nazis demolished the district of Muranów after crushing the ghetto uprising; rubble was all that was left of Jewish Warsaw. In 1944, poet Julian Tuwim imagined that there would be “in Warsaw and in every other Polish city some fragment of the ghetto left standing and preserved in its present form in all its horror of ruin and destruction.” But Tuwim’s plea for memory was initially not to be. In the early 1950s, Poland’s Communist regime built a sprawling housing complex on top of the ghetto ruins. The area’s traumatic memories, though, could not be erased all together. The district’s ruins were cleared, but its memories stayed, and indeed they have been rediscovered over the past three decades by both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. Stacja Muranów, a virtual Jewish space created by Polish journalist Beata Chomątowska, documents on the Internet the district’s prewar, postwar, and contemporary temporalities.
Situated in Muranów and located in front of Warsaw’s memorial to the ghetto uprising, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is rising on top of the district’s buried ruins. Scheduled to open in 2012, the Museum is the most ambitious project yet to narrate and reflect upon Poland’s rich, complicated Jewish history. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a renown expert in museum, Jewish, and memory studies, is leading the team that is designing the museum’s innovative exhibition. Even before its opening, the Museum has been involved in numerous local and international projects, which have brought Jews and non-Jews together to discuss the past, present, and future of Jewish life in Poland.