Anomalies of History. The Story of the Neue Synagoge Wall in Breslau
„This wall reminds me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which is also the only remaining part of the Second Temple. Not even the Temple itself, just the wall that surrounded its outer courtyard – just like this one here in Wrocław,” says Lev Stern, a Polish-Israeli architect, describing the last standing fragment of the Neue Synagoge in Breslau that he discovered. The Synagogue was one of the most important places in the history of liberal Judaism in Europe.
Lev Stern was born in the same year that the new map of Europe was drawn up by the Yalta Agreement. He was born in 1945 in Yenakiieve, where his parents survived the war. In 1948 they made the journey from the East to the West along with many other Jews, and settled in Wrocław. Lev lived in a tenement house with Germans and Poles, and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone that he was Jewish. At least at first. In 1959, his father lost his job and when the new school year started, Lev moved to Israel with his parents instead of going back to school. He was frightened at the thought that he would have to eat oranges instead of his favorite potatoes (his father teased him about that). He did not feel at home in the new country. He had more oranges than he could have wished for, but he missed the rubble heaps where he used to play in Wrocław as a boy.
Lev built spacious houses for his clients in Jerusalem. He made them with white stone, but he missed the red bricks of Wrocław. Twenty-seven years later, he decided to come back to the city he considered his own for the first time since he had left for Israel; this was before communism had fallen in Poland. He was surprised to see the rubble heaps had been replaced with modern housing estates made of precast concrete. “I don’t like these monstrous columns full of holes, sticking out of the rubble” – he wrote in his book, reminiscing about that visit to Wrocław in 1987. Five years ago, Lev moved back to Wrocław for good, and he started looking for traces of the red brick he remembered from his boyhood. He was particularly fascinated by the story of the Neue Synagoge in Breslau, obliterated during Kristallnacht in November 1938, shortly before he was born.
“It was an amazing building, brilliantly designed. A classic form, like a church or a mosque,” he declares, admiring blueprints he found in the archives of the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław.
Lev first started looking for traces of the Neue Synagoge in the city archive but then also began digging around Łąkowa Street, where the temple once stood. Historians who specialize in the history of Jewish Breslau waved their hands dismissively and said there was nothing left. Lev kept asking, unable to believe that such a massive building had just vanished without a trace. It had stood there for almost seventy years and dominated this part of the cityscape. And then – one night, and it was gone. Lev can’t believe it; he thinks it is an anomaly. No material traces are left, and the memory of the building was taken away along with the inhabitants of pre-war Breslau, who were relocated after the war. The inhabitants of the concrete housing estates built in the sixties could hardly be expected to have known that their flats are standing on the ruins of the second largest temple in Germany, so important for the history of liberal Judaism in this part of Europe. Everyone was used to seeing debris and more or less spectacular ruins back then. “Out of the corpse of its murdered ancestor,” Lev wrote, “a new organism emerged.”
The sloppy architectural modernism of the early post-war years was a far cry from the prosperous and confident pre-war brickwork. Looking at old photographs and postcards, it is difficult to imagine that the whole block between Łąkowa and Świdnicka streets was occupied by a monumental brick building, rather than rows of concrete communist blocks of flats.
“It was only when I juxtaposed old city plans against contemporary aerial photographs of Wrocław that I realized how large the synagogue had been,” says Kitty Hubbard, Professor of Art from the State University of New York and a Fulbright Scholar. She is fascinated by Jewish Breslau, especially its most elusive traces. She has visited Wrocław a few times, both on her own and with her students. She found it interesting that the impressive Neue Synagoge had been replaced by a rather dismal monument. She decided to dedicate her artistic project to the people who were in some way connected to this place. Thanks to a string of coincidences (confirming the six degrees of separation theory), just as she left for Wrocław earlier this year, a man contacted her and asked if she could photograph his grandfather’s tomb at the New Jewish Cemetery on Lotnicza Street. It turned out that the man lived in Rochester, just up the street from Kitty, and was the grandson of Selmar Cerini, a cantor at the Neue Synagoge. Kitty immediately started imagining Selmar warming up his throat and humming a melody, in a pre-Shabbat rush as he quickly walked out of his apartment located on the synagogue grounds. She imagined a mysterious garden surrounded by a brick wall.
Meanwhile, Lev was looking for traces of the synagogue, which had to have a massive foundation, and was certain that there must be something left amid the new buildings. Like the archeologists working on the Temple in Jerusalem, he kept asking the same question: why was there absolutely nothing left of such a monumental structure? He noticed the wall only after several visits to Łąkowa Street. He knew straight away that it was part of the synagogue. According to blueprints he had found in the archive, a several-meter long piece of a low brick wall that currently marks the edge of a parking lot and a convenient place for leaving piles of garbage bags was definitely a segment of the wall that had once surrounded the Neue Synagoge.
Lev would like to bring the last remaining proof of the existence of the Neue Synagoge back to a semblance of its former glory, just like the synagogue at Włodkowica Street. After years of slowly falling into disrepair after the Jews were expelled from Jews from Poland in 1968, the White Stork Synagogue on Włodkowica Street was finally brought back to life in 2010. Lev is fully aware that the wall is not a precious historic relic from an architectural perspective. Similar techniques were used to build homes, schools, and hospitals. The wall is important for other reasons.
This is the last moment to save the wall. “It won’t be long before this wall disappears completely. Another few years, and somebody will come and tear it down,” Lev worries, and he is probably right. None of the locals that Kitty encountered had any idea that the wall was a remnant of the Neue Synagoge. Lev is convinced that it is not a good idea to leave it at Łąkowa Street. It stands to the side, far from the sidewalk and in a place that might be historic, but is not at all presentable. Most importantly though, the wall is doomed to a slow but unavoidable deterioration.
Lev came to the conclusion that the wall should be moved.
“I suggested it some time ago, but I’m a terrible organizer. And I’m not good at convincing people,” he explained, when asked why only a handful of people know about the wall and about the idea of moving it elsewhere. Lev would like the wall to stand in the courtyard of the White Stork Synagogue, which is where Jews of Breslau were gathered before being sent to various concentration camps. He thinks the red brick would fit perfectly with the surrounding architecture, and it should not be difficult technically. The wall could be taken apart brick by brick, each piece individually labelled and then assembled on the new site. Only one of the three segments of the wall would be brought to the courtyard. “If you want to move one segment of the wall, you would have to destroy the two adjacent ones,” explains Lev. He doesn’t foresee any major obstacles. The whole operation would be relatively inexpensive, a few permits would have to be secured, and he already has the Jewish Community’s approval.
While Lev is pursuing his project, Kitty Hubbard is working on her artistic project in an endeavor to remember the people who were the intellectual and religious elites of Jewish Breslau.
Many histories involving Breslau intertwine and connect in the USA, and one of them took Kitty by surprise. Sherwin, Selmar Cerini’s grandson who asked her to take a picture of his grandfather’s tomb, attends services in Rochester Synagogue. A rabbi from Breslau used to work there: his name was Max Landsberg.
Landsberg studied in various places, including Breslau. He was a student of Abraham Geiger, who convinced him to move to the US in 1870. He left Germany and became the rabbi of a Rochester congregation, the city where Kitty and Cerini’s descendants live today. Landsberg was a pioneer of German religious reform in America. He delivered his services in German and in English. His prayer book included only a few prayers in Hebrew. He introduced family pews in the synagogue, which meant breaching the traditional division of space by gender, thereby causing another division, between community members. By the end of the 19th century, when even moderate forms of Jewish Enlightenment were met with vehement criticism, Landsberg was always a step, or maybe even a mile ahead, and a proponent of interfaith dialogue.
Kitty finds it a bit surprising that local historians were never interested in such figures as Landsberg or Cerini. “Max was almost like a rock star!” she exclaims, and describes his significant role in a Jewish community on the East Coast of the United States.
As for Selmar Cerini, Kitty developed a project about him during her scholarship program in Wrocław. The project was finalized on the 9th of November, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. After the March of Mutual Respect (organized annually to commemorate the victims of Kristallnacht), Kitty invited the residents of Wrocław to see an installation she prepared on the Neue Synagoge wall. Over a dozen posters, put up just for one night, evoked the history of the building that used to stand there, and the remarkable life and work of Selmar Cerini. The cantor – in order to achieve the position he held by the end of his life – had to overcome poverty, and his lack of German citizenship which prevented him from finding work for many years.
Selmar Cerini, whose birth name was Selmar Stifmann, was born in Wólka, a village close to Warsaw. He changed his last name to help his opera career. He was probably the first cantor ever recorded on gramophone records. He worked in the Breslau Opera while observing Shabbat. At some point, however, he decided to look for a position that fit his religious lifestyle better and became an Oberkantor in the Neue Synagoge. He worked there until he passed away in 1923. Arthur, Sherwin’s father, was the only one of Selmar’s four children to survive the war. In May 1937 he boarded the S.S. Washington ship in Hamburg, taking some of his father’s records with him. Unfortunately, the oldest records were lost.
Kitty Hubbard wanted to bring Cerini’s songs back to Łąkowa over ninety years after his death. She prepared her installation in the summer of 2016, using photographs and blueprints of the Neue Synagoge, as well as old opera posters and photos of Cerini’s music records. She displayed old city plans next to contemporary ones. The exhibition space was not particularly attractive: the historic wall on which she set up her exhibition is now part of a parking lot used by a private college. There is a row of garages on one side, and garbage containers at the other end. On the evening of November 9, when the lights dim enough to mask the background and bright enough to bring out the raw beauty of the wall, the tenor Marek Belko sang “Mach Auf,” one of Cerini’s favorite pieces from his operatic repertoire. The audience also listened to original recordings of Cerini cantoral compositions. For one night, Cerini’s music came back to where it belonged, together with a piece of Jewish Breslau’s history.
More information on Selmar Cerini and his archival musical records can be found at: selmarcerini.com
Translation: Aga Zano
Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich
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