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Associated Press – August 30, 2007
BERLIN – Werner Bab remembers going with his father to Berlin’s Rykestrasse Synagogue in the 1930s, soon after the Nazis came to power – a time, he says, when all the talk among the Jews at Sabbath services centered on politics and how to get out of Germany.
“But what most impressed me as a little boy was the sheer size of the building,” says Bab, an 82-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz death camp.
The synagogue, Germany’s biggest Jewish temple and architectural landmark, reopens Friday after more than a year of work to restore its prewar splendor.
Its interior, which seats up to 1,074 people, was allowed to deteriorate for decades because it sat in communist-run East Berlin, where concern and maintenance funds for houses of worship were in short supply from an atheistic government.
The red brick facade appears modest in comparison to the huge prayer hall that can be seen only as one enters a courtyard behind the entrance building in the now trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.
The synagogue, built in 1904, was set on fire during Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass on Nov. 9, 1938, when the Nazis attacked synagogues and Jewish businesses. But since it was in a densely populated neighborhood, authorities quickly doused the flames.
Sources differ on what happened to the synagogue next. Some say the Nazis made it a horse stable, 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 pictures that remain 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 has 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 about $4 million, which was paid for by the city. The $3.7 million spent on the interior’s restoration came from 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 said.
Even before Germany was reunified in 1990, Bab sometimes crossed over from his home in West Berlin to the communist sector so he could welcome Shabbat in the synagogue of his childhood.
“Back then there were only a few people at the service,” he said. “Only when the Soviet immigrants started immigrating after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it started 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 live in the country, with some 110,000 of them registered religious community members.
The numbers are a far cry from Germany’s flourishing Jewish community of 560,000 before Hitler and the Nazis rose to power.
On an ordinary Sabbath about 20 regulars worship at Rykestrasse Synagogue, said Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, who will reinaugurate the temple. “However, on the high Jewish holidays we sell about 300 tickets for Rykestrasse.”
Bab looked forward to the inauguration but expressed regret that he would have to pray under constant police protection.
All Jewish institutions – even bookstores and kosher groceries – have 24-hour police protection and stand behind concrete or metal barriers to guard against vandalism and terrorism. The synagogue on Rykestrasse even has a police station inside.
“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.”
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.