Pride, destruction, reconstruction – the Centrum Judaicum

The dome of the "New Synagogue" in Berlin
The dome of the "New Synagogue" in Berlin
February 15th, 2023

Many Jewish Berliners lived around the Hackesche Höfe in the 19th century. This is also where Germany's largest synagogue was built. An exhibition shows the exciting history of the premises.

The city's best-known synagogue is not a synagogue at all. Every Berliner knows the gilded dome of the "New Synagogue" in Oranienburger Straße, which seems to come from a fairy tale from 1001 Nights. But only a few know what is under the dome. Those who are not deterred by the unfortunately necessary security measures can expect an encounter with a fascinating building.

Photo above: ©Jana Blechschmidt

From the synagogue to the "Centrum Judaicum"

The original synagogue no longer exists. Only the administration and entrance buildings were restored in the early 1990s. Today, their rooms house the "Centrum Judaicum." In addition to the permanent exhibition, it offers space for events, changing exhibitions and an archive. But there is also a prayer room in the building. Services are held here every week. Anyone wishing to attend must register in advance. In addition to this prayer room, the Jewish community in Berlin operates seven synagogues.

Photo left: Entrance rotunda

Exhibition of the Centrum Judaicum in the entrance rotunda of the New Synagogue
Exhibition of the Centrum Judaicum in the entrance rotunda of the New Synagogue

A new self-confidence

In the 19th century, most of Berlin's Jews lived in the center of the city – and here mainly in the "Spandauer Vorstadt," which includes the Hackesche Höfe. Therefore, the Jewish community had a new synagogue built here. The community had grown considerably and the previous synagogue had long since become too small. The "New Synagogue" was built between 1859 and 1866. Renowned architects were commissioned with the project, first Eduard Knoblauch, later Friedrich August Stüler. The new building was to document the size and the growing self-confidence of the community. The Jews, who only gained equal status in Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century, had arrived in the middle of society. Many of them had achieved a steep economic ascent.  

Photo right: the "New Synagogue" in an oil painting from 1865

Ölgemälde mit der Oranienburger Straße und der Neuen Synagoge in Berlin
Ölgemälde mit der Oranienburger Straße und der Neuen Synagoge in Berlin
Photo: Entrance portal
Foto links: Eingangsportal ©holz85, rechts: ©Jens Cederskjold

Open up

The "New Synagogue" was the first Jewish place of worship in Germany whose doors opened directly onto the street. Inscribed above the entrance was the fitting sentence by a prophet: "Open the gates, that the righteous people may enter (...)" The original letters of the inscription are now displayed in a showcase in the entrance rotunda. The "Centrum Judaicum" sees the quotation as a symbol for the self-image of the Jewish community at that time: between opening – in the first – and tradition – in the second part of the sentence. It chose "Open up" as its motto. Doors also opened for women in the "New Synagogue": They could take part in services here for the first time – albeit spatially separated from the men.

Alhambra as model

At the time of its opening in 1866, the "New Synagogue" was the largest and most representative in Prussia and in the German Empire, which was founded a few years later. It had room for 3,200 people and the main hall was 27 meters high. Its magnificent oriental architecture caused a sensation. The Moorish Alhambra in Granada and Indian-Islamic architecture served as models. The synagogue became one of the most popular sights in Berlin. Anti-Semites, on the other hand, were hostile to what they saw as a provocation.

Picture left: Hall of the main synagogue around 1888

Hall of the main synagogue
Hall of the main synagogue

The destruction

During the November Pogrom of 1938, Nazi hordes set fire to the building. However, a courageous precinct commander stopped them and called the fire brigade. In this way he was able to prevent greater damage. Services were still held in the synagogue until 1942. At the end of 1943, it was badly damaged in an air raid. At this time, only a few Jews were still living underground in Berlin. 54,000 Berlin Jews were murdered. After the end of the World War, the building becomes the seat of the new Jewish community founded by survivors.

The main synagogue is blown up in 1958 – due to dilapidation and because the space is too large for the few Jews who still survive, especially in the eastern part of the city. The front façade facing Oranienburger Straße is preserved as a memorial against war and fascism. In the following decades, however, the buildings increasingly deteriorate until the GDR government decides to restore them in 1988.

Photo right: Interior of New Synagogue 1945

Interior of New Synagogue after air raid
Interior of New Synagogue after air raid

The restoration

The large dome and the domes of the two side towers were faithfully restored to their former glory. When the exterior façade was restored, the contrast between the soot-blackened original parts and the light-colored new bricks meant that decay and destruction remained visible. The interior was only reconstructed where original components had been preserved. Particularly impressive: the large staircase decorated with orientalizing wall paintings. The rear of the building, the broken edge to the blown-up main hall of the synagogue, is protected and roofed over by a steel scaffolding. Behind it is a large open space. Here, granite slabs on the ground mark the outline of the no longer existing building and give the visitor an idea of its size.

Fragments of the interior decoration were recovered from the rubble.

Fragmente des ehemaligen Altars der Neuen Synagoge
Fragmente des ehemaligen Altars der Neuen Synagoge

The exhibition

During restoration work, important cult objects from the former synagogue were recovered from the rubble. One was even embedded in concrete in a floor slab. A special incident was the discovery of a completely preserved "Eternal Lamp," symbolizing God's presence in the synagogue. Other pieces such as an altar stone or a purification basin were patchily reassembled from fragments. A two-part Torah curtain has in other ways survived largely undamaged. All these objects can be seen in the permanent exhibition of the "Centrum Judaicum." In addition to the history of the building, the exhibition tells the story of the Jewish community in Berlin and also highlights the lives of individual people or families in an exemplary way. Particularly touching: some of the last letters that people were able to send to their relatives on their way to the extermination camps.

Photo right: The "Eternal Lamp"

„Ewige Lampe” aus Metall aus der Neuen Synagoge
„Ewige Lampe” aus Metall aus der Neuen Synagoge

Visitor information

The Centrum Judaicum is open in winter from Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In summer from Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Closed on Saturday.

Admission costs €7, €4.50 reduced.

The Centrum offers guided tours on various topics. These last 60, 90 or 120 minutes and cost €60, €90 or €120 depending on the duration.

The Centrum Judaicum is an eight-minute walk from Hackesche Höfe. Otherwise from the Oranienburger Straße S-Bahn station and with tram lines 12 and M5.