A Synagogue That Survived

BY DANIELLE TCHOLAKIAN

BERLIN—After a red-eye flight from JFK to Berlin-Tegel, FASPE journalism and law fellows dropped luggage off at our hotel and set out to explore the city on foot and train with FASPE European Director Thorsten Wagner as our guide.

We took the S-Bahn, a subway, to the Neue Synagogue, a soaring Orientalist structure on Orianienburgerstrasse with notable Moorish influences. Thorsten told us the architecture was inspired in the mid-19th century by the existence of Sephardic Jews in farflung nations: the Ashkenazi Jews of Germany “wanted to be as integrated into German society as [they] believed Jews were in the Muslim world in Spain.”
The synagogue survived the first few years of the war, even making it relatively unscathed through Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. Thorsten told us that some young Nazi hooligans came that night intending to smash it and burn it to the ground like so many other Jewish places of worship and cultural centers, but local police kicked them out. It’s still not known why the police stepped in. There is a temptation to see it as a moment of heroism, of locals protecting an institution important to their community, but Thorsten pointed out it’s just as likely that the police were acting within their own bureaucracy, still believing they were following orders — that vandalism and destruction was still in opposition to the rule of law.

This incident is a good example to act as a counterpoint to the common belief that dissent under Nazi rule was impossible, said Eric Muller, a North Carolina School of Law professor accompanying the law fellows. Those police officers were not killed or otherwise harmed for doing so.

The synagogue was notable too for being home to the first woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi. After attending a liberal rabbinical school in the 1920s and writing a thesis that asked — and answered — the question of whether or not a woman could be a rabbi according to Jewish law, Regina Jonas was the Neue Synagogue’s rabbi from 1935 until 1942, when she was deported to the Theresienstadt camp.

Neue Synagogue.

Neue Synagogue. Photo by Danielle Tcholakian.

Many people believed that Paris was the city of the 19th century and that Berlin would be the city of the 20th. The potential afforded to people like Jonas was just one element of this reputation as a progressive cultural center of the world that so ired the Nazis.

Jonas continued to work as a rabbi at Theresienstadt until she was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. A handwritten document found in the Terezin archives attributed to her outlines lectures and sermons, and includes a note: “Our work in Theresienstadt, serious and full of trials as it is, also serves this end: to be God’s servants and as such to move from earthly spheres to eternal ones.”

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