My mother’s German synagogues today…

  • September 18, 2023
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In my mother’s town, Stockstadt am Rhein, two Jewish families had lived among 2,000 people for centuries. On the Sabbath, my 98-year-old mother remembers that her family walked to synagogues in Biebesheim or Erfelden to worship with other Jews who lived in towns along the Rhein River. Decades after the Holocaust, all that remains of Jewish life in these two towns are the synagogue buildings.

In 1988, fifty years after Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” German churches marked the mournful anniversary by creating a “Night of Remembrance.” Services were held, candles lit, names of survivors and escapees read at memorials and churches. During those ceremonies, church leaders asked elder members if they remembered the Jews who once lived in their towns.

A grass-roots movement emerged. Germans researched the Jewish families who once lived in the area, restored local synagogues, and created organizations with surprising names like “The German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture.” These organizations remembered the Jews and celebrated their contributions to Germany.

In Erfelden, when the Jews fled in the 1930s, the synagogue was abandoned. As years passed, the building fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, residents renovated the building with $500,000 of public and private money.

“We use it as a cultural center to bring back some of what the Jews once contributed to the town,” said Erfelden resident Ulf Kluck, who organized the renovation. “Otherwise, there would be no use for it since there aren’t any Jews living here.”

In Biebesheim, the German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture couldn’t locate the former synagogue. Eventually, members discovered that a local man looking for a home in the 1960s moved into the building. Embarrassed by the architecture that marked his new home as a synagogue, the new occupant covered the circular side window and squared off the Moorish front windows so that the building looked more residential. In time, the townspeople forgot that the building once was a house of worship for Jews.

When members of Biebesheim’s German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture finally determined the location of the synagogue, they became curious about those who once worshipped there. They researched and discovered that one member, Mrs. Wachenheim, fled during the 1930s with the Torah curtain and one of the synagogue’s wall candelabras from the 1700s.

Members of the German Society visited Mrs. Wachenheim, who was in her late 70s and living in London. The Germans asked if she would return the items so the Torah curtain could be displayed at its original site once again. At first, Mrs. Wachenheim refused, but eventually agreed.

Now, half of the original Torah curtain hangs in the Erfelden synagogue/cultural center (see photo) and the other half one day will one day hang in the Biebesheim synagogue, which the organization hopes to restore.

But first, the man living in the synagogue must move out.

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