The story of two abandoned synagogues

  • December 1, 2009
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Stockstadt_MapMy mother’s town, Stockstadt am Rhein, had 2,000 people and only two Jewish families. On the Sabbath, my mother’s family walked to one of two neighboring towns – Biebesheim and Erfelden – where Jews from towns along the Rhein River gathered to form a small congregation. Decades after the Holocaust, all that remains of Jewish life in the two towns are the synagogues.

In 1988, fifty years after Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” churches marked the mournful occasion by creating a “Night of Remembrance.” Services were held, candles lit, names of survivors and escapees read at memorials and churches. During those ceremonies, many church leaders asked elder members if they remembered the Jews who once lived in their towns. A grass-roots movement emerged and Germans began to research the Jewish families who once lived in the area, restore the local synagogues, and create organizations with surprising names like “The German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture” to remember the Jews and their contributions in Germany. (Click on the link to my Chicago Tribune article, “The Burden of Memory” on the bottom of the “About” page of this website.)

The renovated synagogue in Erfelden
The renovated synagogue in Erfelden

In Erfelden, when the Jews fled, the synagogue was abandoned. As years passed, the building fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, residents renovated the synagogue with $500,000 of public and private money. “We use it as a cultural center,” explains Ulf Kluck, who organized the renovation. “Otherwise, there would be no use for it, since there aren’t any Jews living in the area.”

In Biebesheim, the German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture couldn’t even locate the former synagogue. 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.

The candelabra Mrs. Wachenheim took from the Biebesheim synagogue in the late 1930s.
The candelabra Mrs. Wachenheim took from the Biebesheim synagogue in the late 1930s.

When members of the Biebesheim branch of the German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture finally uncovered the location of the synagogue, they became curious about who once worshiped there. During research, they 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.

Some members of the German Society decided to visit Mrs. Wachenheim, who was in her late 70s and living in London. The Germans asked if she would consider returning the items so that the Torah curtain could be displayed again at its original site. At first, Mrs. Wachenheim refused, but then she was persuaded.

Now half of the original Torah curtain hangs in the Erfelden synagogue/cultural center and the other half one day will 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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