When the synagogue was built in 1866, approximately 28,000 Jews lived in Berlin, making up four percent of the population. The new house of worship and study was built in the center of the Jewish community, in the then-popular Islamic style of multicolored brickwork with terra-cotta decorations. A newspaper called it a "fairy-tale building" that "leads us into the fantastic wonder of modern Alhambra with all the thousand-fold magic of the Moorish style." "The building is most gorgeous," wrote Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland after visiting the site.
The main assembly hall could accommodate 3,200 persons. It had one of Berlin's largest organs and Royal Music Director Louis Lewandowski conducted a mixed choir. Outstanding rabbis served the synagogue, including Regina Jonas, the first and only woman rabbi in Germany. (Jonas died in Auschwitz in 1944.)
Max Liebermann, the impressionist painter and president of the Berlin Academy of Art, was a member of the congregation. Albert Einstein played two violin concertos for an audience of 3,000 at a memorable synagogue concert in September of 1930.
No one at that concert could have imagined that within a few years the New Synagogue would turn from a center of Jewish intellectual and cultural life into a refuge from persecution.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power.
During the night of November 9, 1938-the so-called "Kristallnacht"--when synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Germany were destroyed-- Nazi forces also tried to set fire to Berlin's New Synagogue. However, Wilhelm Kruetzfeld, the chief of the district police precinct, confronted the SA-men with drawn pistols and forced them to leave. He alerted the fire brigade that came to extinguish the flames.
Most of Berlin's 14 synagogues fell victim to arson during that night while the police stood by and watched. Within a few months, the New Synagogue, however, was restored and served its congregation until 1940 when the Nazis confiscated the building. It was destroyed during allied air raids in November of 1943.
Before World War II, 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin. After the war there were only 7,000.
In 1966, on the 100th anniversary of the synagogue's dedication, the Jewish community of Berlin decided to restore the building's great domes and create a center for the promotion and preservation of Jewish culture in the small area left standing. Since its opening in 1991, over two million visitors have come to view the center's exhibitions.
One of the displays of the exhibitions centers on Wilhelm Kruetzfeld. According to documents, Kruetzfeld was summoned by his superiors to justify his actions the day after his intervention. He argued that the synagogue, as a historic site, was entitled to protection under preservation laws. They let him go.
"I guess Kruetzfeld was an old-fashioned law-and-order guy," muses Artur Hecker, a retiree who works part-time at the exhibit. "He obviously knew about the planned attacks and chose to intervene. He probably also had friends among the members of the congregation and didn't want to be part of the Nazi terror campaigns. He was transferred and later opted for early retirement," Hecker explains.
Kruetzfeld died in 1953. A small plaque near the synagogue's entrance commemorates the "courageous chief." A training academy is named after him.
A larger plaque proclaims: "The remnants of this house of God should forever remain a place of admonition and remembrance. VERGESST ES NIE! (Don't ever forget!)"
Heeding this advice, Berlin has created two other sites that document the Nazi era.
On Stresemannstrasse, close to the bustling and new Marlene Dietrich Platz, the "Topography of Terror" exhibit stretches along the ruins of the former Gestapo interrogation center. Through text and photos it documents the Nazi reign of terror from 1933 to 1945. The panels present profiles of courage and resistance: men, women, Jews, socialists, communists, Christians. A Holocaust museum is planned to sit on the now vacant lot.
A train ride from downtown, in a posh suburb by a lake, the House of the Wannsee Conference displays another exhibit on Nazi atrocities. At this elegant villa, Hitler's top officers discussed in 1942 the so-called "final solution"-- the implementation of the decision to deport to the East and murder the Jews of Europe. Rudolf Eichmann served as secretary to the Wannsee Conference. (He was tried and executed in Jerusalem in 1962.)
While paying for the admission, the cashier suggests waiting a little because a group from the military just started a guided tour. The Bundeswehr-- here?? "Ja," he says, "it'll be good for them."
The display cases explain what he means: "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe" was to involve over 11 million people. Not one of the Wannsee Conference participants objected to the plan. No Kruetzfeld among them. In fact, the implementation depended on the cooperation of all ministerial departments, including the military.
In panel after panel, visitors to the Wannsee House--some 50,000 a year--are confronted with the question how it was possible that governmental and communal organizations could cooperate so smoothly in the preparation, planning and implementation of this genocide.
Texts and pictures tell a compelling story. As I follow the Bundeswehr group, I am drawn to the photo of an unnamed girl. She arrived in England in December of 1938. She looks dejected, wears braids and clutches her doll and a bundle. I was an infant when she left and, although both of us were German, I was not Jewish and therefore stayed. By the end of the war, I was a pig-tailed refugee just like her, clutching my doll and a bundle.
As an adult I have made my pilgrimages to the sites that fill in the blanks of my German heritage, and my heart echoes the New Synagogue's admonition never to forget...
Valerie Kreutzer was born in Berlin and now lives as a freelance writer in Seattle. She worked for the U.S. Information Agency and Voice of America as a writer, editor and broadcaster for 23 years.
"Kristallnacht: Searching for Justice: Restitution for Holocaust Survivors" a panel discussion with Lisa Stern, litigator for Holocaust survivors; David A. Lash, director, Bet Tsedek Legal Services; E. Randol Schoenberg, program chair, L.A. Museum of the Holocaust. Moderated by Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer. Nov. 9, 7:30 pm. Congregation Mogen David, 9717 Pico Blvd.,
A Survivor Remembers: Miriam Bornstein, wife of Rabbi Marvin Bornstein, will speak on experiencving Kristallnacht as a little girl in Germany. Nov. 9, 7:30 pm, B'nai Tikvah Congregation, 5820 West Manchester Ave. (310) 645-6262.