From one side, Dresden’s newly erected synagogue looks like a twisted block of solid limestone-coloured concrete. However, the approach to the entrance is more inviting, less ominous. Up the stairs is a pebbled courtyard, reputed to be the original site of the first synagogue built by Gottfried Semper between 1838-1840. Twelve sycamore trees, umbrella style, create a canopy to the entrance of this orthogonal shaped building. A large brass Star of David, designed by Semper and a remainder from the original synagogue, is placed prominently above the glass entrance.. The courtyard is enhanced by a large menorah, a branched candelabra, and much more historic is an inlay of several grey large stones from the original synagogue The astonishing achievement of building this synagogue became apparent as I stood outside.
During the night of the pogrom in 1938, Crystal Night, the old synagogue was set afire and completely demolished, not leaving any trace of its existence. The new “house of God” was built almost exactly on the original site of the old synagogue paid for, in part, by the state, municipality with at least a quarter of the cost gifted by both German Jews and Jews from other countries.
Before 1933 there were approximately 5000 Jews living in Dresden. The count after reunification of Germany was seriously less…about 50 Jews. These days, due to the immigration of the Jews of former USSR, there are about 600 in the community and ‘constantly growing’.
The architectural firm, Wandel Hoefer Lorch & Hirsch, who placed third in the open architectural contest received overwhelming kudos for their design. So popular were their plans that public opinion won out at the end and the coveted prize to erect this first synagogue in former East Germany since the end of World War II, was theirs.
Perhaps the win had to do with the fact that the original interpretation of the building being ‘twisted slightly to the east – to Israel- may have been the intriguing hands down reason. Or it could have their theme, “Temple and Tent”, which they saw in regard to the history of the Jews and the bible-“a massive stone exterior versus the fragile tent structure.” – solidity and fragility.
“My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples”, from Isaiah 56, is written in Hebrew above the entrance which was the same verse which adorned the early synagogue in the Middle Ages.
With the New Synagogue’s completion and consecration ceremony in 2001, the Jewish community of Dresden and the general public praised the integrating of this modern complex of synagogue and community hall in the city’s old town. Over 6000 Dresden citizens and guests came to the opening. The erection or the building was somewhat of a miracle to many.
Diagonally across the street is a tall plain concrete stele, a six armed menorah, which is a reminder to all citizens of the major contributions Dresden’s Jews added to this 700 year old city.
The New Synagogue’s simple but elegant interior is warm and inviting. Cedar wood was the material of choice for the walls and benches. However, due to the high cost, instead cedar-coloured oak was used. Inside, gold chain mail curtaining embellished with silver Stars of David divide the space creating a sense of the constant concern of a temporary place. The ‘bemah’ and the torah cabinets are also simply designed with only a few adornments. Wooden benches for approximately 600 include seating for women on the sides, separated from the men the aisles.
Eva, my guide and a converted Jews, who is well versed in Dresden’s Jewish history, has invited me to light the fourth night’s Chanukah candles. The venue is changed to the very modern glass-fronted community centre across the courtyard, my opportunity to meet Rabbi Solomon Almekias-Siegl. About 20 people, including a few small children were in attendance.
Afterwards, Rabbi Almekias-Siegl and I sit down for a cup of coffee and a discussion. It was by good luck that he was in Dresden since the Moroccan born, UK and US trained rabbi divides his time between Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig. This was his week in Dresden. “It’s more cost efficient for me to be the rabbi of the three cities. There aren’t that many Jews in each of them,” says the handsome, dark haired man. The Jews he is meeting and teaching are Russians who have come to live in Germany. Although he has lived in German for 25 years, the 50 something slightly built man isn’t afraid to state that there is still anti Semitism in this country.
“I see my job as a challenge,” he tells me as we sit among the small group in the bright airy room filled with camaraderie and a cause.