Jewish Heritage Europe

Die Zerstörten Synagogen Wiens (Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna)


This is a cross-post from Samuel D. Gruber’s blog on Jewish art and monuments. You can see pictures on that web site.


Martens, Bob / Peter, Herbert.  Die Zerstörten Synagogen Wiens (Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna) Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2009


by Samuel D. Gruber

I’ve been meaning to post about this book for quite a while.  I heard Bob Martens present his impressive work of digital reconstruction of Vienna’s destroyed synagogues at a conference in Lviv, Ukraine in 2008.  This book came out the next year, and I’ve finally been making good use of it.  There is an English version that came out earlier this year but I have not seen it yet.

There is a long history of making models of lost synagogues.  Visitors to Temple Beth El in Detroit have seen representation of past homes of the congregations, and visitors to Yeshiva University Museum and Beth Hafusoth in Tel Aviv have encountered more ambitious models of famous synagogues of centuries past. Beginning earlier in the last decade researchers at the Bet Tfila-Research Unit, Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany began making wooden models of historic synagogues, a mix of (mostly German) surviving and lost buildings.  These have been exhibited in Berlin and elsewhere, and published in Synagogenarchitektur in Deutschland. Dokumentation zur Ausstellung (2008).  About the same time a growing number of architects began to use computer modeling to ‘reconstruct’ synagogue buildings.  In 2001, Robert Davis published on-line computer-generated models of Texas synagogues; and in 2004 architects at the Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany made very detailed representations of German synagogues (Synagogues in Germany : a virtual reconstruction = [Synagogen in Deutschland : eine virtuelle Rekonstruktion), edited by Darmstadt University of Technology, Department CAD in Architecture, Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Institute for Foreign Cultural Relation.

In Vienna, architects from the Technische Universität Wien led by Bob Martens have taken the recovery quest one step further.  Beginning in 1998 in an ambitious program inspired in part by the 1987 publication by P. Genee of Wiener Synagogen, Martens and his team marshaled documentary, graphic and photographic evidence and created digital reconstructions of twenty-three Vienna synagogues destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht in November 1938.  The project does, however, not cover the approximately 80 additional prayer houses that were in the city.  These were not, for the most part, architecturally distinctive, but more importantly insufficient evidence survives of their appearance to allow reconstructionThe reconstructions of the architecturally distinctive synagogues have been gathered into an extensively illustrated city guide to this lost heritage.

With the help of CAD (computer-aided design) and rapid prototyping a working group based around the authors was able to virtually rebuild the destroyed synagogues.  The reconstructions attempt – mostly successfully – to reconstruct both exterior and interior appearances of the destroyed synagogues.  Like the German wooden models from Braunschweig, these reconstructions make a valiant attempt to recreate interior seating arrangements.  These reconstruction are much more valuable for understanding the full spaces of sanctuary interiors than more other visual aids.  One can better understand entrance and processions routes within the space, and also the relationship between the seating of men and women.

Another great virtue of this work is that all the synagogues are shown in their (often dense) urban context, past and present.  In the guide, historic photographs are contrasted with the virtual reconstructions and accompanied by descriptive texts.  The synagogues were built in a range of historicist and modern styles by many distinguished local architects, several of whom, like Gartner, Stiassny and Fliescher were Jewish.  Several scholars have been looking at Stiassny’s life and work but he has yet to receive the monograph he deserves.


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