(JHE) — The night of November 9-10 marks the 82nd anniversary of Reichspogrom night — the so-called Kristallnacht pogrom — in 1938, when the Nazis launched coordinated violent attacks on Jews, Jewish property, and Jewish places of worship all over Germany and German-occupied territory; more than 1,000 synagogues were torched. In the following years, hundreds — thousands — more synagogues and prayer houses were destroyed during World War II; and even after the War ended hundreds more were either destroyed, left derelict and abandoned or converted for other use that totally obscured their original identity.
For decades, photographs, plans, the occasional film record (and memories) were almost the only witnesses of how these destroyed sanctuaries looked, both inside and out. There is a long history of making physical models of lost synagogues. But starting more than two decade ago, new technologies including Computer Aided Design (CAD) have been bringing a wide range of synagogues to life thanks to 3D virtual reconstruction — especially those destroyed in November 1938 on Kristallnacht or later during World War II.
In marking the Kristallnacht anniversary this year, we would like to highlight some of these digital reconstructions and their increasing visibility – we have written on this web site over the years about several of them.
Some reconstructions are static; some are interactive; a number of them can be “visited” online, and some are even now linked to smartphone apps or other forms of augmented reality. Moreover, they stem from different goals, ranging from academic and architectural studies, to commemoration and the preservation of memory, to the promotion and enhancement of virtual tourism. Likewise, a variety of public and private institutions and individuals are involved in the creation of such reconstructions: universities and architecture departments; students; artists; Jewish institutions, and more.
The Franconia Jewish Museum in Fürth, Germany, currently has an exhibit that centers on the virtual reconstruction of the town’s synagogue complex — the Shulhoyf — that was razed on Kristallnacht. The complex, including the synagogue, was completely destroyed. The rubble was removed and used as a parking lot and the a residential development. The full 3D model can be experienced in the museum, but there is a simplified version online.
As part of this project the Fürth museum also launched a virtual reality application for the synagogue, that will function as a virtual reality exhibit. (See cover picture above.) The app was developed by students and the Würzburg University of Applied Sciences.
Bob Martens’s first such project at the Vienna Technical University was the digital reconstruction of 23 synagogues in the Austrian capital that were destroyed on Kristallnacht. Using original building plans, archival material, and historical images as source material, he and his team began working on the digital reconstruction of Viennese synagogues in 1998, the commemorative year marking the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
These reconstructions were published in book form in 2009 in German and in 2012 in English, presented as virtual walking tours.
“These reconstructions are much more valuable for understanding the full spaces of sanctuary interiors than [most] other visual aids,” the architectural historian Samuel D. Gruber wrote in his blog. “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 2016 they were the basis of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, called Vienna Synagogues: A Memory.
A recently completed virtual reconstruction project at TU Vienna was the 3D model of the art nouveau synagogue in Tachov, Czech Republic, built in 1912 by Alfred Grotte and burned down during Kristallnacht. Grotte himself was killed in the Holocaust. The reconstruction was announced on Facebook October 26 by the TAMUS Tachov Heritage Association, which also posted preview pictures; the reconstruction will eventually be posted on the Tachov Museum web site.
Here’s another, rather artistic, reconstruction — one of the synagogue in Linz, Austria, based on René Mathe’s master’s thesis work at the Technical University of Vienna. Posted on YouTube in 2016.
Mark Grellert and his team at the University of Darmstadt have created virtual reconstructions of German synagogues that the Nazis torched and destroyed on Kristallnacht. Grellert said he was inspired by a firebomb attack by neo-Nazis on the synagogue in the northern German city of Lübeck in 1994.
He and his students have worked from both photographs and people’s memories in order to recreate the original appearance — and colors — of the internal decoration. Click here to see a gallery of images of the reconstructions.
Grellert and his team’s work was show in a major exhibit that premiered at the Federal Republic of Germany’s Art and Exhibition Hall, Bonn, in 2000 and was later mounted in Israel, the U.S., and Canada. The book “Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction” accompanied the exhibitions.
See below a video about the exhibition when it was mounted in Canada.
A number of other scholarly initiatives have followed on from the example of Martens, Grellert, and their teams.
One of the latest such projects conducted by a university team is the virtual reconstruction of the New Synagogue in Wrocław, Poland, built between 1865 and 1872, and destroyed on Kristallnacht (back when the city’s name was Breslau, and was located in Germany). The digital reconstruction forms part of a broader project formally called “The New Synagogue in the Context of Three Religious Communities. Digital Reconstruction and Documentation of the Breslau/Wrocław Synagogue.” Carried out by the Hochschule Mainz Institute of Architecture, it is presented on a website with extensive resources detailing how it was created, including illustrative material showing each element of its construction. There is also an app that allows exploration of the synagogue via augmented reality.
Among them was the detailed digital recreation of the wooden synagogue in Pakruojis, Lithuania (built in 1801)—this was a synagogue that was not destroyed but was damaged during World War II and afterward, when it was used as a cinema. In 2017 the synagogue reopened after undergoing an extensive restoration that also recreated its vivid interior painting.
You can watch the CJA’s virtual reconstruction of the Golden Rose (Turei Zahav) synagogue in L’viv, Ukraine, like that of Pakruojis by Sergey R. Kravtsov, in a video that also tells the history of the synagogue.
Private and public companies as well as academic institutions have also carried out digital reconstructions.
During a conference on how to commemorate the site of the destroyed Great Synagogues in Vilnius, Lithuania, held in 2017, the Vilnius-based firm Inlusion Netforms presented a Virtual Reality app showing a 3D reconstruction of the interior and exterior of the synagogue as well as its urban context. See The Great Synagogue of Vilnius in VR – Official Trailer from Inlusion on Vimeo.
Similarly, a Virtual Reality tour of the twin-towered Moorish-style Neolog synagogue of Bratislava, Slovakia was launched in 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its destruction by the communist regime, and the 125th anniversary of its first service. The digital reconstruction, enhanced by a sound track, allows users to “visit” the neighborhood where the synagogue once stood, as well as to “enter” the building and see its interior.
In 2018, researchers created a detailed digital record of the Manchester Reform Synagogue, as a preemptive measure meant to preserve it for future generations as an “immersive virtual reality” experience combining architecture, history, archives, and memories, should it be demolished.
Individuals, too, are involved in the 3D reconstruction of synagogues. An example of this is Max Stetina, a Czech 3D artist, who recreated the exterior of the destroyed, twin-towered, synagogue of Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood, “placing” it in its original location on today’s Sázavská street, so that it is possible to see how the street would look today if the synagogue was still standing.
Not only synagogues have been at the center of virtual reconstructions, but also Jewish quarters. In 2014, the Rome Jewish Community and the Rome Jewish Museum produced a 3D virtual tour of the Rome’s historic Jewish ghetto as it was before it was razed in the late 19th century as part of an urban renewal project.
Here are a few more examples of 3D reconstructions carried out for different purposes and by different authors in recent years that can be viewed online – this is only a sample! We know there are more!
Gwoździec, Poland (now in Ukraine). Created in 2006 by students in the Digital Arts Division in the School of Art at Bowling Green State University in collaboration with Handshouse Studio. The physical reconstruction of the painted ceiling is now in the POLIN museum in Warsaw:
This recreation of the destroyed wooden synagogue in Gombin, Poland, built in 1710, was posted on YouTube by the Gombin society genealogy group and created by Wojciech Wasilewski, Michał Sroka and their team from historic photographs and architectural drawings. It introduces the model with old pre-war photographs.
Frankfurt, Friedberger Anlage Synagogue, Germany, 2019, created by by Tobias Bock, Jörn Fischer, Moritz Kowalski, Giuseppe Abrami and Alexander Mehler
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: