Jewish or Common Heritage? (Dis-)appropriation of Synagogue Architecture in East-Central Europe since 1945


Di. 12.09.2023 | 10:00 -
Do. 14.09.2023 | 20:00 Uhr
Prof. Dr. Ruth Leiserowitz
Dr. Christhardt Henschel

The synagogues that remained standing after World War II have faced an uncertain destiny. As abandoned buildings, they were susceptible to decay quickly and, as former buildings of worship, for legal, cultural and architectural reasons, posed a great challenge in terms of their reuse. Consequently, many synagogues simply fell into ruins, some were turned into secular buildings of various purposes, and few could have been used as houses of prayer again.

In postwar Europe, synagogue architecture was culturally categorized as an element of Jewish heritage that appeared to be isolated from the common heritage of a city or town – wherever a synagogue stood. At first, synagogues were not considered a shared but a distinct patrimony of a place. A shift in such a state of affairs could have been observed in the last three decades that witnessed a ‘rediscovery’ of synagogues. Though one can still find abandoned synagogues in small towns, in most of the bigger municipalities, these buildings were ‘rediscovered’ as a part of local history and culture and thus became part of the common heritage. In many regions of Europe, the ‘rediscovery’ of the former synagogues led to their restoration and opening to the public, and in rare cases, to their reuse by Jewish communities.

These processes have already been quite well researched in western other parts of Europe. A desideratum, however, is approach to the Jewish architectural heritage in those East-Central European territories, whose state affiliation changed after 1945 and whose population was exchanged. For example, in the former Eastern German territories, synagogues still standing at the end of the war became a foreign body in the urban space in a double sense. They neither belonged to the heritage of the new inhabitants, understood as ‘national’ or ‘own’, nor were they clearly attributable to the heritage of the pre-war German population. Synagogues were, therefore, not ‘hostile’ buildings, but in any case, they were irritating as characteristic objects of architecture. A contributing factor was that Jewish communities lasted only in a few cities in these areas.  

The aim of the conference is a historicization of the processes of rediscovery in the recent past. We invite contributions linking the historical dimension in dealing with the Jewish architectural heritage with current developments in this field. The focus will be on the historical, political and cultural preconditions and present processes having an impact on the handling of the Jewish built heritage. The key actors and decision-makers should also be taken into account. Therefore, the connection of the micro and macro levels is indispensable for the understanding of these developments because the impact of local actors and political decisions at the central level are closely interrelated.  Global and memory culture trends have also contributed to the interest or disinterest in the respective religious buildings. In addition, transnational networks that influenced the preservation of synagogues will be considered, for example, in the context of the Polish-German dialogue.

Date: 12-14 September 2023
Organizers: Kamila Lenartowicz, Zuzanna Światowy (Bet Tfila - Research Unit for Jewish Architecture in Europe, Technical University of Braunschweig), Christhardt Henschel (German Historical Institute Warsaw), Aleksandra Jakubczak-Gabay (POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews)
Venue:  German Historical Institute and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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