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Berlin's Jewish Community Celebrates: Germany's Biggest Synagogue Reopens

In a sign of the renaissance of Germany's Jewish community, the country's biggest synagogue is to re-open this Friday in Berlin. But the presence of armed guards outside brings to mind the specters of the past and the dangers that still persist.

Germany's biggest synagogue is to reopen on Friday after being completely restored to its former glory. The renovation and reopening of Rykestrasse Synagogue in the heart of East Berlin is a symbol of the gradual regeneration of Jewish life in the German capital 60 years after the defeat of the Nazi regime.

Architect Ruth Golan and her partner Kay Zareh have spent the last two years restoring the building to its original beauty, with only some old photographs to work with. "We used scalpels to take off layer after layer from the ceiling to restore the original paintings," Golan told Associated Press. "We also had to redo all the woodwork -- it was penetrated with mold." The architects also restored the celestial blue dome above the altar, and installed modern stained glass windows.

The Rykestrasse Synagogue, located in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg district, was built in 1904 and its scale is not immediately apparent from the modest red-brick façade. Hidden away off a courtyard, its huge prayer hall seats up to 1,200 people. Although it was set on fire and vandalized during Kristallnacht -- the anti-Semitic pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938 -- the fact that it was in a heavily populated area saved it from being destroyed when the authorities rushed to douse the flames.

Under the Nazis the building was used as stables and as a textile warehouse. It was re-inaugurated in 1953 and was the only synagogue to serve East Berlin's tiny Jewish community. In communist East Germany there was little funding available for the maintenance of places of worship and the building slowly fell into disrepair.

After the fall of the Wall immigration, particularly from the former Soviet Union, boosted the city's Jewish community and it now has 12,000 registered members. There are eight synagogues, as well as a Jewish kindergarten, schools and a brand new cultural center.

Friday's re-opening will be celebrated with a Sabbath ceremony which will be attended by numerous distinguished guests, including Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the Central Council of Jews, Charlotte Knobloch, and many rabbis from around the world. The celebration will mark the beginning of a 10-day Jewish Culture Festival in the city.

But, despite the renaissance of Jewish life, the specters from the past and the continuing problem of neo-Nazi violence and anti-Semitism persist. Like every Jewish institution in Germany, the Rykestrasse Synagogue will be under 24-hour police protection, in fact the building has its very own police station.

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