History in the Making Libeskind to Create New Synagogue for Munich

Internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind has agreed to design a new synagogue for Munich. And, if the local Jewish community has its way, the building will bring history full circle: They want to build it on the site of Munich's first synagogue, destroyed during the 1938 Night of Broken Glass.

By Jess Smee

The dramatic facades and futuristic forms of Daniel Libeskind's buildings have already left their mark on many German cityscapes. But now the man behind Berlin's striking Jewish Museum is to extend his track record by designing a synagogue for the liberal Jewish congregation in Munich.

Architect Daniel Libeskind will reveal his plans for the building next spring.
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Architect Daniel Libeskind will reveal his plans for the building next spring.

On Wednesday, Libeskind announced he would create a new building for the 260-strong Beth Shalom (House of Peace) congregation in Munich. News that the star would put his name to the project was cheered by members of the community. "We were thrilled," Lauren Rid, who chairs the Beth Shalom group, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We asked Libeskind because we are seeking something dynamic and modern, something which demonstrates the break in continuity in Jewish history. We are excited to see what he comes up with."

But she and her group will have to put their excitement on hold -- at least for the next decade. Libeskind, who is of Polish-Jewish descent, will unveil his plans for the building in Munich next spring, but house of worship isn't expected to open its doors until 2018. "It will be a long road," Rid admitted, adding that the group is still fundraising for the project.

Its location is yet to be decided but some members of Beth Shalom have suggested it could be built on the site of the city’s first synagogue, built in 1850 on Westenriederstrasse. That building, like many others, was destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom, known in English as the Night of Broken Glass. On that single night, 92 Jews were murdered and up to 30,000 were arrested and deported to Nazi concentration camps.

The new structure will join a recent wave of, mostly orthodox, new synagogues constructed in Germany -- a trend which mirrors a renaissance of Jewish culture in the country. Over the past decade, the number of Jews in Germany has increased to some 260,000 people, government figures show. An influx of new arrivals from the former Soviet Union since the 1990s has made it Europe's fastest growing Jewish population.

The Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Munich is home to Germany's second largest Jewish population after Berlin. Its small group of Liberal, or Reform, Jews differ from Orthodox Jews in particular in their approach to gender. Men and women sit together during liberal services, whereas in Orthodox synagogues, women sit in upstairs galleries or behind screens. In Liberal Judaism, women can also become rabbis and lead congregations.

Beth Shalom is a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the largest Jewish religious organization in the world, representing about 1.5 million Jews in nearly 40 countries.

The high-profile project also comes two years after the opening of big Munich synagogue for Orthodox Jews. The starkly modernist geometric structure, which included a community center and museum, cost more than €70 million to build. Located in the city center, it was opened 68 years to the day after the Kristallnacht pogrom. The new synagogue took the name of its predecessor: Ohel Jakob (Jacob's Tent).

To mark last weekend's 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a string of ceremonies took place across Germany. Alongside tragic memories were some green shoots of renewal: in the city of Lorrach, in southwestern Germany, a new synagogue opened, near the site where the original synagogue was looted and razed by the Nazis.

Speaking at a ceremony in Berlin on Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Holocaust as "the darkest chapter in German history." "We must ensure that anti-Semitism, racism and anti-foreigner sentiment can never again take root," she said.

But right now, the Liberal Jewish community attention is firmly focusing on the future, and, in particular, Libeskind's new project.

While international architecture buffs will home in on the aesthetics of Libeskind's plan, many in the Jewish community have a more pragmatic wish list. "We are not just looking for a prestige object," said Rabbi Walter Rotschild, a liberal Jew who is based in Berlin. "Good accustics and accessibilitiy are more important than fancy shapes."


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