Museums, temples, and kosher coffee shops – it’s still there, despite the darkest chapter of European history: Jewish culture in Berlin. And still it plays an important role in shaping the face of the city. Did you know how closely linked the history of Berlin is to its Jewish community? We from Industriepalast Hostel want to explore this interesting aspect of the German capital and find out more about the many facets of Jewish life here in our newest series: Jewish Berlin. Since you’ve already been introduced to the history of Jews in Berlin in the Jewish Museum, and visited the unique site of remembrance at Holocaust Memorial, you’ll find about about the most jewish of all Berlin neighborhoods: Scheunenviertel with the beautiful New Synagogue.
This part of town has a rich Jewish tradition – that much is obvious: The golden dome of New Synagogue sparkles over the rooftops of Berlin’s historic city centre. No doubt, this is one of the capital’s most impressive buildings. The jewish community had grown impressively in the mid-1800s; to such an extent, that the 18th century Old Synagogue had simply gotten too small. A new, stately temple was therefore erected in the 1860s following the plans of famous architect Eduard Knoblauch in the style of Morisco palaces. Contemporary newspapers and writers praised the temple’s beauty to the skies, but joy was relatively short-lived: During the dreadful pogrom of Kristallnacht on November 9 and 10, 1938, the Nazis set fire to the interior of the New Synagogue and it had to be saved literally last minute. The continuing air raids on Berlin since 1943 then destroyed most parts of the house of prayer. Only the magnificent domed structure facing the street survived, although heavily damaged. From 1988 to 1995 this part of the building was finally resurrected to commemorate both the original splendour and the horrible destruction under the Nazi regime. It now houses Centrum Judaicum, a Jewish cultural centre and is, except for a little prayer room, not in use as a temple anymore. There is, however, a very interesting permanent Exhibition reflecting Berlin’s Jewish tradition, as well as special exhibitions. You can visit New Synagogue every day except Sabbath (Saturday) from 10 am. Admission for the museum is 5 € (reduced: 4 €), the dome can only be climbed in summer (3.-/2.50 €).
What a Neighborhood
It’s no coincidence the New Synagogue was built right here, halfway between Hackescher Markt and Friedrichstraße. This part of Berlin, the so-called Scheunenviertel (“barn district”), was the epicentre of Jewish life in the capital for centuries. Although it now lies in the absolute city centre, it used to be right outside the city wall, and Jews, who in the 18th century did not own a place within the town, were forced to settle here. The little alleys of this renaissance neighborhood was soon home to several smaller prayer houses, Jewish cemeteries, shops, markets, and a very unique urban Jewish culture. Industrialization brought overpopulation and pauperization, so parts of the quarter were torn down and rebuilt with new buildings and broader roads around 1900. The darkest chapter of this neighborhood began when frustrated workers started an anti-Semitic pogrom following the financial crisis in 1923. Anti-Semitic resentments came to a peak in the Shoah, the attempted extermination of all Jews by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. The vast majority of Berlin’s Jews fell victim to those crimes against humanity.
But Jewish life in this fascinating quarter has not disappeared – quite the contrary. Hackesche Höfe are a number of beautiful art nouveau backyards that were home to both Jewish bourgeois culture and avant-garde artists in the 1920s. Today it has boutiques and designer shops, cinemas, and coffee shops, and might well be Berlin’s most prestigious property. Haus Schwarzenberg (www.haus-schwarzenberg.org/en) is right next door and is not only covered in some of Berlin’s finest street art, it also houses Anne Frank Museum. You can find many traces of Jewish life along Auguststraße and the neighboring streets, such as Ahawa, the former Jewish hospital, or the Jewish Boy’s College on Große Hamburger Straße. If you have time, also stop by at Otto Weidt’s Workshop, a place where numerous blind Jewish workers were hidden during World War II.
Most notably though, this is where Berlin’s Jewish tradition is as vivid as nowhere else. Cafés, restaurants, bars, and theatres make this quarter the fanciest nightlife district in town. So stay tuned, for next week we’ll tell you all about Kosher Food & Nightlife in Berlin.
So long, shalom and lehitraot,
is Berliner by choice and a passionate backpacker himself. As a receptionist he knows the real hostel life; as a blogger he's been writing for Industriepalast Hostel's Berlin blog since 2014.