At first I found it difficult to choose a site or an object for this paper. Since I had a whole weekend to spend in Berlin I decide to take a day off and only visit sites of personal interest. While standing on the corner of Oranienburger Straße and Friedrichstraße, wondering where to go next, a bright light caught my eyes. It was a sign on the roof top of a building right in front of me. Big bright letters spelled: All palaces are temporary palaces”. And if turned my head, only the slightest to the right, I could see the magnificent dome of the New Synagogue presenting its shape on the gloomy sky. To me it was obvious that these two objects’ where in a silent correspondence with one another, the sign, saying that no construction is forever, and dome rising in revolt.
So for this paper I have chosen to discuss the “texture of memory” and the link between memory and time in the light of the roof top sign. The object for the discussion is the New Synagogue.
The New Synagogue
The synagogue was built in 1859–1866 as the main synagogue of the Berlin Jewish community. The building has a Moorish style. The front of the building is ornamented with bricks of terracotta, accented with by colored glazed bricks. The most eye-catching about the building is its dome.#
During the “Kristallnacht” in November 1938 the New Synagogue was set ablaze. The scrolls violated and the loose interior piled up and set on fire. However due to the effort of Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt who arrived early on the scene and commanded the Nazi mob to disperse; the building itself suffered no major damage. Otto Bellgardt had claimed that the building was a protected historical landmark and that he would uphold the law requiring its protection.
The building was repaired by the congregation who continued to use it as synagogue. On April 5, 1940 it was announced that no more services were to be held in the synagogue. The congregants evacuated their belongings and the German army seized the main hall and used it as storage for their uniforms.
During the “Battle of Berlin” the building got heavily damaged by the allied air raid and almost completely burned to the ground.
In 1958 the eastern section of the Jewish community was prompted to tear down the remains of the rear section of the building, along with the ruins of the main hall, leaving only the less damaged front section. Even the dome got torn down in 1950s. East Berlin’s Jewish community had suffered great losses in the Holocaust and also many congregants had fled from the Communist party, the reaming few saw no other means then to demolish the remains, they alone had no chance to restore the synagogue to its former glory.
It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that reconstruction of the front section began. From 1988 to 1993, the structurally intact parts of the building, including the façade and the dome, were restored. The main sanctuary has not yet been restored. The building was reopened in 1995. Today it houses a museum, an archive and a small shul.#
Since the focus in my discussion won’t include the exterior of the synagogue I will not present a detailed overview of its nature. The main focus will instead involve the persevering of the interior and the events taking place within these walls of fluid time. The building itself is no doubt a majestic sight, however I found the inside to be more interesting, since the traces’ caused by time are more noticeable.
Photographing is prohibited almost throughout the whole synagogue, however I managed to take one small snap shot were the past intertwines with the present. It is not a picture where you can see the delicate restoration of religious life imbedded in different objects from the past. Again, taking pictures of the Bimah, the Aron Hakodesh or even the scrolls themselves were not allowed. The picture I took represents one of the walls in the main staircase. As one can see in the picture the old stucco work is persevered and placed side by side with the new material. It is easy for the viewer to recognize the transition between the past and the present. At a first glance it appears to be a giant jigsaw puzzle were some of the pieces seem, by the look of it to be misplaced, however the fit so beautifully together that you discharged that idea almost instantly.
The synagogue itself is a mixture of a memorial and everyday Jewish life. The past becomes frightening close while passing through the security gates at the entrance. The threat to Jewish living is still omnipresent.
Today the bottom floor of the synagogue contains an exhibition of life before the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall. Numerous of black and white pictures tells a story of a growing flourishing congregation, which offered both healthcare, childcare and soup kitchens to their members. The images are combined with displays of religious items found in the concrete floor during the restoration in the years of 1988 to 1993. The items are presented like archeological findings restrained in boxes of glass; the past and the present carefully separated trough walls of glass.
The texture of memory
Young writes about how items are displayed in museums in order for them to create meaning and coherence. The items are placed in a specific pattern created by their artistic curators. They juxtapose, narrate and remember history according to the taste of the person/persons organizing the exhibition. Young points out that these curators often are influenced by their own community’s political need and the temper of their time. #
The order in which we, the viewers, approach these items follows a “narrative matrix” in which one object is sequentially linked to the ones following. Young asks himself: What are the principals’ around the organization of these items, what memory do they tell?
In his writing Young addresses both the physical and the metaphysical qualities of these “memorial texts”, their tactile and temporal dimension, this is what he calls the “texture of memory”. #
One of Young’s aims, he argue, is to break down the notion of any memorials “collective memory”. Instead he prefers to examine “the collected memory”, the many discrete memories that are gathered in a common memorial space. A society’s memory in this context should according to Young be regarded as aggregated collection of its members, many, often competing memories. If societies remember, he writes, it is only insofar as their institutions, organize and shape their different parts of memories. Young’s description of memories reminds me of the picture from the Synagogue, a giant puzzle were all the pieces fit by shape, but not by color or age.#
As I see it ‘collective memory’ is a shared memory, the collective memory in its most abstract form does not claim authority on what story to be told. The collective memory merely places all the different memories within one context. The memories within this context however are all different and belong to different individuals. So here we have, on the one hand a part of a collective memory, which is far larger than the synagogue, represented by the exhibition itself, all the items included. Within this collective memory a range of “collected memories” emerge. The collected memories in this case are the different areas of the exhibition’s narrative matrix. In fact, in this case we have two separated collective memories imbedded in one exhibition, The Shoah and the life of the eastern Jewish community. I prefer to use the word Shoah, rather than the Holocaust since the prior is used only within the Jewish world. And visiting an exhibition at a Synagogue, one has to acknowledge the fact that the matrix is told from a religious perspective.
In order to accommodate all the different collected memories the exhibition is literally crowded; the visitor has to navigate through flourishing religious life in a pre war context, followed by destruction due to the war, finishing with the latter political collapse and despair of the eastern Jews. It is somewhat helpful that the narrative is arranged chronologically; however the history of Jewish life in Berlin drowns in its own history.
The New Synagogue is not a typical ‘memorial’, but in the same time it is and hence it should be interpret as a memorial. The question is how and to what extend? I have visited a lot of Jewish museums throughout the world; some more ‘lavish’ then others. But they all follow the same matrix; history is always arranged in a chronological order. However, the ones I found most interesting were the ones who dared to narrow their collected memory, the ones who placed themselves as museums corresponding with the larger context linked to the collective memory; but in their exhibition only represented a collected memory from a particular group or from a certain perspective. Young writes that Holocaust monuments are often produced specifically to be historically referential; however the aim of memorials is not to draw attention to their own presence as much as remembering the past. And remembering the past is difficult, whether it is a monument or an exhibition in a museum. Because there will always be the conflict of memory and people. Memory does not exist outside a person and memory never stands still. Memory is pluralistic and hence every ‘remembrance’ must be interpreted according to its own local context and its creator. And also, the remembrance is jeopardized when the memorial tries to accommodate all memories included within a collective memory.#
Young says that it is not enough to ask whether or not our memorials remember the Holocaust, or even how they remember. We should also ask to what ends have we remembered: how do we respond to the current moment in light of our remembered past? # An extremely relevant question with no single answer.#
The purpose of this assignment was to examine the link between time and memory; I do not know if that is what I have done. What I do know is that the assignment left me with no sleep. And I kept asking myself; how is the Berlin congregation to organize an exhibition in remembrance of all their congregants’ and their history, is that even possible?
But then I realized that is exactly what they have done. The remembrance is not only the exhibition, but the building itself. All the little pieces carefully put together in the image I took shows that time is fluid, as well as memory. They are all different but they only fit in one place, and together they create a patchwork connected to one another without regard to time.