To get to the Besançon, France synagogue we walked a half-mile in a light drizzle carrying our photo gear. It had been raining for two days. Since our next synagogue photo-shoot was in Luxembourg five days later, giving us time for sightseeing in the interim, we scanned weather forecasts looking for a place that didn’t promise more rain. A half-day of autobahning put us in cool, but dry Munich, Germany. The morning after our arrival we decided to look for a synagogue. So much for sightseeing! We were amazed to find a stunning, ultra-modern synagogue and Jewish Community Center dominating central Munich’s Sankt Jakob’s Platz.
The cornerstone of the Ohel Jakob Synagogue was laid November 9, 2003, exactly 65 years after the Kristallnacht pogrom and destruction of the city’s synagogues. The building’s simple geometric form and placement in the Platz is a bold “in your face” architectural statement in the city where Hitler attempted to kick-off his political movement with his famous Beer Hall Putsch.
After a short explanation of our mission to photographically preserve synagogues, permission was given to photograph Ohel Jakob later in the day. We returned an hour later laden with photo-gear. Before the photo-shoot, we lunched at the delightful kosher restaurant in the adjacent Jewish Community Center. Two German ladies took seats next to us. They were fluent in English and somehow we became engaged in conversation. They explained that although they were not Jewish they had come to the Center for a lecture. One lady, who I shall refer to as Madame X, said that she was interested in Jewish culture and was studying Hebrew. Madame X stated emphatically that we should not fail to photograph the Black Synagogue in nearby Augsburg, the town where she resides. She explained that the Black Synagogue was unique because it was one of very few in Germany that was not destroyed during the Shoah. We had no idea what constituted a Black synagogue but were greatly intrigued by the possibility of documenting a rare, original, pre-World War II German synagogue.
The non-Jewish, Hebrew-studying, Jewish-culture-immersed Madam X said she had connections at the Augsburg (Black) Synagogue and thought she could arrange a photo-shoot for the next day. We should call her the following morning to confirm. By the next morning she had arranged our photo-shoot through her Hebrew teacher and the synagogue’s Cantor.
On our way to Augsburg, we made a short detour to the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. This ghastly camp was one of the earliest, serving as a model for the many that were built later. Continuing on to the Black Synagogue of Augsburg we met the Cantor, the Hebrew teacher and Madam X. It was only as we entered the synagogue’s sanctuary that we understood why it is referred to as Black. Because it is!
In 1913, the Augsburg Jewish community hired Fritz Landauer, a young Jewish architect from Munich to design a new synagogue for their burgeoning congregation. Landauer, a practitioner of modernist architecture collaborated with Dr. Heinrich Lömpel to design a building that is often described as Art Nouveau in style yet actually combines Moorish and Oriental details with Art Deco forms. Ahead of their time, the synagogue’s predominantly black interior looks like a futuristic creation by the Adams Family and Darth Vader. As we were ogling this incredibly impressive and unique work of architectural art, the cantor suddenly burst into song. Echoing off the marble walls and dome, his operatic voice filled the cavernous space. His spontaneous a cappella concert for just the four of us in this awe inspiring synagogue was a magnificent, humbling and spiritual experience.
Our visits to the striking Ohel Jakob Synagogue of Munich and the remarkable Black Synagogue of Augsburg were the serendipitous by-products of simply looking for a little sunshine during a rainy week in Europe. As so often happens in our synagogue photography efforts, the unplanned excursions yield amazing results.