With a current population of approx. 570,000, Essen is the center of the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region; after Cologne, Düsseldorf and Dortmund, the city is the fourth largest in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. As early as the end of the 13th century, Jews were first mentioned in documents in Essen; they were under the protection of the sovereign, the abbess of Essen.
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The Old Synagogue as a "House of Jewish Culture "The interior of the synagogue now shines in a friendly apricot tone and the exhibition architecture is gently embedded in the restored architecture of the building.
In 2008, following an earlier suggestion by Paul Spiegel, then President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the Essen City Council decided to transform the Old Synagogue into a “House of Jewish Culture.” A new permanent exhibition was conceived, and the building refurbished. Two new exhibition levels were made accessible, and the offices moved. In 2010, the year of the European Capital of Culture, the festive inauguration of the redesigned interior was celebrated. 36,000 visitors were registered in the first year. The Old Synagogue organizes lectures, concerts, readings, and monthly political discussions; it also offers workshops for younger and older students on many Jewish topics, as well as guided tours through the interactive permanent exhibition, also for adults. With its new focus on contemporary Judaism, it is unique in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Reconstruction of the interior; the architecture once again is visible to some extent.
In 1986, the Torah shrine, the women’s gallery, and the tracery of the windows were reconstructed according to historical photographs; the false ceiling was removed and hanging lamps replicated: The architecture once again became visible to some extent.
In Essen, as in all of Germany, the number of Jews increased fourfold after 1989 due to immigration from the former USSR. Today, roughly one hundred thousand Jews are members of the communities of the Central Council, which was founded in 1950.
In the interior of the synagogue there is now a wall exhibition, you can see seating for lectures, a group is sitting together and listening to a speaker.
In 1980, following a fire in the industrial design exhibition, the Old Synagogue was established as a “place of remembrance and commemoration.” A first exhibition on the theme of “resistance against fascism” was presented, albeit without reference to the history of the building. The first director, however, established contacts with Jewish emigrants, whom the city then invited. A collection was built up and a new permanent exhibition inaugurated, which presents the history of Jewish persecution. The general history of National Socialism was assigned to the city archive. Using the old interior decoration, a panel exhibition was presented.
The entire interior of the synagogue now serves secular purposes: the building, once impressively built for its purpose, is now in keeping with the clear form language of modern furnishings and secular design standards of the time. Clear lines and rectangular forms, minimalist furniture and lighting concepts dominate the picture.
From 1960 to 1979—the period of the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle”—the City of Essen exhibited chairs, fabrics, and lamps at the so-called "Haus Industrieform" ("House of Industrial Form"). The women’s gallery and the Torah shrine are torn down and a false ceiling inserted, so that the cupola was no longer visible. A part of the city’s population was not satisfied with this and wished instead to establish a memorial. There were fierce debates in the press in Essen. The Essen Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation strove to give the building a sacred character again.
The interior of the synagogue, which once housed 1400 people, is completely run-down and lies in ruins for over two decades.
After 1938, the synagogue was a burnt-out ruin with window cavities in the middle of the city. In 1953, the property is transferred to the Jewish Trust Corporation, the legal successor organization for abandoned Jewish community property in the British Zone. Stones fell from the façade. Between 1949 and 1959, the postwar community of roughly eighty war survivors set up a prayer room in the former rabbi’s house located immediately next door. They were not permitted to use the main room of the synagogue with its former 1.400 seats. The property was sold to the City of Essen in 1959, whereupon the city finally installed industrial windows. The Torah shrine has been preserved, albeit damaged. The city wanted a modern, timeless exhibition space for industrial design and tore down a large part of the interior.
One can clearly see in the black and white photography how onlookers observe the events. The imposing synagogue is burnt out, its roof truss already collapsed.
In the night of November 9 to 10, the synagogue was set on fire. The wooden benches were burned, the lead frames of the beautiful stained-glass windows melted, and the Torah scrolls were torn out of their shrine and thrown onto the square in front of the Old Catholic Peace Church. Many people watched in bewilderment. The fire department did not intervene. It protected only neighboring buildings. Hundreds of Jewish men were deported to the Dachau concentration camp and were only released if they promised to emigrate from the German Reich within a few weeks. By 1939, nearly half of the Jews in Essen had fled.
Exterior view of the stately synagogue building.
The inauguration was a grand event for the aspiring metropolis. In the 1920s, five thousand Jews were members of the synagogue community in Essen. The majority was liberal: The synagogue had a large organ, the women’s gallery was not covered with wooden lattices and curtains as in orthodox synagogues, and some prayers were recited in German. The thirty-four-meter-high domed building strove to promote respect and integration into the urban society. It was integrated into the housing development “Am Steeler Tor.” The streetcar ran around it, and the Old Catholic Church would soon follow as a neighbor.
Magnificent stained glass windows and gold mosaics in Byzantine style characterize the interior of the synagogue, which can be seen here.
Jewish families were already living in Essen in the Middle Ages, whereby their traces become lost in the sixteenth century. Jews lived continuously in the Rhineland, however, certainly since the tenth century. Around the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), Jews were permitted to live in Essen again, which was ruled by an abbess. Until well into the nineteenth century, this was a small community: In 1805, there were altogether nineteen families. After 1870, industrialization led to massive population growth. A synagogue built in 1808 became too small. In 1913, a magnificent new synagogue was built east of the city center. Rabbi Samuel Salomon, a highly educated gentleman, designed the ornamentation of the synagogue based on finds in Palestine, which was then under Ottoman administration. Magnificent stained-glass windows and gold mosaics in the Byzantine style characterized its interior.