As of July 2021 the beautiful synagogue in Görlitz has finally reopened to visitors after a lengthy renovation and many decades where it lay in disuse and disrepair. However the synagogue is no longer a place of worship, but a cultural forum – for events and meetings, which still has a space reserved for prayer.
After many years living in Görlitz it was a pleasure to finally see the inside of the synagogue – which has been restored to its former glory. Located on Otto-Müller-Straße, the synagogue was completed in 1911. The Jewish community had been able to thrive and grow since their reestablishment in the area after the Edict of Emancipation in 1812 when Prussia granted Jews the same rights as other citizens. Before that, Jews had been banned from Görlitz since 1389, when after a pogrom in Prague the city was declared to be “Jew-free” and they were driven out of town, their property confiscated by the city and their synagogue destroyed.
The Jewish community in Görlitz first established a synagogue on Langenstraße next to the Volkshochschule, but they quickly outgrew it (in 1900 the Jewish community had 700 members) and began searching for a new location for their place of worship. The community wanted a place that was centrally-located and easily accessible. The synagogue should also be a symbol of their growing community. The plot on Otto-Müller-Straße was selected and purchased with generous donations from Jewish citizens in Görlitz, especially from a businessman named Emanuel Alexander Katz who was chairmen of the building commission. A competition was held to find architects for the synagogue and although they had never designed a synagogue before, the architects William Lossow and Max Kühne (famous for designing the Leipzig main train station) won the competition with their design for the synagogue after visiting several other contemporary synagogues for inspiration, including the synagogue in Poznań which became the inspiration for the Görlitz synagogue. Their design stood out for its art nouveau style and clever use of space.
The synagogue was only in use for twenty-seven years before the November Pogrom on November 9th, 1938 – orchestrated attacks carried out by the Nazis against Jews across Germany. The synagogue in Görlitz was also set on fire, but for some reason the fire department came and extinguished the fire, saving the synagogue from total destruction and making it one of the few to survive the pogrom in Germany. The Star of David was removed from the dome of the synagogue and destroyed and the use of the synagogue was forbidden for the Jewish community in Görlitz. No religious services have been held there since then. The Jewish citizens of Görlitz mostly fled the Nazis or were killed, leaving no one in the city after the war to care for the synagogue. After 1945 the synagogue was transferred to the Jewish community in Dresden, but it was a struggle to maintain so many empty synagogues without congregations and so the community was forced to sell the synagogue to the city.
When you enter the synagogue you are struck by the elaborate decorations, especially the richly-colored and intricate paintings inside on the domed ceiling. The lion is a common symbol found in Judaism – representing the Tribe of Judah. On the east wall is an alcove where the Torah Ark used to be located. This is where the Torah scroll would be stored and an eternal light shone above it. As a symbol of the desecration, the Torah Ark now stands empty and there is no light burning. The lectern, which would have stood in front of the alcove was also completely destroyed. Above the alcove is an inscription , which means: “I am ever mindful of the Lord’s presence.” Above the alcove you’ll notice a golden screen – the organ used to be located behind this screen until 1938. Built by Schlag and Söhne in Schweidnitz (now called Świdnica in Poland), the organ was moved after the pogrom and sold to a Catholic church, now Kościół św. Bonifacego in Zgorzelec. The organ is still in use today.
After WWII the synagogue sat empty for decades and fell into disrepair. During the GDR there was talk of finding other uses for the building but none of them came to fruition. It was mainly used as storage for the theater. The building remained empty and unused, was damaged by thieves and vandals and slowly crumbled until the 1980s when citizens of Görlitz began to pay attention to the ruins and after the fall of the Wall an association was formed to restore the building as a monument.
The re-construction and preservation of the synagogue was a lengthy and costly process. When it appeared to be reaching its conclusion, discussions in town began about the proper use of the building and about restoring the Star of David to its dome roof. Thanks to the efforts of many, funding from the state and generous donations (the biggest of which was 70,000€ from an anonymous donor), the synagogue is open again today and the Star of David will be replaced on the roof soon. Although there is currently no Jewish congregation in Görlitz, a weekday prayer room has been set aside as a place for worship and prayer.
The synagogue is open to visitors seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 5€ and includes an audio guide available in German, English, Polish and Czech. Please be advised that there is a 20€ deposit required for the audio guide, which you’ll get back when you return it. Be sure to check the schedule of events at the synagogue before planning your trip to make sure it’s open. Guided tours in German are also available – please see the website for more information.
To find out more about the Jewish community in Görlitz, read my post about the Stolpersteine in Görlitz.