Augsburg Synagogue in Bavaria is one of the few synagogues in Germany to have survived World War II. Today the beautifully restored building represents Jewish hope, loss and endurance. It also has strong links to two very different German Jews: one who built the shul, the other whose actions almost led to its destruction.
Jews have called Augsburg home since at least 1290, when local documents reference a synagogue, mikveh and Jewish school. The next 600 or so years were sometimes bumpy—a pogrom here, an expulsion there—for the Jews of Augsburg, whose fortunes oscillated between tolerance and persecution.
But by the early 20th century, Jewish life was flourishing.
As it grew, the community needed a larger synagogue. The town’s approximately 1,200 members considered themselves part of the wider community in Augsburg. They would invest in their future.
In 1913 the relatively forward-thinking congregation hired a young Jewish architect with a burgeoning reputation to draw up plans. With an office in nearby Munich, Fritz Landauer, who had himself been born in Augsburg, was fast becoming the go-to guy for modern synagogues in South Germany.
It seemed the perfect match. At the time the synagogue was built, the situation of the Jews in Augsburg appeared as secure and bright as the future of the young architect they hired to design the shul.
The building itself was an architectural expression of the community’s sense of themselves as German citizens of Jewish faith, a cathedral to their belonging. As they stepped into their new synagogue, they could look to the future with something approaching hope.
Landauer, who worked alongside a Dr. Heinrich Lömpel to design the Augsburg shul, was a rare practitioner of modernist architecture in the area. He was ahead of his time, but history would catch up with him.
Built between 1913 and 1917, the Augsburg synagogue represents one of Landauer’s earliest efforts to create a new type of Jewish sacred architecture. Often called an Art Nouveau synagogue, the Augsburg synagogue is known as perhaps the most significant Art Nouveau shul in the whole of Europe. However, this is only partially correct.
For while the building certainly demonstrates elements of Art Nouveau, the combination of Byzantine and Oriental details with modernist elements makes for a unique “Jewish Renaissance” aesthetic that is very much its own.
While it celebrated the burgeoning Jewish life in Augsburg (and elsewhere), Landauer’s design also drew inspiration from the past. The spatial sequence of the courtyard with a fountain and sanctuary is a reference to the Temple of Solomon, Jewish spirituality’s ground zero.
Thanks to its varied historical allusions, the Augsburg synagogue is a very modern building. It encapsulates the spirit of early 20th century architecture and the period’s modernism found in the works of James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka.
His work on the Augsburg synagogue furthered Landauer’s reputation as an important modernist architect. After World War I, the two largest Jewish communities in Bavaria, Nuremberg and Munich, commissioned him to build two memorials to the German Jews who fell in the war.
The two monuments Landauer produced showed the sacrifice and patriotism of German Jews who fell alongside their Christian compatriots. But within 20 years, Landauer’s work would be denounced as proof of a nefarious Jewish world conspiracy, a symbol not of Jewish renaissance but of “degeneracy.”
Barred from work, Landauer fled Nazi Germany with his family for London. Although he escaped the fate of the six million Jews who perished, Nazism destroyed Landauer’s career along with countless other German-Jewish professionals.
Landauer's work and life story offer an insight into just how quickly the living and working conditions of German-Jewish architects (and others) would change. It is an example of how, by an extremely complex process of elimination, Jews and their work were removed from Germany after the Nazis took power.
Landauer’s immigration to London came at a large price both personally and professionally. Despite early successes, he was not able to permanently establish himself as an architect in his new country and eked out a living designing and selling tombstones. He died in obscurity in London in 1968.
Meanwhile, the shul he built also fell victim to Nazism. It was badly damaged during Kristallnacht, or the “Night of the Broken Glass,” a pogrom against Jews across Germany and parts of German-occupied Austria in November 1938.
Designed by one German Jew and attacked ostensibly due to the actions of another, the Augsburg synagogue was where two very different lives met.
The pretext for the Kristallnacht violence was the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jew born in Germany. Having fled Nazi Germany in 1936, the teenager faced difficulties in his attempts to settle in France.
By November 1938, he was stateless and desperate; his German and Polish papers had expired, he was living in France illegally without the right to work. Meanwhile, Grynszpan’s parents were among the approximately 15,000 Polish Jews recently expelled from Germany in the autumn of 1938.
His father, mother, sister and brother were ruthlessly removed from their homes in Hannover and deported to Poland in boxcars, an experience his sister Berta described to him in a postcard.
"You undoubtedly heard of our great misfortune,” she wrote. “They didn't permit us to return home anymore. I asked to be allowed to go home and get at least a few things. I went, accompanied by a [Security Police officer] and packed the necessary clothes in a suitcase. And that is all I saved. We don't have a pfennig. More next time. Best regards and kisses from all of us. Berta."
Hearing this news enraged Grynszpan, a young man already distanced from his family and at the margins of society. On November 7, 1938, he entered a gun shop on rue Faubourg Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement of Paris and bought a pistol, determined to go to the German Embassy to kill the German ambassador. He would avenge the mistreatment of his family, he thought.
As he walked into the German Embassy, a minor official named Ernst vom Rath, was sent out to see what the young man wanted. Grynszpan shot him. Then, the young Jew made no effort to escape; he even asked embassy staff to hand him over to the police so he would not have to remain in what was technically German territory.
Upon his arrest Grynszpan explained his motives: “Being a Jew is not a crime,” he said. “I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth. Wherever I have been I have been chased like an animal.”
He declared that he had to avenge the mistreatment of the Jews, and to act to draw the attention of the world to what was happening in Germany. In addition to his statement to police, Grynszpan had a postcard to his parents in his pocket, which further explained his actions.
“My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews [expelled to Poland]. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me. Hermann [his German name]”
After the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Grynszpan was handed over to the Nazis. While his fate is unknown, it is presumed that he was murdered or executed by the Gestapo. His parents and siblings managed to escape to what is now Israel, where they took part in the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
The Nazis used Grynszpan’s act as a pretext for widespread anti-Jewish actions in Augsburg and elsewhere. Though portrayed as spontaneous outbursts of popular outrage, the pogroms were premeditated acts of retaliation carried out by local Nazi party organizations.
In the course of the attacks against Jewish people and sites, rioters burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized or looted 7,500 Jewish businesses and killed at least 91 Jewish people.
At least 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where over 1,000 died as a result of their maltreatment and others were only released after they had arranged to emigrate and agreed to transfer their property to "Aryans."
In Augsburg, on the night of November 9, 1938, armed men forcibly entered the synagogue, destroyed its interior and set the building alight. The fire brigade only put out the blaze to prevent it from spreading to neighboring buildings.
The same evening, around 150 Jewish men from Augsburg were arrested and incarcerated at the nearby Dachau concentration camp, where they were held for around a month.
In 1940, the Nazis forced the community to sell the synagogue’s organ, which once stood on the east gallery above the Torah ark, to the Catholic congregation of Weßling am Ammersee. The organ remains in the church today.
Around 560 of the 1,200 Jews of Augsburg were able to flee Germany like Landauer.
Those who couldn’t get out were deported to ghettoes and extermination camps between 1941 and 1943; in all, over 600 Jewish men, women and children from Augsburg met the same fate as Grynszpan.
Today the shul houses a Jewish museum and functions for the small Jewish community composed of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
More than that, though, the synagogue still standing in Ausgburg tells the stories of Fritz Landauer and Herschel Grynszpan, two very different German Jews whose fates mirrored those of millions more.