As we observe the 75th anniversary of the so-called Kristallnacht (known more appropriately as “Reichspogromnacht” in German today), I want to share a story about the “New Synagogue” in eastern Berlin that was quite obscure until recently. How obscure? In 1966 a plaque was placed on the outside of the synagogue erroneously commemorating its destruction on 9/10 November 1938. With approximately 1000 Jewish houses of worship destroyed that night, it is easy to understand the confusion. However, it is also possible that the East German regime had no interest in spreading the true story that unfolded there.
It seems that a mob had assembled at Berlin’s largest synagogue on Oranienburger Straße and proceeded to smash whatever they could get their hands on in order to provide fuel for a fire. Before the blaze could really get going, Berlin Police Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt arrived and apparently dispersed the mob at gunpoint. He then called in the fire department, which he quite likely had to convince to perform its duty.
It is easy to assume that this police officer was merely motivated by a desire to protect nearby buildings in this densely populated neighborhood. However, Bellgardt and his superior officer, Senior Lieutenant Wilhelm Krützfeld, are said to have had a history of anti-Nazi activity. Bellgardt reputedly stamped forged identity cards and warned Jewish residents of impending deportation orders. Their precinct almost certainly provided Otto Weidt (owner of a workshop that employed and protected 30 deaf and blind Jews) warnings about imminent raids. Ultimately Krützfeld covered up the full extent of Bellgardt’s synagogue-saving actions, but still received a reprimand from his superiors. He would eventually apply for early retirement, his conscience no longer allowing him to serve the Nazi regime.
The synagogue itself was immediately repaired and continued to function until April, 1940. It was among the very last Jewish institutions to be closed by the Nazis. It sustained massive damage during air raids on Berlin, especially in late 1943. After the war, the Berlin Jewish community re-constituted itself in nearby buildings. Following German reunification, a significant reconstruction project was undertaken. Today’s synagogue is nowhere near its original size, but a remarkable and inspiring sight nonetheless.
The restored synagogue today
The first time I was fortunate enough to see this place, it was still located in East Germany, and in an especially run-down part of generally run-down East Berlin. Today, this is a rather upscale area of the reunited city. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the German capital.
As we remember the victims of the nightmare that became all too real 75 years ago tonight, I salute Bellgardt and Krützfeld and wish there had been a LOT more people like them in central Europe that night.
Wikipedia article on the synagogue (including a photo of the erroneous plaque, still in place as of my last visit in 2006) here.
Website of the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind (an unheralded hero worthy of a page himself!) here, with details about Bellgardt and Krützfeld here.
CuriousLurker post with a great picture of this synagogue, in addition to a newer Berlin synagogue here.