Virtual synagogue exhibit shows pre-Holocaust German Jews embraced strangers

University students' work on virtual reconstructions of destroyed pre-Holocaust religious spaces hammers home the need to "love the stranger."

‘You should love the stranger,’ synagogues said, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’

Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction premiered in Winnipeg this year. The multimedia exhibit attempts to bring to life the more than 1,000 synagogues destroyed by Nazis during the Second World War. (Marc Grellert/TU Darmstadt)

How do you show your kids their history when it's no longer there?

Germany's Third Reich destroyed more than 1,400 synagogues. During Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass), Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazis and rioters destroyed 267 synagogues in a single night.

The Canadian premiere of Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction, at the Canadian Mennonite University's Heritage Centre Gallery, is something everyone should see before it closes on March 4.

Sponsored by the University of Manitoba and the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, it shows more than 20 years of architectural research done by students and scholars from the Darmstadt Technical University.

The digital imagery on the walls depicts buildings and art. You can see both modern and historic architecture. It also shows empty sanctuaries.

A virtual recreation of Kaiserlautern Synagogue. (Marc Grellert/TU Darmstadt)

For my Jewish family, it was a chance to imagine what those transcendent spaces looked like when full. Perhaps one of our ancestors was there to pray, to get married, to hear a magnificent cantor's voice or a rabbi's stirring sermon.

It was easy to see the balconies full of families with little kids. I imagined nursing moms and chasing preschoolers, all participating in the rich communal Jewish life that existed before the Second World War in these spaces.

For my kindergarteners, the ceremonial spaces were familiar and comfortable. We saw the reassuring symbols my kids recognize, things they've learned already by age five.

Since they cannot read, they didn't know what the words on the walls described. They didn't read about the systematic destruction of the German Jewish community and the Europe-wide genocide that followed.  

We shielded the kids from the videos of the Kristallnacht fires and the construction equipment that destroyed so many Jewish holy spaces at once.

"Why would this happen?" my kids asked.

I used brief, basic terms to explain that "bad people" destroyed these things. We tempered the serious experience with a romp in the winter sunshine, scoops of gelati and handmade musical instruments purchased as gifts from the Canadian Mennonite University book shop.

Inside the exhibit brought to Winnipeg by the University of Manitoba, the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre and the German government. (Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction)

We returned to the conversation whenever the kids needed more information.

"What should you do when this happens?" they asked.

I repeated what I'd been taught: The most important thing is to stay alive. Run away or fight … and, as they suggested, pray. Sure, I told them, praying is good, but protect yourself first. I told them jokes. I reminded them that we can replace lovies and stuffed animals. Things are not as important as people.

We talked about brave people we knew who had fought back and survived. I reassured them that they were safe and sound in Canada.

Some adults might say that exposing young children to this sort of thing is wrong. I'd respond by saying I never knew anything different. 

Every European Jewish lost family

I knew about the Holocaust as a preschooler.

I was sick as a little kid and spent time in the hospital. During my recovery, older family friends brought me homemade treats: Vichyssoise and Sacher Torte, lovely European delights to tempt the appetite of a sick child.

I remember greeting someone in my family's entryway. As she held out a cake to me, I saw the number on her arm. It was the number tattooed there by the Germans: she was a Holocaust survivor.

A recreation of the Nuremberg Synagogue as part of the exhibit in Winnipeg. (Marc Grellert/TU Darmstadt)

My rabbi had been liberated from Auschwitz at age 17. He cooked us goulash and fascinated us with stories of how his mother made bread in his town's communal ovens in Hungary. I grew up playing with his children and had sleepovers at his house.

I never knew a time without the shadow of this genocide. Even though my immediate family was in the U.S., we too lost extended family during the Holocaust. Every European Jewish family did.

The soaring ceilings and ornate decorations of these reconstructions are eerie and compelling. In some cases, the students reconstructed things right down to the Hebrew inscriptions on the walls.

Those students probably used architectural drawings and photos to reconstruct the buildings, but in some cases, I wondered if only the Holocaust survivors who had sat many hours in those sanctuaries before the war could have said which inscriptions were on the walls.

I was able to read some that were transcribed correctly. I translated them for my kids, who exclaimed with delight over phrases they recognized.

We brought along an older family friend to help us on our day off school — and to enjoy our adventure. She isn't Jewish, but it didn't matter.

It's up to us to remember

At the exhibit, I read and translated the Hebrew without reflection, but two phrases I rattled off stopped our friend dead in her tracks: "You should love the stranger" and "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

The Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin after it was set on fire by a Nazi mob during the 'Kristallnacht' riots, Nov. 9-11, 1938. (Getty Images)

She'd kept her composure, managing five-year-olds positively in a difficult space, but that was a bit too far.

Yes, these German Jewish communities preached tolerance, love and openness — as all religious communities should. Even so, they and their buildings were destroyed forever by hate. When we learn about genocide, we always need to remind ourselves of this: no people, cultures or religions ever "deserve" this. 

When I see another article about a refugee braving the cold to cross the border at Emerson, I am grateful and teary-eyed. Thank you, Canada, for "loving the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

We can't forget what the ongoing destruction of ethnicity, culture, religion and community means. It's in every survivor's details, in the description of a town's communal oven or a favourite goulash recipe. Every refugee carries those memories and the loss of so many precious things and people.

It's up to us to remember the painful loss of genocide, open our arms and offer this country's safety. We have great expanses of space here. Our hearts should also have more room to love.

Thank you, Canada, for welcoming and loving the stranger. Thank you, too, to the people of Emerson, for bearing so much of the recent burden.

Joanne Seiff is a freelance writer, knitwear designer and educator who lives in Winnipeg.