The Commemorative Book Project for the Old Synagogue in Essen offers citizens, school classes and youth groups a way to identify personally with the fate of one of the 3,500 local victims of the Nazi regime. Participants are given a victim's identity card and then research that person's life. The results become part of a book that can be seen by the public at the memorial site. Since 1985, more than 300 lives have been re-told.
Alte Synagoge - History
What is today known as the ALTE SYNAGOGE [Old Synagogue] was originally dedicated as the "New Synagogue" of the Essen Jewish community on September 25, 1913. It is a memorial as well as a forum for political and historical documentation, housed in a beautiful domed synagogue building originally built between 1911 and 1913. During the November 9-10, 1938 pogrom [Kristallnacht], the Nazis destroyed this synagogue as they did many other Jewish buildings, in this case leaving only the outer walls. For a short time after the war, the building was again used as a place of worship. After it was sold to the city of Essen in 1960, the building became the "House of Industry Design," an exhibit site for industry design. The interior was so completely changed that nothing about it reminded one of its.former use as a synagogue. Finally, after this eventful history, the ALTE SYNAGOGE was reopened on November 9, 1980 as a memorial and historical documentation center.
Between 1986 and 1988, the synagogue's interior was restored, as much as possible, to its former state in a reconstruction project. The restoration included uncovering the dome, restoring the women's prayer section, and making the windows, which up until then had been covered, visible again. At the same time, those segments of the building that were irretrievable were architecturally marked. For this reason, there are empty white rotundas in place of the former mosaics and intarsia in the cupola and the barrel-shaped vault of the Torah shrine.
There are two inscriptions at the entrance to the ALTE SYNAGOGE. The first is intended to make clear the building's importance to the Essen Jewish community. It is identical to the 1913 epigraph on the votive tablet from the synagogue's first dedication.
The second inscription is about responsibility for the deportations and the Holocaust. Beginning with a verse from the prophet Habakkuk, "And a stone will shout from the wall," the inscription reads:
"This synagogue was dedicated by the Jewish community in 1913 and was ist essence for twenty-five years, until it was destroyed during the night of the November 1938 pogrom. During the 1930s, the Essen Jews were progressively excluded from the economic and social life of the city, and subsequently deported to ghettoes and killing centers. This took place in public before the
eyes of the inhabitants of Essen, and was, for the most part, accepted with indifference - tolerated by some, and actively supported by others. Today, gravestones and this house remind us of a once-significant Jewish community. After 1945, only a few Jewish survivors returned to Essen. Their fates, and those of the ones who were murdered, warn us to work for a better society in which we '...imagine a better condition than this, one in which someone can be different without fear' (Theodor Adorno)."
"The Memorial Book" Project
Remembrance and commemoration are active and interconnected processes. These considerations led to the development in Essen, from 1985 on, of "The Memorial Book" project, which is concerned with the reconstruction of the personal life and suffering of those who were murdered. More than 2,500 Jewish and about 1,000.non-Jewish citizens of Essen were persecuted and killed for political and religious reasons. They were victims of "euthanasia," murdered for being Sinti or Roma, for being so-called Gemeinschaftsfremde [people considered to be "alien to the community"], or for being homosexuals. Only a few survivors are left to remember these murder victims, who are now only known by their names. The project allows their stories to be remembered as well. The goal of the memorial book project, in reviving the images of these people, is to support "active memory," in which everyone can take part.
The project is aimed at interested citizens, school classes and youth groups, and it gives participants the opportunity to become involved with the life story of a former citizen of Essen who was persecuted and killed by the Nazis. By assuming this "sponsorship," the "sponsor" states that he/she is willing to research the life of the person and to commemorate it with a Gedenkurkunde [memorial document] [see Documents]. Clues about the victims and references to their hopes, wishes, expectations, and fears are documented in the preserved memories of surviving relatives and friends as well as in the archives of the ALTE SYNAGOGE.
The staff of the ALTE SYNAGOGE helps those trying to trace these lives, facilitates archival research, and, when possible, contacts survivors and family members. The memorial documents, of which there are now about 300, continue to be incorporated into memorial books and are also exhibited in the permanent exhibition, "Stations of Jewish Life: From Emancipation to the Present".