Jewish History: Very Real (Current)

With these glasses, you can almost experience the history of the great synagogue in Erfurt (below).

Photo: dpa / Martin Schutt

To outsiders, it must seem somewhat odd – not to write in a rude and garbled manner – how one wanders with glasses in front of the Torah shrine. Through the rows of seats on which the prayer books. One step to the left, just don’t hit one of the benches that can only be seen with glasses. Tilt your head left, right, up and down so that you can absorb all the details that appear before your eyes, but that you can not even guess from the outside. Lovingly designed candle holders. The walls are decorated in light pink. Spread the Torah on the shrine.

But no matter what it looks like on the outside, the synagogue looks great on the inside. Such spectacles offer a new approach to history in general and the House of God in particular, which is in fact irretrievably lost – and the former Jewish life that will be lost when the last contemporary witnesses die.

The great synagogue in Erfurt was a magnificent building with a golden dome. Consecrated in 1884, it was located on the edge of what is now downtown Erfurt and provided space for around 500 people. According to historians, the building at the end of the 19th century was a milestone in Jewish life in Germany. It was an expression of the increasing political equality of the Jews insofar as it promoted this emancipation.

As is well known, this launch into a new and seemingly better time only lasted for a few decades in Erfurt, as in other parts of Germany and Europe. This Jewish place of worship was destroyed nearly half a century after it was opened. Like more than 1,400 synagogues and prayer rooms, the large synagogue in Erfurt was attacked by National Socialists and burned during the November massacre of 1938. Later, the city of Erfurt wanted the Jewish community to reimburse for the two cans of petrol that were used to light the synagogue.

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Hitler has been dead since 1945, but Judaism in Germany is still alive – even if it continues to threaten. The Nazis did not manage to completely destroy the memory of this place of worship.

This is what the reconstructed Great Synagogue in Erfurt looks like.

This is what the reconstructed Great Synagogue in Erfurt looks like.

Photo: VR-Lab / University of Applied Sciences Erfurt

After a team of scholars from various disciplines worked on the hypothetical reconstruction of the synagogue for nearly a year, this place can even be visited again today, entering, experiencing and even feeling it. The head of this team, Annegret Schüle, says, “This has a very different quality than if I look at pictures of the synagogue or read about it in a history book.” Anyone who explores every part and every corner of the synagogue and their surroundings could easily spend an hour “in the cups”. Schüle serves as director of the Topf & Sons memorial site in Erfurt and is also the chief curator of historical museums in the state capital.

The glasses that make visiting the synagogue tangible are called VR glasses; VR is like virtual reality. They are much larger than regular goggles and are pulled over the head similar to oversized ski goggles. Anyone who puts it before their eyes almost immediately forgets where it actually is. Because the glasses envision for the wearer an artificial virtual world in which objects can even be touched, moved and heard, where each movement of the head reveals a new part of this world that suddenly no longer exists.

While it may appear to outsiders as if the wearer is paddling uncontrollably with his arm in the air, they can even raise and lower a virtual Torah pointer, a silver reading stick, with the help of glasses. The corresponding technology has been used repeatedly in the world of computer games for several years.

According to Scholl, the possibility of revisiting a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis in this way is unique in Germany so far. She says that there are other similar projects in the republic. But these are not yet ready for presentation to the public. In addition to Schüle, a historian and communications scientist from the University of Erfurt, he also worked as a building planner and media designer from the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt – with the support of the Jewish community and their rabbi Alexander Nechama. Scholl says he came up with the idea to put prayer books on the synagogue benches. “That was technically very complicated.” But VR Synagogue was supposed to look racy, just as the real model did. It was not a museum, but a house where the faith was practiced.

In fact, it was also possible to create this vitality by the fact that the makers of this project created artificial people who could pray or celebrate in the synagogue. Scholl says that’s exactly what was deliberately avoided. As fascinating as virtual reality technology is to allow a young, digitally savvy audience to gain new and vibrant access to history, this technology has its limitations. Maybe not very technical. But ethical.

Scholl, in particular, argues that it is impossible, even with the help of this technology, to plunge into the emotional world of people who lived long ago, under very different conditions than today. “We can create the space where the stories happened and tell those stories,” Schul says. “But emotional realms cannot be understood through this reconstruction.”

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For the same reason, Scholl doubts the possible considerations of using glasses to give people living today a virtual impression of places of extermination—for example, to show them in glasses the cattle carts with which the Nazis drove Jews to extermination camps. Or even inside gas chambers.

Today, says Schull, he would never be able to feel what people had to go through at that time; Not because everyone who wears VR glasses knows that they just have to take them off to get back into the real world. In other words, what can be achieved by reconstructing these places of horror will be at most satisfying the voyeuristic pleasure of the suffering of others.

Therefore, it is precisely these basic and limiting considerations that lead to the fact that the destruction of the synagogue in the virtual world is not informed by blazing fire and the echo of ax blows – but very cleverly from the attic of the building, also ensuring that visitors to the synagogue first have the opportunity to explore the building as part of Jewish culture, which is defined by much more than the fact that the Nazis destroyed it.

In this attic – which you enter by walking up a staircase next to the Torah Shrine – you find descriptions of the synagogue servant Hermann Korms, who was there when the synagogue was set on fire on the night of November 9-10, 1938. Puts. At that time, Cormes and his wife fled to the attic. “While we were walking down the stairs, we heard people from inside the synagogue smashing the door of the stairwell with axes,” he said in 1963 while interrogating the perpetrators of the arson.

When the Nazis took him to a gymnasium that night, he passed his synagogue again a short time later and saw that it was already on fire.

Frank Mccarthy

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