Max Cars, the first post-1945 chairman of the Erfurt synagogue congregation, 1948 © Jewish Community of the State of Thuringia
After World War II, the Jewish community of Erfurt had to start afresh. It organized financial and material support for its members and re-initiated religious life. The new chairman was Max Cars, who had survived the Terezín concentration camp with his two daughters. With other former concentration camp inmates and members of the resistance, he championed the cause of a new beginning for society.
Only 42 persons remained of Erfurt’s large pre-1933 Jewish community. A handful of them had survived in Erfurt; the others returned from camps or from abroad. They were joined by Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and survivors of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora. Many of them could no longer imagine a future in Germany and wanted to emigrate to the United States or Eretz Yisrael. Yet there were many who stayed. By late 1946, the community counted some 150 members. It was not until March 1947 that the city of Erfurt gave them back the lot on which the synagogue had stood until its destruction in 1938.
Resistance Against a New Synagogue
The synagogue community envisioned creating a visible symbol of Jewish identity in the city by building a new house of worship. However, this vision ran contrary to the wishes of the Thuringian government, which was led by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The Jewish community commissioned the architect Willy Nöckel to plan a synagogue, but his initial designs were rejected. In June 1951, he submitted a strongly modified version that would cost far less to build. He solicited the government’s consent by saying that "the synagogue’s outward appearance will not be conspicuously religious in character". This design was approved.
The Jewish community was unable to raise the funds, however, despite the reduced construction costs. The Thuringian state government and the city of Erfurt refused to finance the project. The community persisted, now turning to Otto Nuschke, the deputy prime minister of the GDR. Nuschke oversaw the affairs of the Christian churches and other religious communities in the country. He agreed to finance the construction out of his budget.
The Dedication and New Problems
The synagogue was dedicated on August 31, 1952 with a festive ceremony. The house of worship was the first and only new synagogue to be built in the GDR. This major milestone in Erfurt stood in stark contrast to the wave of anti-Semitic persecution taking place in Eastern Europe. In late 1952, those events came to a head with a prominent show trial in Prague, in which Communists with Jewish roots were sentenced to death on fictitious charges. In the GDR as well, the Socialist Unity Party secured power by taking action against persons who had survived the Shoah just years earlier. Jewish communities were attacked under wholesale suspicion of harboring Western secret services. In this phase, some one third of the GDR’s Jewish citizens fled the country, including many from Thuringia. The Jewish communities in Eisenach, Gera, Jena, and Mühlhausen had to close. The Erfurt community was the only one left in the state.
Jewish Life in the GDR and Today
The persecution of Jews in the GDR ended with the death of Stalin in March 1953. The Jewish communities still in existence received financial support. Jewish religion and history were entirely missing, however, from the curriculums of the schools and universities. The anti-Israel policies of the Socialist Unity Party was also a problem for the Jewish communities, and they refused to support it. Israel is the origin of the Jewish faith. What is more, it is the only country that grants Jews from other countries the right to immigrate and thus offers a safe haven from possible persecution.
In 1989, the Erfurt Synagogue had a congregation of 26. It was only after the end of the GDR that it increased again through the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Today the Jewish community of Thuringia counts some 700 members and is a vibrant center of the Jewish faith and Jewish culture in that state. A great amount of historical knowledge was lost over the course of the disruptions and losses. The virtual reconstruction of the Great Synagogue is a contribution to uncovering the traces of the past and making the history of the city’s Jews visible as an important part of the history of Erfurt as a whole.
© Progress Film GmbH