New Synagogue in Breslau

The New Synagoge [Neue Synagoge/Synagoge am Anger], was one of the focal points in Breslau’s skyline. When completed, this largest synagogue in the city was also the second largest synagogue in the German-speaking world, preceded only by the New Synagogue in Berlin.


Only 40 years before the New Synagogue 1 was built, the White Stork Synagogue 2  had opened as the principal synagogue for Breslau's Jewish community. However, the Jewish congregation of Breslau went through a process similar to that of other Jewish congregations in nineteenth-century Germany, namely, a tempestuous debate on the issues of religion and identity. In the 1840s, after many years of conflict between the conservatives and liberals within the congregation, a decision was made to establish two independent cult committees, each of which had a separate rabbi in charge. Concurrently, a discussion continued on the construction of a synagogue for a growing community and the development of a modern and impressive place of worship that would satisfy the aspirations of the reformed wing of the congregation.

In 1864, the board of the congregation approved the decision to develop a synagogue, and first efforts were made at purchasing a suitable plot of land. The congregation considered three possible locations: Karlsstrasse 27 [today's ulica Kazimierza Wielkiego] 3 , a plot on the corner of Nikolai Stadtgraben 4 and Neue Antonienstraße 5 [today's ulica Podwale and ulica Zelwerowicza] 4 and the former Hotels Zettlitz 1 area in Schweidnitzer Stadtgraben [ulica Podwale 34], which was eventually selected for the project. Located near the city's promenade, in a vibrant urban district, the area guaranteed a high future profile for the building. The immediate surroundings also played a part, including the Villa Eichborn , adjacent to the west and with a spacious garden, as well as Schweidnitzer Strasse [ulica Świdnicka] and Tauentzienplatz [plac Kościuszki] to the east.

Three architects were invited to join a closed competition Edwin OpplerCarl Lüdecke, who served as district architect at that time, and an unknown architect. In 1866, Oppler was selected as the best candidate to complete the task. His design must have met all the major competition criteria, but the architect himself could also have played a part in the jury's decision. Native to Silesia, Oppler was born in Oels [today's Oleśnica] , near Breslau. He was also one of the first Jewish architects to hold a degree in architecture, and one of the first to specialise in synagogue designs. The construction of the New Synagogue in Hannover (of his design) had been under way when the Breslau competition began.

The New Synagogue was positioned across an elongated plot of land, thereby taking up the whole length of its shorter side. The main entrance, which would customarily be placed from the west, was shifted to the north elevation in order to enable the provision of an impressive portal and surrounding greenery. One more reason for shifting the entrance to the side wall was that, to the west, the plot was adjacent to the Eichborns’ garden, while Anger Strasse [today's ulica Łąkowa] would not planned out until 1909.

The focal point of the building was its enormous dome, raised on an octagonal drum and soaring above the intersection of the naves; it was designed to reach 73 metres in height, and its dominant nature was punctuated by four octagonal towers. Oppler intended to create a space that was both impressive and functional. The design also provided for inner passageways and a system of women's galleries. The synagogue had seven entrances. The north-west corner was to feature a separate little synagogue for weekly religious service.

The central point of the synagogue was the Aron Hakodesh (or Torah Ark) and bimah, both elevated and incorporated into the east wall, which was particularly rich in architectural detail. These two focal points were seamlessly connected with stairs, which produced an ascending effect, additionally punctuated by a rose window flanked with organs mounted on the galleries to both sides of the Torah Ark. The synagogue's interior was covered with multicoloured polychrome murals featuring stylised floral motifs by Gisbert Münster. Oppler's design catered to the needs of a reformed congregation. Hence the provision of an organ and no screens to keep women in the galleries out of sight.

The conceptual design of the synagogue was heavily influenced by the neo-Romanesque style. The nineteenth century posed a new challenge to both the designers and founders of synagogues, namely, the choice of a style suitable for the project. Edwin Oppler played a prominent role among German architects who accepted this challenge and paved the way for one of the prevalent orientations in synagogue designs in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Additionally, with a „publication in Baukunde des Architekten“, he created a theoretical handbook treatise which disseminated his synagogue model. Oppler's views on the significance of neo-Romanesque style corresponded with assimilatory ideas promoted by reformed Jews.

Oppler took his inspiration from the Rhineland architecture dating to the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including the Imperial Worms CathedralSpeyer Cathedral or Mainz Cathedral. Oppler, too, drew upon the tradition of Jewish architecture, most notably Worms Synagogue and Prague Synagogue. Oppler's considerations are embroiled with the politics of the era. He saw the Romanesque style as a pure expression of Germanhood. At the time of a budding national identity and on the eve of Germany's unification, Edwin Oppler offered Jews an assimilation through architecture. The architect was vehemently against the Moorish style, which was also known as Oriental style, the second leading synagogue architecture style at that time.

The New Synagogue was completed at a unique moment in Breslau's history. As a result, the Jewish community, for the first time in their history, tried to outdo Catholics and Protestants in a competition for the largest and most impressive "house of God" in the city. As the Jewish congregation continued their massive investment, which was intended to change the face of the then Schweidnitzer Vorstadt [today's Przedmieście Świdnickie], Breslau's Catholics strove to complete St Michael's Church 8 at Ołbin, and Protestants were building St Salvator's Church, initially at Salvatorplatz  5 . The construction of such enormous buildings carried a number of risks. In 1868, the north tower of St Michael's Church collapsed, and it would never be completed according to the architect's original design. A year later, the supporting structure of the synagogue was fractured during stress tests, which made its builders reinforce the components on which the dome was raised. Fortunately, a likely construction disaster was avoided. St Michael's Church and the New Synagogue were located further away from each other, and no direct interplay between the bulks of these buildings occurred. St Salvator's Church could have dwarfed the synagogue, as it was initially planned in the immediate vicinity of the synagogue in Kürassier-Reitplatz [today's plac Muzealny]  6 . Eventually, the square was earmarked for the construction of the Silesian Museum of Fine Arts, which opened in 1880.

Breslau's synagogue became a model for other Jewish temples created in the latter part of the nineteenth century, most notably those completed in Silesia. Glatz [today's Kłodzko] Synagogue is a case in point (designed by Albert Grau, who, incidentally, was the site manager of Breslau's New Synagogue for two years), and so is Glogau [today's Głogów] Synagogue. Oppler developed a total of eight designs for Jewish temples, five of which were actually executed (see map below). None of these synagogues survived the Reichspogromnacht, a wave of pogroms which swept Nazi Germany, on the night of 9 November 1938, when synagogues and other Jewish property were set on fire and obliterated.


Written by Karolina Jara

Edwin Oppler's Synagogues: Designs and Completed Buildings

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