The Synagogue in Leutershausen in the Course of Time

Speech of Professor Erhard Schnurr on the 16th September 2018 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the Synagogue in Leutershausen (translated from German).

This synagogue has stood in Leutershausen for 150 years; that is a reason for joy. Not only because of its venerable age, but also because and how this building has survived the 150 years of its very eventful history.

Not many synagogues outlasted the Nazi period and the subsequent “adaptations” by demolition in the post-war years.

It is therefore appropriate to take a closer look at the ‘life story’ of this building on the occasion of this anniversary, to see how it has changed not only its external appearance, but also its function, in the course of these 150 years.

The 150 years can be divided into three very different periods:

  • the use of the house as a synagogue for the Jewish community from 1868 to 1938;
  • its different, mostly commercial use in the period from 1938 to the mid-1990s; and
  • its current use as a ‘House of Culture and Encounter’, since its ceremonial reopening in November 2001.

It is important to note the changing cultural and historical environment in this journey through time and also include these factors in our considerations.

Let’s go back to the year 1868. There could not be a better example of the environment than the contents of the foundation stone document from 1867, because here we find a description of the conditions in Leutershausen from the point of view of the Jewish community.

We learn from the document that in the years since 1806, the number of Jewish families had almost doubled and that therefore a new synagogue had to be built.

We also learn that the number of Jews in Leutershausen was 165, the number of Protestants 763 and the number of Catholics 505. It follows that the Jews in Leutershausen accounted for 11.5 % of the population.

In addition, the Grand Duke of Baden was expressly thanked for the fact that in 1862 he had finally achieved equal rights for the Jews in Baden.

With regard to the population of Leutershausen, in the document is emphasized: “Particularly religious tolerance is the character of the inhabitants”.

It seems justified to conclude from this that the relationship between Jews and non-Jews was substantially benign.

How does a synagogue serve a Jewish community? And how is it used?
We do not know exactly how the Jewish community used this synagogue in detail, so let us look at a synagogue in general.

A synagogue is from our present point of view first and foremost a house of prayer, but additionally, a synagogue has always had other important functions.

When we literally translate the ancient Greek word synagogue, it describes a place where we “do something together”. Such a term can now be applied to many rooms or buildings. But if we take a closer look at the word, we see that the verb ‘ἄγειν/agein’ does not only mean ‘to do something’ in Greek, but can take on a number of different meanings depending on the context. It can then be translated as ‘instruct’, ‘educate’, , ‘lead’. We know this connection from the word “pedagogue”, this describes someone who educates, instructs, teaches children.

But in the synagogue, the scholar not only prayed, but also discussed and disputed. The Jewish religion knows no supreme authority for the interpretation of the scriptures. Every Jew must work out his own interpretation, usually with the help of numerous commentaries. The scripture itself remains unchanged (no Iota is changed). Therefore, the pious Jew studies the holy scriptures and their commentaries again and again and then defines his own interpretation. He then discusses or exchanges this interpretation with others in the synagogue.

In an obituary of a Jewish teacher in the Palatinate in January 1929, the Bavarian Israelitische Gemeindezeitung wrote: “During this time he was able to devote himself undisturbed to the tranquillity of his favourite pastime, Jewish studies. His intimately religious sense, his piety of heart led him to “learn” daily for himself and often with like-minded colleagues and friends. He was all the more qualified to do so, since he had “learned” from his youth in a pious parental home…”. (Obituary for the teacher Jakob Frank, Rockenhausen)

If we transfer this description into a synagogue, then we have the described culture and environment.

Using the Christian New Testament as a basis for this statement, then here too we find the high value of discussion in the synagogue; everyone was obviously also entitled to present his interpretation publicly and to put it up for discussion. We know from Acts of the Apostles that these discussions sometimes became very heated and in individual cases led to fisticuffs: Stephen paid for his interpretations of the Scriptures with his life.

Another important function of the synagogue was to serve as a room for school lessons. Jewish children have always been taught to read and write in order to be able to read the holy scriptures themselves for the reasons already mentioned and to be able to read from the Torah at religious services. It is not by chance that the synagogue in Yiddish is called ‘Schul’; since the German-speaking part of Yiddish is the medieval dialect from the 13th century from our region, it seems certain that the function as a place of instruction for the synagogue has always existed. Until the introduction of the simultaneous school, teaching was largely in the hands of the Christian churches and was therefore not accessible to the Jews. After the introduction of the simultaneous school in Baden, the Jewish school was only used for religious instruction. There are traditions in Leutershausen that the prayer room in Hauptstraße 1 was colloquially referred to as the “Jewish School”.

In this synagogue, however, Jewish schooling or religious instruction never took place, because the local Jewish community was in the comfortable situation of having its own school building with a teacher’s flat in the Mittelgasse since 1858 – i.e. ten years before the inauguration of this synagogue.

Under these conditions, prayer, teaching, learning and discussion continued in the synagogue until the Nazi era. Parallel to this, however, there were lasting changes in the environment of this synagogue. In 1900, only 32 years after the ceremonial inauguration of the building, the number of Jewish citizens in Leutershausen was only 68. How did this dramatic decline in the Jewish population in Leutershausen come about?

The already mentioned freedom of movement of Jews since 1862, the foundation of the German Empire under Prussian leadership in 1871 and the associated economic and industrial upswing led to an internal migration of the Jewish rural population to the big cities. Above all, the up-and-coming industrial city of Mannheim in the immediate vicinity was a magnet for Jewish immigration. While the surrounding Jewish rural communities declined in number, the number of Jews in Mannheim almost doubled. The New Jewish Cemetery in Mannheim, built in 1842, would thus become the largest Jewish cemetery in Baden-Württemberg today.

Emigration also played a role, however; all local Jewish families already had relatives in the USA who served as contacts.

From 1900 to 1933, the number of Jews in Leutershausen fell from 68 to 43, and some Jewish families in Leutershausen disappeared completely during this period.

With the beginning of Nazi rule, emigrations and relocations to large cities began again. Many Jews believed they would be safer in the anonymity of the large cities. In 1936, when teacher Meier Heller left, the entire Jewish community was able to find room on the outside staircase of the synagogue; there were only 23 people left.

Jewish life in Leutershausen ended in 1937 and the Jewish community dissolved. In April 1938 the synagogue was sold to the local government; the purchase price was 4500 RM. The then-head of the Jewish community, Eugen Strassburger, probably already sat on packed suitcases when signing the purchase contract, because only two months later he, his family and his sister Lisa were registered as immigrants in the port of New York. The last Jewish family left Leutershausen at the end of March 1939.

This marked the end of the first phase of the history of this building.

After the synagogue became the property of the local government of Leutershausen, an event with a positive outcome occurred on 9th of November. SA men from Ladenburg had come to demolish the local synagogue, but courageous neighbours informed them about the changed ownership. When the SA people asked them about Jews’ apartments, they were answered that they had all already moved away. The Strassburger and Stiefel families, however, sat in darkened back rooms in their houses and thus survived the pogrom night undamaged. (Information from Alfred Strassburger)

Our mayor Just has already pointed out the different uses of the building during this period.

As different as the use of the synagogue were also the ownership conditions. After the war, the community of Leutershausen, as the owner, was to pay an additional 20,000 DM, as the purchase price of 1938 was considered too low. The local council refused to “buy” the synagogue again, so the building was transferred to a fund which took over and administered the former Jewish property under the laws of the Federal Republic.

A few years later this fund sold the building to the state of Baden-Württemberg; later the ownership was transferred to one of the tradesmen. In 1985, the community of Hirschberg bought the structure from a bankruptcy estate, but initially leased the rented building to a printing company.

In 1977 the building was placed under a preservation order. The former synagogue was placed on the list of memorial sites in the state of Baden-Württemberg.

This different use and the different ownership conditions meant that conversions and renovations were limited to what was absolutely necessary. This had advantages and disadvantages for the building. A disadvantage was that the house was in a dilapidated condition, but an invaluable advantage was that no significant interventions in the basic structure took place, so that when the restoration began in the 1990s, the original anatomy of the former synagogue was still detectable. If the former synagogue had been converted into a residential building in 1938, we would probably not be here today.

Due to the situation described above, it was possible that the following structures of the synagogue at that time would be preserved: The cast-iron columns that had just come into fashion at that time, the old staircase to the gallery with the floor laid there, the two middle windows on the left and the open roof beam with its carvings. The present color scheme is based on the remains of the old furnishings.

In 1996, the Municipal Council decided to restore the former synagogue to its present form, which led to the third phase of the building’s life.

The third phase of the synagogue’s life began on 11th of November 2001. After restoration, the building was opened as the “House of Culture and Encounter”.

This naming can be combined with the earlier functions of the synagogue at that time. Of course, today it is no longer a house of prayer, but it continues to be a house of study, and thoughtful disputation, offering a broad range of cultural experiences, including music, art, and lectures on Jewish history and religion.

Mayor Just has pointed out the importance of the “encounter”. The house was a kind of community center of the Jewish community at that time; today this house has become a public community center in cultural terms. And this beyond the boundaries of the Hirschberg community.

In this former synagogue, not only parts of the original synagogue have been physically preserved, but also partially its function, albeit with changed contents. Thus the uses of the building today pay homage to the intellectual tradition of the synagogue at that time.

However, make no mistake: the terrible years of National Socialism, with the cruel persecution and annihilation of the Jews, have ensured that this building still has a function today that is far from new. This former synagogue remains, first and foremost, a manifestation in stone of the 450-year history of the Jews in Hirschberg. For both Leutershausen and Großsachsen, Jewish history can be traced back to the years around 1560. But this house is also a sign of the emancipation, the successful integration and the self-confidence of the Jews in Leutershausen. Emancipation, integration and self-confidence that were certainly already present here de facto, well before the law ensured it only six years earlier.

But this building is not only a testament in stone of the Jewish history on the main street in the center of our town. It has also become a place of remembrance of the common history of all the citizens, Jews and non-Jews, in Hirschberg. This common history, despite all the usual minor disputes, has had its highs and its lows. The absolute low point was certainly the period 1933-1945 with the persecution and annihilation of the Jews. A highlight was certainly the celebration of the inauguration of the synagogue in 1868. The then-Mayor had obtained permission from the upper office in Weinheim to hold dance events in all inns in Leutershausen and asked for the police hour to be cancelled. The Jews certainly did not celebrate alone and only with their peers.

Against this background, it was logical that the community of Hirschberg, the working group of the Former Synagogue and the citizens of Hirschberg with their donations, should have erected the memorial for the Jews born in today’s Hirschberg who fell victim to the Holocaust in the immediate vicinity of this former synagogue. History, remembrance and admonition thus have a common place in the center of the community.

But since 2001 this former synagogue has had another function, which did not exist before, which was neither planned nor foreseeable. The former synagogue here has the function of a bridgehead. In construction engineering, a bridgehead is the foundation for a bridge on the opposite side; the bridgehead is the target on which the bridge is built over an obstacle.

In recent years, several bridges have been built on the basis of this bridgehead. These bridges were built by descendants of Jewish families who used to live here. For some of these visitors it was their first visit to Germany; they had understandable reasons to avoid our country. If these people enter this room, the place where their ancestors prayed and discussed the affairs of their community, and they let the spirit of the place have an effect on them, then we have enabled them to find a part of their roots again.

By the way, the first of these bridge constructions can be fixed exactly in time and it was public. It took place on the evening of 11th of November, 2001 at the reopening of this former synagogue. There is a public and a hitherto non-public part to this story. The public part can only be understood properly if one knows the non-public prehistory.

For the reopening of the former synagogue, we invited the then-known descendants of the earlier living Jewish families, who were the Schriesheimer and Strassburger descendants. Among those invited was a son of Jewish citizens from Leutershausen who emigrated in 1937 and 1938 respectively. After he received the invitation, he initially asked us quite skeptically why a synagogue was needed in Leutershausen, since there were no more Jews there; they had all been killed or expelled. All the same, he was convinced by the background, the intentions and the plans of the project, and accepted the invitation.

At the opening, the district administrator of the Rhine-Neckar district made a speech and presented the then-Mayor Oehldorf with a Shofar, a wind instrument made of a ram horn, which is used in certain liturgies during Jewish worship. Mayor Oehldorf stood here in front and looked at the Shofar with interest. At that point, the aforementioned guest stood up, took the Shofar from the hand of the surprised Mayor, and explained that his father had taken over the function of the Shofar player in this synagogue, and that he, his son, wanted to continue this tradition now. After he played some tones on the instrument, he thanked us for the invitation and shouted the Hebrew peace greeting “Shalom” to those present. This was the first bridge building.

This function of a bridgehead is certainly not the least important function of this house.

Finally, perhaps we should congratulate the building and its stones on its 150th birthday, but that makes no sense. Instead, we should congratulate the people to whom we owe the house. Congratulations always include thanks.

First of all, I would like to thank the Jewish community that built this building in 1868. We should not forget the courageous neighbours of 1938 who saved the house from destruction.

Last but not least, we would like to thank the municipal councils and the municipal administration, who decided in 1996 to renovate the building as we see it today, certainly against some internal and external resistance. And the architects and craftsmen who have implemented this decision in such an excellent way.

Let us hope that this former synagogue will remain with us for a long time to come.