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Die Synagoge in Frankfurt am Main, by Max Beckmann . In 1916, three years before Max Beckmann painted "The Synagogue" Germany's War Ministry conducted the so-called Jewish census which was supposedly conducted to combat anti-Semitic rumors of “Jewish shirking” from defending the German fatherland in the War. But as Hamlin points out in reality, the census was designed to determine whether more Jewish Germans than others were evading military service and it served to undermine Jewish political and civil rights.The results showed that Jews fought for Germany in record numbers.
Städel Museum, Frankfurt


The empty space in Frankfurt's Borneplatz synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht used to be
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Signs at the Borneplatz which show the various names by which it was called over the years
photo by Rhonda Spivak


photo by Rhonda Spivak

 
A Kristallnacht Story: Max Beckmann’s prophetic painting of the Frankfurt Synagogue Destroyed on Nov 9, 1938 and The Public Debate it Generated after the Holocaust

by Rhonda Spivak, October 25, 2016

 

 

A well known German painter Max Beckmann (who was not Jewish) painted in 1919 the Borneplatz Synagogue in Frankfurt with its beautiful blue cupola dome, which was located  in the heart of  what had been Frankfurt's historic Jewish ghetto. The synagogue in Borneplatz, which at the time was the main synagogue for the Jewish community of Frankfurt was destroyed by the Nazis on November 9, 1938 on Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, a pogrom which set off the destruction of Jewish communal property , shops and businesses, and resulted in the death of many Jews and the arrest of many others who were sent to concentration camps..

I went to Bornplatz, and stood in the stark grey location where the synagogue once existed, now surrounded by a line of trees whose arms look as if they have been cut off. The emptiness speaks volumes.

 

I bought a postcard of Beckmann’s painting when I was in Frankfurt because I marveled at how the painting had captured a sliver of Jewish history which no longer existed. It was in that sense a striking historical artifact. Beckmann’s painting is displayed at the was being displayed in a Frankfurt’s Städel museum, although I didn't at the time know the controversy the painting had generated in Frankfurt after  Holocaust. The story is worth telling as Kristallnacht commemoration approaches (It is told at length Amy Hamlin inhttp://nonsite.org/article/the-conditions-of-interpretation-a-reception-history-of-the-synagogue-by-max-beckmann)

 

In Beckmann’s painting, upheaval is everywhere and it appears as if the titled synagogue is about to be destroyed. The ground appears to shake, and the light-posts and streetlamps like they are about to being ripped apart. The synagogue in the painting with the burning yellow colour in its windows looks like the titled structure has been set ablaze. After the Holocaust, the painting was referred to as being prophetic, given what was to occur to the Borneplatz synagogue and nearly all of Germany’s synagogues in Kristallnacht. Over 2600 Frankfurt Jews, were soon after Kristallnacht deported to the concentration camp in Buchenwald and virtually the entire Frankfurt Jewish community was decimated during the Holocaust. Beckmann’s  eerie painting was prescient

It is interesting to speculate why Beckmann painted the synagogue in the first place in 1919. Beckmann who was raised as a Protestant moved to Frankfurt in the fall of 1915 after serving on active duty as a medical orderly during World War 1. He suffered a nervous collapse during the war, and his studio in the city was relatively near the Borneplatz Synagogue, whose cupola made it stand out amidst the ordinary apartments and shops in Borneplatz.

Beckmann’s social circle included members of the Jewish-German cultural elite in Frankfurt. Beckmann was quoted 1919  as having said "The numerous Jews in Frankfurt don’t bother me in the least.  On the contrary, these black-clad, industrious people are in many respects quite beneficial for us."  At the time he said it, Hasidic Jews had immigrated to Germany to escape economic hardship and persecution and Germany's Interior Minister had issued an edict allowing them to stay, notwithstanding some Germans opposed this immigration. In this context Beckman's statement appears to be a more tolerant view of supporting their being able to stay in Frankfurt. 

 

 After the Holocaust Frankfurters had to come to term with their past and the Director of Frankfurt's Städel Museum Enst Holzinger made significant efforts to acquire The Synagogue    for the Städel

 

An industrialist Herbert Kurtz, had bought the bought painting around 1936 and according to Hamlin's research Holzinger wrote to him indicating that the painting had deep ties to Frankfurt's history and were it to enter the Städel’s collection, it would be “an eternal reminder of the burning down of the synagogue in the Kristallnacht,” and serve as an important historical document.

It's not clear whether or not Holzinger had supported the Nazis, according to Hamlin. "Holzinger ... emerged from the war as an ambivalent figure.   In 1941, however, three years into his tenure as Director of the Städel Museum, he was appointed… to be an “Authority for the  Securing and the Utilization of Cultural Assets from Jewish Ownership for the Purposes of the Reich...” Holzinger prepared some fifty-five appraisals of confiscated artworks that argued for their retention for sale to either German or foreign museums or private collectors…  On the other hand…he salvaged and after the war repatriated the art collection of Alfred Oppenheim, who had fled Germany for England in 1939. What’s more, Holzinger clandestinely stored Carl Hagemann’s extensive collection of Expressionist art, saving it from confiscation by Nazi authorities. The jury is still out on Holzinger’s wartime actions... And yet the evidence suggests that he acted less out of ideology than out of his deep commitment to art.”

 

After the Holocaust, however Holzinger was persistent in his efforts to get Beckmann’s painting of the synagogue for his Museum. As Hamlin explains, it could be that Holzinger was atoning for his wartime transgressions or alternatively that he was good at making a shrewd argument to ensure the painting formed a part of the Städel Museum collection. Holzinger quietly began fund raising for The Synagogue in 1963 by appealing for a special grant from Frankfurt’s Department of Science, Art, and Education. He wrote wrote in a letter in 1963 : "No other artist has created such effective, artistic documents of this ominous historical period than Beckmann….  One suspects that as he painted the picture, Beckmann foresaw this threatening and impending destruction."  Holzinger later wrote to Kurtz  "The picture belongs to no one more than Frankfurt, as Beckmann would have wished." 

 

When Kurtz died his widow was willing to sell the painting in 1970 for the price of  approximately $200,000, a price considered to be very high. Holzinger sought the help of Hilmar Hoffmann, Frankfurt’s newly appointed City Councillor of Cultural Affairs. Hoffman conceived of   public campaign for the acquisition of The Synagogue&nb

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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