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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 in


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 .  The campaign which involved having  local  politicians and celebrities taking turns to help persuade the public to support the campaign as well as having with rock concerts. The Städel Museum hosted an exhibition that placed The Synagogue in the context of Beckmann’s career and Frankfurt history (the painting  was on loan)  


There were even posters featuring a color reproduction of The Synagogue, which raised public awareness.The poster read in part:


Citizens of Frankfurt! In 1919, Max Beckmann painted the synagogue on the former Börneplatz in Frankfurt’s Israelite community.  It was burned to the ground by the National Socialists in the 1938 “Kristallnacht.”

For Frankfurt, this is the most important Beckmann-painting.  Currently in a private collection, it must stay in Frankfurt; it belongs to all its citizens.  Beckmann’s “Synagogue” is a unique document:

–      of a historic district in Frankfurt

–      of the hardship after World War I

–      of a foreshadowing of the events that claimed millions as horrible victims

–      of Max Beckmann’s work in this city until 1933 when, as a “degenerate” artist, he was chased out by the National Socialists.

Secure this picture as a document of your history!

Buy this poster and make possible the purchase of the painting.


The poster ensured that the painting of the synagogue " entered the political discourse in Frankfurt " where it was  debated  in the media, as Hamlin outlines.  Some were against  its purchase, arguing that  the acquisition of the painting could not really be an act of reconciliation towards the Jews, that it appealed to the public's guilty conscience cynically, that it could not serve as an act of reparation, and that that money was better spent elsewhere  and also that the price was too steep. As Hamlin writes, “Jewish voices in the media received this message of reconciliation favorably.” In the meantime, while the public campaign did not raise a lot of money Hoffman sought the financial support of Frankfurt’s most wealthy citizens and secured the city of Frankfurt's funding along with a large gift from the  Chairman of the Frankfurt-based Dresdner Bank and . In 1972 The Synagogue entered the Städel’s permanent collection.


And what of the painting today? Beckmann’s prophetic painting should not just be seen as an historical document, because today antisemitism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe has reached rather alarming rates.

German Chancellor Angela Merkal herself conceded in 2016 “Anti-Semitism is more widespread than we imagined. And that is why we must act intensively against it.[emphasis added]"


According to a 2013 study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, 64 percent of German Jews avoid publicly displaying symbols that identify them as Jewish, only 28 percent of Jews report antisemitic incidents.


There are many Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who are looking to relocate.

The leader of Hamberg’s Jewish community, Daniel Killy, told the Jerusalem Post: “We no longer feel safe here.”

He went on to explain how a combination of extreme right-wing forces, deteriorating security, and Germany ‘s welcoming of refugees brought up in cultures "steeped in hatred" for Jews were resulting in anti-Semitism. (see



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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.