This black and white photograph of the interior of the Temple at Oberstraße was published in 1937. It was taken by Erich Kastan, a photographer of Jewish origin who lived in Hamburg at the time. The image presents an overview of the space including the essential elements of a synagogue: the floor-to-ceiling niche with the Ark-Bimah unit and the organ case at the back, the ground floor pews in front of it, and the rising side galleries to the left and right. This photograph, along with several others taken by Kastan, was used to illustrate an article written by Felix Ascher Felix Ascher (b. 1883 in Hamburg, d. 1952 in London), architect; numerous buildings in Hamburg, including the Temple on Oberstraße (1931, together with Robert Friedmann). Ca. 1938 he emigrated to Great Britain, further buildings there. titled “Der neue Tempel.” Ascher was one of the two architects of this synagogue which was inaugurated in 1931, his partner was Robert Friedmann Robert Friedmann (b. 1880 in Hamburg, dt. 1940 in Jerusalem), architect; numerous buildings in Hamburg, including the Temple on Oberstraße (1931, together with Felix Ascher). He emigrated in 1933 to Palestine, further buildings there.. His article appeared in 1937 in the “Festschrift zum hundertzwanzigjährigen Bestehen des Israelitischen Tempels in Hamburg 1817-1937“ (Hamburg 1937), a book celebrating the Temple’s 120-year anniversary published by Bruno Italiener. There is no known negative or contemporary print of this photograph, so it only survives as part of this publication.
Hamburg-based photographer and member of the Jewish congregation Erich Kastan took a black and white photograph of the interior of the temple on Oberstraße sometime between 1931 and 1937. In 1931, the temple had been consecrated as synagogue of the Israelite Temple Organization founded in 1817. This photo shows the interior from an exact central perspective: the photographer apparently had set up his camera relatively high up on the western gallery in the hall’s central axis, across from the eastern wall. Both the chosen perspective and the image’s clear composition suggest that this is a work of professional architectural photography. Kastan’s photograph was indeed published as illustration for a 1937 article on the temple’s architecture by architect Felix Ascher Felix Ascher (b. 1883 in Hamburg, d. 1952 in London), architect; numerous buildings in Hamburg, including the Temple on Oberstraße (1931, together with Robert Friedmann). Ca. 1938 he emigrated to Great Britain, further buildings there. giving a detailed description of the building designed by him and Robert Friedmann Robert Friedmann (b. 1880 in Hamburg, dt. 1940 in Jerusalem), architect; numerous buildings in Hamburg, including the Temple on Oberstraße (1931, together with Felix Ascher). He emigrated in 1933 to Palestine, further buildings there.. It appeared in a commemorative publication on the occasion of the 120-year-anniversary of the Israelite Temple.
The genre of architectural photography developed into a means of studying and portraying architecture in the second half of the 19th century. Historic and new buildings were no longer documented by drawings and etchings alone, but now also by photography published in architecture journals and elsewhere. Synagogues, too, became photographed objects, since architecture journals regularly published illustrated articles on Jewish buildings. Thus it was not unusual around 1930 to photograph the temple on Oberstraße for its remarkable architecture and exemplary construction and to subsequently publish the photograph. After 1933, however, publishing such a photo in the general architectural trade press would have been unthinkable. It is safe to assume that the audience for the 1937 commemorative publication was the Jewish congregation who suffered increasingly under the pressure of National Socialist persecution. With this publication, they documented their long tradition, they showed their participation in bourgeois society, and they demonstrated their religious and cultural confidence.
In his photograph, Kastan presented the temple interior in a manner fairly usual at the time: the central perspective emphasizes the hall’s symmetrical plan; the high location of the camera allows for a good overall view and underscores the monumental and simple atmosphere of the space; there are no people in the picture who might disturb the composition and distract from the architecture. The interior of this temple is typical of Reform synagogues, which had created their own type of space since the early 19th century. The liturgically important sections of the synagogue are concentrated on one side of the hall in a floor-to-ceiling niche filled by a platform. This niche is closed off by a wall made of polished dark natural stone into which the cabinet that holds the Torah scrolls (Aron ha-Kodesh or Ark) is embedded. The pipes of the synagogue’s organ rise above the wall. Organs are a typical element of Reform synagogues, and Hamburg’s Temple Organization, one of the oldest Jewish Reform congregations, contributed largely to the fact that Reform liturgy was accompanied by new synagogue music consisting of organ music and choral singing. In front of the Ark there is a pulpit and a podium for reading from the Torah (bimah). Those attending a service are seated across from this stage-like structure, and their benches located on the ground floor are divided into several blocks. To both sides and across from the Ark, ascending galleries enclose the space into which daylight can enter through vertical, narrow windows. The entrances are not visible in the photograph; they are located across from the Ark and under the gallery (for the ground floor) and lead up to the gallery from the back. The lateral galleries protruding into the space without visible supports further reinforce the hall’s depth effect, as does the three-part ceiling with its continuous beams stretching all the way to the niche.
The temple’s architects, Felix Ascher and Robert Friedmann, designed a building which corresponded to the prevailing trend in architecture and particularly in sacral building at the time. They had been commissioned with the project after having won a competition set in 1928. With the exception of two experts on Protestant and Catholic church architecture, only Jewish architects had been invited to apply. Ascher and Friedmann, both members of the Jewish congregation, had previously stood out as representatives of “Neues Bauen” [The New Architecture] with many of their buildings. For the interior design, such as the globe-shaped lamps visible in the photograph, they cooperated with Naum Slutzky, who had previously taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Another highly respected Jewish designer involved was Friedrich Adler, who designed the inscription above the Ark among other things.
The Israelite Temple Organization endeavored to commission a decidedly modern design. The congregation’s building commission had even traveled all over Germany in order to visit recent sacral buildings—which apparently included not just new synagogues. In a retrospective article included in the above-mentioned 1937 commemorative publication, Siegfried Urias wrote: “[the members of the building commission] thus got a first staggering impression of how a Jewish house of prayer in particular could be built with both simplicity and monumentality while leaving behind the [...] usual imitation of foreign styles – as was common for Jewish sacral buildings until now.” [Siegfried] Urias, Zur Geschichte des Tempel-Neubaus. Aus den Bau-Akten, in: Bruno Italiener (ed.), Festschrift zum hundertzwanzigjährigen Bestehen des Israelitischen Tempels in Hamburg 1817–1937, Hamburg 1937, p. 36. The temple’s explicitly modern architectural style and interior not only fulfilled the expectation to create a contemporary building – for “simplicity and monumentality” are terms which could also be used to describe contemporary Christian sacral architecture in the style of “Neues Bauen.” The congregation was also keen to disengage from the ongoing debate on the appropriate style for Jewish institutions which had been started by the historicist movement of the 19th century. Historicist styles—Moorish, neo-Romanic, neoclassicist, etc.—were generally rejected as outdated in the 1920s. In the specific case of Jewish buildings, the fact that historicist styles were considered inappropriate or “foreign” by Jewish congregations since they had not developed from Jewish tradition – as Urias points out – was significant as well. For non-Jewish society, too, associated foreignness or difference with these styles: the Moorish style in particular was cited as evidence for the “foreignness” of Jews by antisemitic propaganda. “Neues Bauen” on the other hand, a style dispensing with decoration and yet achieving “monumentality” through functional, simple design was applied to Jewish and Christian building projects alike around 1930. It was considered appropriate for the buildings of Jewish organizations not least because Jewish architects like Friedmann and Ascher had played a part in its development.
The mostly well-preserved temple on Oberstraße (today the NDR broadcasting studio—named “Rolf Liebermann-Studio”) and the historic photograph of its interior, which underwent a series of major changes during its conversion into a studio, document the search for a specifically Jewish architecture in the period of modernism. In 1937, on the occasion of its 120th anniversary, Hamburg’s temple organization emphasized its contribution to the development of modern (sacral) architecture by publishing an illustrated commemorative book containing Kastan’s photograph of the temple. Moreover, they did so at a time when “Neues Bauen” was defamed as “Jewish” by National Socialism and when the continued existence of Jewish congregations had already become uncertain due to the increased pressure of persecution. Therefore Kastan’s photograph and the publication in which it was published and survived should be considered meaningful evidence of the confidence still existing among the Jewish congregation who published them in the period of National Socialism.
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Ulrich Knufinke, Dr. Ing. habil., is a Research Associate at the "Bet Tfila - Forschungsstelle für jüdische Architektur" at Technische Universität Braunschweig and PD at the University of Stuttgart. His research interests are: history of Jewish architecture, Jewish architects, classicism in architecture and sacral architecture of the 19th and 20th century.
Ulrich Knufinke, “Neues Bauen” and Jewish Architecture. Photograph of the Temple on Oberstraße (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-35.en.v1> [April 21, 2021].