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The Jewish Community of Breslau (Wroclaw)

Orientalism as Means for Creating Jewish Identity: Sepulchral Architecture of the Jewish Cemetery on Lohestrasse in Breslau

by Amalia Reisenthel

Dr. Ing. Amalia Reisenthel conducted her research at Technischen Universität München, Germany. She contributed this article for Beit Hatfutsot’s website.

The article is based on the author’s Orientalismus als Mittel zur Identitätsfindung Sepulkralarchitektur auf dem Jüdischen Friedhof Breslau, Lohestraße in Kasseler Studien zur Sepulkralkultur, Bd. 22, 2015 – ISBN 978-3-643-13086-0


Dr. Ing. Amalia Reisenthel

Dr. Ing. Amalia Reisenthel

Why did the Jewish sepulchral architecture of the 19th and beginning of 20th century required an Oriental format? Architectural expressions reflect the transformations within the Jewish community during the period of emancipation process. Sepulchral architecture may be seen as an indicator and the Orientalized edifices as the means of an identity-creating process. The example of the Jewish community of Breslau and its cemeteries is particularly interesting, as the processes of social, cultural and religious transformation are relatively easy to detect. A large number of well-preserved tombstones and monuments also prompted the focus on these particular cemeteries. In 19th century Germany the diversifying Jewish collective sought a new and concise architectural expressions and the Orientalized design was consistent with their goals.

The source of inspiration for this collective was their own Jewish history, for instance, the Sephardic Jews in the Moorish Spain of the Middle Ages as well as the spiritual and stylistic references to the Temple of Solomon. Some stylistic borrowings from the Babylonian as well as later periods like the Mameluke or Ottoman art are also considered. The research focused on the analysis of architectural and art historical aspects of the sepulchral architecture of the Breslau necropolis. This analysis is based on the inventory of the entire cemetery buildings and especially, on a detailed investigation of 13 Orientalized monuments. The exact technical drawings of the original condition of the selected tombstones reveal their distinctiveness.

The Jewish communities based the creation of their newly acquired identities on the historical and methodological pursuit of their own history, which was rooted in Hegel’s philosophy. The newly established “Wissenschaft der Judentums” (since 1819) provided the necessary instruments for the research. Only thanks to the spiritual encounter with the Sephardim did the German- that is Ashkenazi Jews- understand the strength of Jews in the medieval multicultural world of the Iberian Peninsula. Just as the Sephardim did then, so the Ashkenazim wanted now to obtain cultural plurality for themselves. They wished and hoped for the majority to accept their pluralistic activities in both the German and the Jewish cultural spheres. To manifest this idea they drew on the Oriental architectural forms, which conformed to the Historicism and Orientalism of the 19th century.

After the French Revolution granted the Jews equal rights in 1791, the process of social and cultural equality became the central issue in practically every Jewish community. The subsequent movement of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), initiated by Moses Mendelsohn in Germany, was broadcasted from Berlin, Breslau and Königsberg. The process of integration proceeded similarly in the majority of the Jewish communities: the Reform core group, mostly young, educated men who came from well-to-do families, recognized the potential of the civic transformation. The priorities were secular education and maintaining social networks. Culture and wealth were worthwhile ideals. That was an integration process without full assimilation, as these men remained active and leading members of the Jewish community and especially of the highly respected burial society (Chevra Kadisha).

Illustration 1

Illus 1

Jewish Orientalized Liturgical, Secular and Sepulchral Architecture in Germany and Europe, 19th and 20th centuries

Illustration 2

Illus 2

Examples of Jewish Religious Architecture in Moorish Style, Europe, 19th century

Illustration 3

Illus 3

From East Europe to the Far East – Examples of Jewish Secular Architecture in the Moorish Style at the Beginning of the 20th century

Illustration 4

Illus 4

Examples of Jewish Sepulchral Architecture with Moorish Revival Character, Europe, 19th – 20th Cent.

Illustration 5

Illus 5a

The changed macro-model of the society, religion and theology led to a new outward facing presentation of the collective. This was expressed in the appearance of many synagogues built after 1830. Other facilities of the community, such as the mikvah (ritual bathhouse), schools or hospitals, followed the same pattern. These buildings, many of them in oriental style became the harbingers of the process.

The paradigm shift in the Jewish religion expressed itself in emancipatory reform of the liturgy by the introduction of organ music and sermons, among others, which led to changes in interior design of synagogues. Concurrently, using oriental forms in exterior design stimulated the culture of the host countries, while in the separate sphere of the Jewish cemetery, the tombstones in Orientalized style – Moorish and Egyptian revivals – would demonstrate the prestige of the individual.

Since the 1830’s, Christian architects initiated the implementation of Orientalized references for building projects of Jewish clients. By using these Orientalized forms, they reached back to the heyday of the Moorish diaspora and to the authentic remnants of the Jewish culture in the Babylonian, Spanish and Ottoman past. Manuscripts and prints, as well as edifices such as the preserved synagogues in Toledo from 12th and 13th cent. proved the continuing usage of Oriental style elements in Jewish art.

The shared pre-Islamic architecture and the esthetic qualities of the Islamic culture made these designs attractive for the Jewish customer of the 19th cent. Europe. Towards the conclusion of the transformation processes, at the end of the 19th century, a new tradition was born: in the form of an attitude of interpretations of the Orientalized styles and their application in ‘sacral’- (Illus. 02), sepulchral- Illus. 04) and secular (Illus. 03) domains of Jewish architecture. Thus, we are facing here a spiritual and esthetic overall concept (Illus. 01).

The architects did not just replicate, they modified the existing historical motifs and adapted them according to the new function, construction or the general design. In the course of almost an entire century, such conjunctions between the Orientalized and Western architectures were accepted and internalized, especially by the Jewish communities. They promoted the development of new forms, a new architectural vocabulary and especially new architectural objects, which functioned as identifiers of ‘Jewish designs’. Therefore, Orientalism in Jewish art is not an exotic fashion, nor a simple imitation, and the Orientalized sepulchral architecture is not a marginal phenomenon. On the contrary, liberal Jews sought through them a new expression of their identity in a non-Jewish society. They consequently attempted to create new forms of Jewish culture, which would provide for them and the coming generations, a basis for the identification with Judaism beyond the boundaries of the Mosaic religion. Developing their own historical awareness, leaving the Orthodox tradition behind, would empower them to counteract complete assimilation by introducing an abundance of oriental architectural forms.

Simultaneously with the liturgical reform, the burial customs were also altered. It was on the architecture of the cemeteries with their representative gates and mortuaries that the congregations tried out the ‘new style’. In the sepulchral architecture in which freedom of design was greater than in synagogue construction, the opulence in design was also diversified. The attainment of civil and financial freedoms found its expression also in architecture. The costly and elaborate design of sepulchral monuments, which according to Jewish tradition were intended to last forever, symbolized both a connection to spiritual Jerusalem, as well as a bond between the deceased and the country in which they had lived their lives.

The use of the “Moorish” model in the European sepulchral architecture is a purely Jewish matter. In addition, the Egyptian-revival of the cemetery architecture, which had been present in the Christian cemeteries already since the 18th cent., received a new meaning in the Jewish context (Illus. 9). The portal-resembling tombstones with lotus or papyrus capitals or mausoleums with inward sloping walls, often chiseled out of rough slabs – which can be often found in Jewish graveyards – awaken associations with the entrance gate to the Temple of Salomon. Some of the Moorish revival tombstones evoke such a connection as well. A similar effect was achieved by the models of the Temple by contemporaneous designers like Stieglitz, Canina, Kitto or Chipiez (Illus.08).

In the post-emancipation period with an ongoing repositioning between Christianity and Islam and leaving the limitations of the Jewish orthodoxy, a part of the European Jewry drew upon their ancient roots in the East and construed thereby a collective memory, adopting these roots as their own.

In this tense context, the Jewish community of Breslau offers an ideal starting point for an analysis. A disconnected Jewish community of a county between the borders of the German and Slavic cultures, lacking identification and cohesion, obtained under the Prussian rule civil rights and surnames. The new regulations freed the active potential of the collective and their members: Breslau became a center of Reform Judaism, second only to Berlin. The Jews created a core group within the Breslau citizenry. The prosperous and the successful members of the Jewish community involved themselves in social welfare activities and were generous patrons and sponsors of the arts. The Breslau community had the second largest synagogue and the third greatest membership in Germany. With the inauguration of the first Jewish Theological Seminar in Europe (1854), they laid the foundation for the institutionalization of ‘Jewish scholarship’ (Wissenschaft des Judentums). Renowned personalities led and propelled the flow of all contemporary transformation processes of the town and during 150 years (1790-1940) turned it into a vibrant community (Illus.10).

“Evidence of newfound confidence can be found in the Lohenstrasse Cemetery which was established in 1856 and was considered one of the most beautiful of its kind in Europe”, affirmed Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse in: Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City; Pimlico (Rand); 2003.

The graveyard provided room for both traditional as well as reform tombstones, as the modern, heterogeneous Judaism asserted itself through diversity of styles. Its Orientalized monuments (Illus. 12), even though outnumbered, were trendsetters. The style elements of the Orientalized tombstones echo those of the contemporary synagogues, as they were all inspired by the same sources. Mostly, also here their designers reached back to the Court of the Lions in Alhambra Palace of Granada, Spain, with its horseshoe and lobed arch forms, its characteristic columns and elaborate capitals. (Alhambra had just been re-discovered, toured, admired and since 1832 thoroughly inventoried. Publications, which appeared in Paris in 1837 and in London, starting in 1834, were generally accessible. The same refers to the illustrated article series in the Allgemeine Bauzeitung out of Vienna about the Arabian architecture– Die Baukunst der Araber).

Illustration 6

Illus 6

A Transboundary Jewish Space

Illustration 7

Illus 7

Architecture and Identity Features

Illustration 8

Illus 8

19th Century Representations of the Temple of Salomon and Their Parallels in the Jewish Sepulchral Architecture

Illustration 9

Illus 9a

Orientalism in the Jewish Architecture: Egyptian Revival Style

Illustration 10

Illus 10

Buildings of the Jewish Community of Breslau

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Illus 11

Orientalized Sepulchral Architecture in the Jewish Cemetery on Lohestrasse, Breslau

Illustration 12

Illus 12

Orientalized Sepulchral Architecture in the Jewish Cemetery on Lohestrasse, Breslau

Illustration 13

Illus 13

Orientalized Sepulchral Architecture in the Jewish Cemetery on Lohestrasse, Breslau

The construction materials of the Orientalized tombstones of the Breslau cemetery varied from glazed clay, tiles and bricks, by way of gritty and lacustrine limestone to marble, granite and cast iron. Geometrical relief decorations like squares, diamond shapes or stars, floral arabesques and rosettes were inserted throughout the tombstones, portals or used as metal ornaments. Two-tone banding and even the coloring were reproduced.

The comparison of selected European Jewish cemeteries of the period as well as their individual Orientalized tombstones confirms their common approach on a supra-regional scale. Conceived at an individual local level, the cemeteries differed in character. The implementation of the emancipatory idea in their Orientalized architecture is their common denominator.

On a comparative level, Breslau provides few Orientalized structures in its ‘sacral’ architecture. Secular edifices, primarily residences and offices of the wealthy, were built here, as oftentimes elsewhere, in the styles of neo-Renaissance, Neoclassicism and Art Nouveau. As in other metropolises, members of the Breslau Israelite Community enlisted highly valued architects and backed the spirit of modernity. In comparison to Berlin, St. Petersburg or to Stockholm, the Breslau Reform Synagogue built 1865-1872 was not in an Orientalized design, but in neo-Romanesque style. The Orientalism was approached in Breslau discreetly within the walls of the Jewish cemetery. Thus, the graveyard gateway designed in the Moorish revival style, built 1855 (Illus. 11), was the earliest example of this kind in Germany. The sepulchral architecture was the vehicle for the reformation message and the instrument of a collective awareness, as it suitably preserved not only the commemoration of individuals but also the attitude and dignity of the Jewish generation of the ‘Gründerzeit’ era.

The analysis of the Orientalized sepulchral architecture of the Breslau necropolis and of the “architectural setting” in reference to Orientalism in other Jewish communities in Europe illustrates the positioning and self-affirmation of a minority through its distinctive architecture (Illus. 07). The process of transplantation of architectural forms of a different region, era or functions, becomes thereby evident. Elements of the Oriental are transformed into Orientalized architecture (Illus. 13). Jewish Orientalized architecture and specifically the Orientalized sepulchral architecture as its incipient messenger demonstate a visual representation of all transformation processes inherent in the Emancipation. This architecture acts as a component of the “Jewish space” in a particular town (Illus. 05) as well as in the supra-regional dimension (Illus. 06). This Orientalized design represents a phenomenon outside of the mainstream and a significant Jewish contribution to the general history of architecture of the 19th century.