Their Grandfather Fled the Nazis. Now, Their Kibbutz Is Helping Restore the German Synagogue He Led

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Lübeck synagogue
Lübeck synagogue in northern Germany.Credit: MrsMyerDE
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Historians tend to view Kristallnacht as the opening shot in the grand Nazi scheme to exterminate the Jews. During the anti-Semitic pogroms that erupted on November 9, 1938 – the first act of organized violence carried out by the Nazis against the Jews – as many as half of Germany’s synagogues were destroyed

To its great fortune, the synagogue of Lübeck was spared. Though many of its treasures were looted, the redbrick building in the northern port city survived intact. The Nazis had no interest in destroying the stately building, it is believed, because it had recently been handed over to the municipality and no longer functioned as a Jewish house of worship.

Its close proximity to the municipal museum was probably another reason it survived: Had the synagogue been set on fire, the museum would likely have been part of the collateral damage.

A few months before Kristallnacht, David Alexander Winter – the last rabbi to serve the Jewish community of Lübeck before World War II – fled to Great Britain, taking his wife and four children with him.

“He didn’t really want to leave, but my grandmother told him that if he remained, it would be hard to persuade the Jewish community that the situation was that dire,” says grandson Dr. Ariel Romem, an Israeli pediatrician.

Dr. Ariel Romem.Credit: Dr. Ariel Romem

In 2016, the German government allocated 2.5 million euros ($2.7 million) to renovate the synagogue’s interior. The project included new seating, a holy ark for the Torah scrolls, a stand for the cantor and a bimah. The idea was to recreate the original designs, based on old photographs.

Charged with the task of restoring the Lübeck synagogue to its former glory was a furniture factory on Kibbutz Lavi – one of the biggest manufacturers in the world, if not the biggest, of synagogue interiors.

As fate would have it, four grandchildren of Rabbi Winter, including Romem, 64, live on this religious kibbutz in northern Israel.

A rededication ceremony of the synagogue had been scheduled to take place on March 29, but was postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yehudit Menachem, one of Winter’s granddaughters, had planned on attending.

“For me, there is a sense of closure in all this,” says Menachem, 59, who has lived her entire life on Lavi and runs youth activities on the kibbutz.

Last year, Menachem, her sister and their daughters took their first trip to Lübeck, hoping to learn more about their family history.

“My father had never wanted to go back to Germany while he was alive,” she says. “While we were there, we met with members of the Jewish congregation and learned about the synagogue restoration project. While the interiors were being made at our kibbutz factory, I would often visit to see how the work was coming along and compare it with the old photos we had.”

According to Aner Amiram, the factory’s marketing manager, the architecture firm in charge of the restoration project contacted the kibbutz about two years ago, aware of its specialization. “We’ve already provided interiors for synagogues in Germany,” he says. “So we wrote a letter to the Lübeck municipality explaining why it would be in their interest to work with us, and we closed the deal last summer.”

The contract, he says, was worth about half a million shekels ($140,000).

Established more than 50 years ago, Lavi’s furniture factory relies mainly on the Israeli market, although Amiram says about one-third of its orders come from overseas. Since its establishment, the factory has designed and produced interiors for synagogues in more than 5,300 Jewish communities around the world. Its main overseas markets are the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France. According to Amiram, Lavi’s factory furnishes about 200 synagogues each year – some brand new and some restored.

When news of the coronavirus pandemic first broke in January, the factory began working overtime to complete orders and deliver them before any possible lockdowns. It sends specially trained carpenters from Israel to assemble the interiors once they have been shipped to the destination. By the time the shipment for the Lübeck synagogue had reached its destination, however, it was too late to send someone.

“Right now, everything is sitting in cartons inside the synagogue,” Amiram reports.

Arson attack

The Lübeck synagogue, also known as the Carlebach synagogue, was inaugurated in 1880. The original building was topped by a dome, which was removed during the Nazi period and never replaced. Today, it is the only prewar synagogue still functioning in northern Germany.

In 1994, the synagogue was firebombed – the first time a Jewish house of worship had been attacked in Germany since the Nazis were in power. A year later, it was again targeted by arsonists.

The shul’s first rabbi was Salomon Carlebach, who was briefly succeeded after his death in 1919 by his son Joseph. Winter, who had served as a chaplain in the German army during World War I, took over in 1921.

According to his granddaughter, all four of Winter’s children were born in the building that housed the synagogue. “The synagogue was on the first floor, and the family lived on the upper floors,” Menachem relays. “At the time, it was customary to provide the rabbi with housing for his family inside the same building as the synagogue.”

The rabbi’s four children – two daughters and two sons – all left Britain for Israel in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The youngest child, Naftali, is the only one still alive and resides in Jerusalem. Menachem is the daughter of Winter’s older son, Joe, who was killed in a car accident 10 years ago, and Romem is the son of his younger daughter, Chana. Two of Romem’s sisters also live on Lavi.

On the eve of Kristallnacht, some 300 Jews lived in Lübeck. About half fled Germany, and most of the remaining Jews were deported to Riga and Theresienstadt. Only 11 of them survived the Holocaust. Today, the city’s Jewish population is estimated at about 700, comprised almost exclusively of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The fact that his kibbutz is involved in the restoration of the synagogue once led by his grandfather gives Romem a “special feeling,” he says.

“The factory is very close to my house on the kibbutz, so whenever I had a chance, I’d stop in to see how they were progressing,” he recounts. And if he can manage to break away from work, the busy pediatrician says he will attend the inauguration event in Lübeck when it is rescheduled. “I would very much like to go,” he says. “I feel a very strong connection to the place.”

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