21st-century Methods Used to Recreate 19th-century Synagogue Torched by Nazis

Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfusot dedicates model of Vienna’s Turnertempel, which was burned down on Kristallnacht in 1938.

Aviv Hofi

The team at Mathov Design in Lod labored over the project for an entire year. The bulk of the work was the archival research. Then came the design phase and finally the construction of the model, using computer-aided design and 3-D printing.

The result was unveiled to the public at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, earlier this month — a lovely model of the Turnertempel, a Vienna synagogue that was completed in 1871 and burned down on Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938.

“The physical synagogue no longer exists, so we worked mainly with old archive photos,” said architect Gad Mathov. His studio specializes in building product prototypes and architectural and archaeological models.

The Turnertempel model joins the museum’s collection of 18 miniature synagogue reproductions but is unique among them in being the result of the computerized design from planning to execution. The other synagogue models displayed in the museum are handmade. The Turnertempel will be part of a new core exhibition at the New Museum of the Jewish People, which is scheduled to open to the public at the end of 2017.

Prof. Moshe Yehuda, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor who was a choir boy in the Turnertempel, obtained additional photographs of the synagogue from Viennese archives that aided the model’s designers.

The Vienna synagogue was designed by Jewish architect Karl König (1841-1915), with room for 850 worshipers — 500 in the main chapel and 350 in the women’s section. Its impressive tower rose 25 meters and could be seen from afar. Traditional architectural materials such as plastered bricks were used, together with modern architectural materials such as iron. The interior walls and ceiling were decorated with delicate, nonfigurative frescoes.

The model of Vienna's Turnertempel synagogue. Photo by Gadi Ma Tov
The model of Vienna's Turnertempel synagogue. Photo by Aviv Hofi

“I joined the boys’ synagogue choir when I was nine and a half. My grandfather was the synagogue gabbai [beadle]. I remember it all in great detail,” Yehuda recalled at the opening. He would sing in the synagogue on Friday nights and holidays. “It was a very important place for me, like a second home. People dressed nicely, spoke quietly, treated each other with respect. It had a special atmosphere.”

Moshe says he will never forget Kristallnacht. At the age of 12 he saw the synagogue where he prayed with his family go up in flames. “I had ridden my bike to the Eretz Israel office of the Jewish Agency, to ask about my request for a certifikat to make aliyah as a child. The streets were filled with Nazi police and they arrested me,” he recalls. He was released after a few hours. On the way home, this time on the tram, he could see from afar the smoke rising from the synagogue.

The Turnertempel synagogue. Photo by Beit Hatfutsot

“I was shocked. As a Jewish child who studied in a Talmud Torah religious school, I conducted my first debate with God,” he said. “I cried and asked God how he was allowing this. It’s a holy place. How can it be that they are burning your synagogue?” I asked God. “But he didn’t answer me, of course. The shock of seeking as a child my synagogue, which was so holy to me, burning … this shock is with me to this day.”

Kristallnacht strengthened his desire to go to Israel. His parents were able to accompany him to the station, where he boarded a train to Trieste. Once in that Italian city he met up with other Jewish teens and they sailed to Eretz Israel. His parents and his sister were murdered in Auschwitz.

The Turnertempel synagogue, 1902. Photo by National Library of Israel

In 1940 the Austrian government nationalized the site where the synagogue had stood. A gas station was built on it in the 1950s and in the 1970s apartments were built nearby. In 2010 a memorial was erected on the site relating the synagogue’s history and emphasizing its importance to the community that built it.

Now the synagogue will also be commemorated by the Beit Hatfutsot model, whose construction, which cost some 80,000 euro, was funded by two Austrian government funds, the National Fund and the Future Fund.

Prof. Moshe Yehuda standing next to the Turnertempel model at Beit Hatfutsot. Photo by Aviv Hofi