BERLIN — In a solemn open-air ceremony timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the fall of Nazi Germany, Berlin's stunning New Synagogue was reopened Sunday after decades in ruins.
"Our burden of responsibility is very high," said Jerzy Kanal, chairman of the Jewish Community of Berlin, which represents a much-reduced population of about 10,000. "We must fill this house with new life, and not just old Jewish history."
But even as Berlin's small remaining Jewish community was rejoicing in the $50-million rebuilding of the 129-year-old synagogue, arsonists sent a message of hatred by setting fire to another German synagogue in the northern port city of Luebeck.
Arsonists tossed firebombs at the entrance and an outbuilding of the Luebeck temple, which was also firebombed last year in the first such attack on any German synagogue since Nazi times. Luebeck firefighters were alerted at about 2 a.m. Sunday by neighbors who smelled smoke, and the flames were extinguished without anyone being injured. There are several apartments above the synagogue.
Far-right extremists were also busy over the weekend in Berlin's neighboring city of Potsdam, where a group of about 150 chanted the Nazi greeting "Sieg Heil" until they were dispersed by police. And in the Treptow district of what used to be East Berlin, vandals toppled 103 tombstones in a special graveyard for victims of the Nazis.
The activities were condemned by German politicians, religious figures and private citizens who came out to demonstrate Sunday.
On November 9, 1938, the inner-city New Synagogue was attacked by Nazi arsonists in the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom, when fanatics smashed the windows of Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany. But it was saved through the heroics of the precinct police chief, who chased the hooligans off and called in a fire brigade.
In 1940, however, the German army took over the building and used it as a storehouse, and in 1943 it was all but destroyed in British bombing raids.
For decades, East Germany's leaders left the building a crumbling ruin with trees growing out of what remained of the roof. But in 1988, a renovation began in what is thought to have been an attempt by the Communist regime to curry favor with the United States.
The East German government collapsed the following year, but the renovation continued.
The New Synagogue's inaugural ceremonies Sunday were conducted under the tightest possible security, with a massive police deployment in the neighboring streets and strict controls on who could approach the building.
In an open courtyard behind its dramatic Moorish facade, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Roman Herzog and hundreds of present and former Berlin Jews listened to the music of Felix Mendelssohn and speeches by Jewish leaders from Germany and Israel.
The courtyard stands where the synagogue's main hall used to be. It was deliberately left empty by the renovators, who said it would be inappropriate to rebuild the once-vast worship hall given the decimation of Berlin's Jewish population.
Instead, they rebuilt just the synagogue's spectacular gilt onion dome and minarets, its red brick facade, its vestibule and some rooms. The interiors have been left in an artfully sketchy state so that visitors can clearly see what is original masonry and what is replacement stonework. Vaulted ceilings are only partially painted, and tiny shards of the original stained glass--all that is left today--are embedded in new windows of plain glass.
There were about 173,000 Jews living in Berlin when the Nazis came to power in 1933. During the Nazi years, about 55,000 of them were murdered and 90,000 driven into exile. By the time East Germany's Communist regime collapsed in 1989, there were only about 200 practicing Jews in East Berlin and 7,000 in West Berlin. Jewish immigrants from Russia have swelled the numbers in recent years.
The renovated building is not intended as a house of worship but as a meeting place, archive and memorial site. This state of affairs has drawn complaints from some eastern Berlin Jews, who say the city government and the international Jewish community should have helped them refurbish their own decrepit worship facilities instead of lavishing money on a congregation-less showcase.