Where We Once Gathered

Teens learn about the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life in the colorful synagogues painted by Andrea Strongwater.

A painting of the synagogue on Hiltropwall in Dortmund, Germany. The synagogue was destroyed September 1938. Courtesy of Andrea Strongwater

Shattered glass. Demolished homes. Ransacked stores. Jews running for their lives. These are images etched in our brains from 75 years ago. Kristallnacht — the devastation known as “The Night of Broken Glass” — took place November 9-10, 1938 in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Members of the Nazi party and Hitler youth were the evil perpetrators of this disaster. Kristallnacht marked the acceleration of Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies and was the symbolic beginning of the Holocaust. We all have an obligation to remember Kristallnacht in spite of the time that has passed and the anger and the agony that we may feel. 

Andrea Strongwater, a New York City artist, recognized the challenges of remembering the atrocities of the Holocaust and she discovered a unique way to commemorate its lessons. I was privileged to meet her in November at my synagogue, Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, N.J., when she spoke and exhibited her paintings. 

Strongwater is an artist who paints designs for jigsaw puzzles, wrapping paper, greeting cards and more. She posted artwork for a Jewish calendar on her website and her customers asked for more Jewish art. Looking for inspiration, she rummaged through her mother’s bookshelf and found a French book with a translated title of “Images and Traditions of Jewish Life.” The book, which she gave her mother decades ago, was a collection of black and white postcards of Jewish life around the world from 1897 to 1917. 

She described the postcard discovery as “miraculous.” “The appeal of postcards is that people keep them,” she said.  “People don’t throw out postcards… To me it was a way of making that world stay alive.” She decided to create colorful images of synagogues destroyed during World War II and then turn them into new postcards.

Strongwater, a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, was always interested in art and architecture. “Most of the people I spent my time with were making architecture and art and planning cities,” she wrote in an email. “It’s what we thought about and talked about.”

She initially painted four synagogues then added four more to the collection on her website when the first group proved popular. As time went on she decided to paint additional synagogues making sure to show the vibrancy and architectural details of these buildings.  (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. bought her first batch of postcards made from these paintings.) After completing work on 85 synagogues, she decided to create a book of these recreated buildings accompanied by their stories.

Her book, “Where We Once Gathered—Lost Synagogues of Europe,” is comprised of paintings of 20 destroyed synagogues. She hopes to publish her next volume in April 2014, “Where We Once Gathered—Lost Synagogues of Germany.”  Researching and painting old synagogues is an ongoing project for Strongwater, as more postcards and old photos turn up in various places.

The synagogues were more than just a place to pray. They were shelters for schools, nursing homes, orphanages, civil courts and celebration halls. They were community centers and focal points of Jewish life. Each one told an individual story. A synagogue that once existed in Nuremburg, Germany.

“The synagogues I paint run the gamut from very sophisticated and urban to homely aging wooden structures, large and small,” she wrote. “The people who worshipped in these places would have had lives running the same gamut. There were rich Jews and poor Jews, educated and not, rural and city.” Strongwater chose these synagogues because she was astounded by the beauty of each building, regardless of age or size. (Photo: The synagogue at right existed in Nuremberg, Germany from 1874-1938. Courtesy of Andrea Strongwater) 

The artist heard the tragic stories of the Holocaust throughout her life and imagined what Jewish life was like before the calamities began. Her mother emigrated as a toddler from Poland with her brother, parents and grandfather. “They didn't tell stories about life in Poland — which is a good part of the impetus to create my synagogue project,” she wrote. For Strongwater, remembering the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust involved recalling the richness of their lives before they were killed. Her book was written in the hope of spreading the beauty and significance of the lost Jewish communities.

Unfortunately, the number of Holocaust survivors is diminishing and we need to work hard to recall and honor the European Jews who perished and those who survived. Jewish teens are often taught about the horrors during the war but rarely hear about the pre-Holocaust lives of the Jews. It is important for all teens to know that the lives of European Jews did not only contain horror and dismay, but also beauty and glory.

Andrew Strongwater recently launched a campaign to raise money for the publication of her “Where We Once Gathered” series. For information and to make a donation go to indiegogo.com/projects/where-we-once-gathered-lost-synagogues.

author's bio: 
Rachel Luxenberg is a sophomore at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J.