The Oranienburgerstrasse (Neue) Synagogue

by Cathy Lesser Mansfield

This past weekend we rehearsed a Friday night Shabbat service scene in the The Sparks Fly Upward that takes place at the Oranienburgerstrasse (Neue) Synagogue in Berlin. The service took place on October 28, 1938. That morning, the German Police had arrested Jews of Polish citizenship who were residing in Germany and Austria and forcibly returned them to Poland.

The Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue was a gorgeous, massive, Liberal Jewish synagogue that opened in Berlin in 1866.  The synagogue survived the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938 (Kristallnacht) but had to be destroyed after the war due to massive damage from allied air raids during the war. However, the façade and entry hall survive today as the Centrum Judaicum, which hosts permanent and travelling exhibits.

When I was researching the story of Sparks, I was fortunate enough to meet a gentleman named Harry Rowe. Mr. Rowe’s father had been appointed caretaker of the Synagogue after he lost his job because he was a Jew. Mr. Rowe and his family lived in the Synagogue building for a time. When the ruins of the Synagogue were excavated, they found Mr. Rowe’s Bar Mitzvah cards, as well as the everlasting light. These items are now on display in the museum.

I met Mr. Rowe in one of many chance encounters while I was writing the story of the opera. Someone had visited the Neue Synagogue while on vacation in Berlin and then posted pictures and narrative from his vacation. Mr. Rowe posted a public comment on these pictures correcting an error the vacationer had made about the synagogue. In the post he asked, “How do I know this? Because I lived in the Synagogue as a young boy!” I happened on this post simply because I was looking for the phone number for the Centrum Judacium. At the time, I was trying to learn everything I could about the Synagogue. Did the men and women sit together? What time were services? Did most people eat dinner before or after services? Was there singing? An Organ?  Mr. Rowe was kind enough to take a call out of the blue from me. His willingness to talk to me helped me ensure that every detail possible of the Sparks story was as accurate as possible. And, our talk made my own visit to the Centrum Judaicum, and viewing his Bar Mitzvah cards, that much more meaningful.