Treasure Trove: A shard of glass from an East Berlin synagogue recalls the destruction of a Jewish community

This is a piece of broken glass from the Neue (New) Synagogue in Berlin. I am lucky that the Stasi, the state security service of East Germany, did not arrest me when I got it.

It was the summer of 1982 and I went to Berlin while backpacking through Europe. The city was then divided with West Berlin being part of the democratic Federal Republic of Germany and East Berlin being part of communist East Germany. From West Berlin you could visit East Berlin for one day through Checkpoint Charlie, and this is what I did. 

I hated East Berlin. It was the intersection of the two things that I then despised the most: Germany and Communism.

It was a Saturday morning so I went to an operating synagogue in East Berlin. There were fewer than ten people there, including me. 

Next, I went to the site of the Neue Synagogue, which was built in 1866 to be the main synagogue for the Jewish community. It could hold 3,000 people and featured an ornate central dome between two smaller domes, but not much was left of it.

A Nazi mob broke into the synagogue on Kristallnacht (Nov. 9, 1938) and was about to set it on fire when a police officer ordered the mob to disburse, saying it was a protected historical landmark. Prayer services continued in the building until April 1940 when the Nazis ordered them to stop. The building was then used to store German army uniforms. It was badly damaged in November 1943 during the Allied bombing of Berlin.

After the war, the synagogue was not reconstructed, and it remained damaged, empty and behind a wall. On that day in 1982, when I saw the damaged shell of a once glorious synagogue with all of its windows shattered, something drove me to climb the fence and go inside. I am very fortunate that nobody saw me do this.

I only stayed inside for a few minutes, and grabbed this piece of glass from the window ledge where it had come to rest many years before. I carried it in my backpack for the rest of the trip, and it has remained with me ever since. It is a reminder that all that we have can quickly be shattered. With the passage of time, I realize it is also a reminder that we are obliged to try to fix what has been broken.

After the reunification of Berlin in 1989, the building was restored and in 1995 a small synagogue was established in it. Rabbi Gesa Edeberg, the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin, serves as its spiritual leader.