For five weeks this winter, 25 long-destroyed German synagogues will rise from the ruins inside a Mennonite-run city gallery.

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For five weeks this winter, 25 long-destroyed German synagogues will rise from the ruins inside a Mennonite-run city gallery.

Through an exhibit of photographs, text, film and computer-aided design, visitors can see the grand and varied architecture of these former Jewish houses of worship, as well getting a sense of how community and culture was destroyed with the buildings, says a Winnipeg genocide scholar.

"Genocide is the destruction of a people, not of people," explains Adam Muller, one of two University of Manitoba professors co-ordinating educational programs and forums around the exhibit.

"You can achieve the destruction of a people through physical means and through the destruction of cultures."

Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction, runs from Jan. 29 to March 4 at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury Blvd., on the south campus of Canadian Mennonite University. Viewers use computer workstations to see simulations of 25 synagogues, or experience the scale of the buildings through projected images on gallery walls.

Before and during the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed more than half of Germany’s 2,800 synagogues, beginning with the firebombing of hundreds on the night of Nov. 9 to 10, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

Students at Germany’s Darmstadt Technical University began developing the multimedia exhibit after the 1994 firebombing of the Lübeck synagogue, the first attack on a synagogue since 1945, and new generations of students still work on the virtual reconstructions, says Muller.

"This exhibit shows that the destruction of community (spaces) facilitates the destruction of group life," says Muller about how loss of the synagogues set the stage for the Holocaust, where six million Jews were killed by the Nazis.

"That’s the lesson we have to learn."

He says visitors should plan to spend 90 minutes touring the exhibit, which begins with text panels explaining the history of synagogues, Jewish life in Germany before the war, and the systematic destruction of Jewish culture and life through the Holocaust.

Winnipeg is the initial stop on this first Canadian tour of the exhibit, which travels to Toronto and Vancouver later this year.

"It is not an exhibit of the past," says Second World War scholar Stephan Jaeger, who was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Winnipeg.

"It shows how ingrained the past is in the present."

With a strong educational component accompanying the exhibit, including a series of public lectures, visitors will be introduced to Jewish religious life in the synagogues, explains the chair of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre.

"When we think of the Shoah (Holocaust), we always think of the people who were lost, but we don’t think of the extraordinary culture that was lost," says Belle Jarniewski, who co-authored the exhibit’s study guide for high school and university students.

"Within the synagogues, there were rabbis and cantors and music."

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Jaeger and Muller say housing the exhibit on the Mennonite campus made practical sense, since the gallery was large enough to hold the 1600 square-foot display, as well as providing parking for visitors.

Hosting a Jewish exhibit in a Christian space is more than logistics, says gallery director Ray Dirks, but an opportunity for more conversation and understanding between faith groups.

"As far as it having the appearance of a Christian worship space and this being an exhibit of Jewish synagogues, I see (the gallery) as a place open to all faith and promoting goodwill," says Dirks.

"I think it is a good opportunity for some interaction outside of the exhibit." 


Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.