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Jewish Cultural Center

Sankt-Jakobs-Platz features a synagogue, a Jewish Museum and a Jewish Cultural Center

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For urban designers, architects and the public alike, a city’s landscape is a potent reflection of its residents. Yet for all we celebrate our definitive landmarks, urban structures can be exclusive as well. Jewish people have been a significant (if small) aspect of Munich’s population since the Middle Ages. Forced to worship on the city’s borders or behind unassuming facades, however, they were often out of sight and out of mind. This ignorance had dangerous consequences during the period of Nazi power, when the destruction of Jewish landmarks was a part of the wider obliteration of their population.

Luckily, Germans have long been willing to address past mistakes and have often found architecture to be an apt way of doing so. More than sixty years after the end of the war, Munich’s Jewish population—at 9,000 Germany’s second largest—is once more claiming a spot on the city’s skyline. Since 2006 a new central synagogue and Jewish cultural center on Jakobsplatz brings Jewish life to the city center. Consequently, many are taking another look at the Jews’ place in Munich history as well.

Jewish life in Munich can be traced back to 1229. Though the church had expelled Jews from Bavaria by 1442, Jewish settlers returned in the late 18th century, when the effects of the French Revolution brought more religious tolerance to the area. By 1816, the Jewish community received permission from city officials to build a cemetery in Munich, and in 1824, they built the first synagogue at the city limits.

Even with these concessions, Jews remained excluded from the heart of the cityscape until 1882, when King Ludwig II gave liberal Jews a piece of land to build a synagogue near the Frauenkirche. (Orthodox Jews dedicated a synagogue five years later, and eastern Jews dedicated a synagogue in 1931.) Completed in 1887, the late-Romantic structure was the third-largest synagogue in all of Germany and one of the most recognizable structures on the Munich skyline. This greater presence in the cityscape was accompanied by a spike in population. Owing to the influx of immigrants from the pogrom-ridden East, by 1910, 11,083 of the city’s 590,000 residents were Jewish.
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Unfortunately, this period of peaceful integration was short lived. By the late 1920s, discrimination was common and by 1933, the Nazis made it legal. In this context, the Israelite Cultural Community decided not to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the central synagogue in 1937. The very next year, Nazis vandalized and destroyed the building after Hitler personally ordered its destruction. The local Jewish organization was then forced to pay for the clean-up. Five months later, on November 9 and 10, the two remaining synagogues fell to SA troops during “Kristallnacht.” At this point, Munich Jews lost their place in the city. In just over a decade they were almost totally annihilated: Only 84 Jews remained when Allied troops entered the city on April 30, 1945. The community was quick to grow from this nadir. In less than a year, Munich’s Jewish population already numbered 2,800. By May 1947, an old synagogue on Reichenbachstrasse was rebuilt and dedicated as the central synagogue.

Even as the population was rebuilt, the unassuming synagogue remained the most significant Jewish structure in Munich throughout the twentieth century. In the late 1990s, planning finally began for a rebirth of urban Jewish life on land at Jakobsplatz. Saarbrücken architects Wandel, Hoefer, Lorch and Hirsch won the contract for the design after a two-stage competition. They also designed the 2001 Dresden Synagogue—the first to be built in post-war Germany. The warm modernism of that building is also in evidence here. Though contemporary in its construction, the Munich synagogue echoes the lines of sites long central to the celebration of Jewish life, such as temples and tents. The design also hearkens to an earlier time by its reliance on natural lighting: Not just a functional element, it is meant to symbolize the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people.

The second building of the new complex—a community center—is conceived as “a modern schtetl,” that features diverse offerings for the Jewish community and beyond. It houses a public kindergarten and day school, lecture halls for continuing education, a Rabbinate, a kosher restaurant and a kosher butcher. Like the synagogue’s, its construction is funded by the Israelite Cultural Community of Munich, Oberbayern and the State of Bavaria.
The third building, which acts as a link between the two others, is the Munich Jewish Museum. Funded by the city of Munich, it houses exhibits on the diversity of Jewish life in Bavaria during the past 850 years. It consists of three above-ground levels, as well as one underground level in a converted bomb shelter.

For exhibitions and events at the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Cultural Center, check, or go to and

© MF Nicholson/Nov 06

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