When my good friends picked me up at the Freiburg train station this past summer, they told me they had bad news: The site of the old Synagogue, burnt to the ground during the Holocaust, had been turned into a wading pool.
Just the week before, the mayor and city council had presided over the inauguration of a newly remodeled public square, known as the Platz der Alten Synagoge (Old Synagogue Plaza). Following many years of civic planning, the city had erected a water memorial in one corner of the plaza. The memorial was built directly on top of the destroyed Freiburg Synagogue which had been erected in 1870 and burnt to the ground by Nazis in1938. It was burnt during Kristallnacht, the Night of Shattered Glass, a pogrom against Jews which took place on November 9 throughout Germany.
Freiburg’s officials were meticulous with the design of their memorial, which outlines the footprint of the destroyed synagogue. An immense grey granite slab, about the size of a large ice-skating rink, rises about one-and-a-half feet off the ground. Circulating chlorinated water flows out of vents in the center and runs off the edges draining onto the ground.
And yet, despite this careful design, absent from the memorial is any readable signage to indicate that this wading pool covers the synagogue remains.
Before the redesign, there was a bronze memorial plaque about the tragedy in this spot. Now this plaque has been removed and installed in the base of the new pool, where it currently lies submerged under water; black bronze on a dark grey granite surface, it is virtually illegible. There is no other synagogue information on site.
On Inauguration Day of the new plaza, the weather was sunny and hot. Almost immediately, the memorial became a wading pool filled with celebrants. The mayor was proud. “After only a few minutes, this plaza has been accepted by the population,” he proclaimed. “Water symbolizes life.”
It may – but it also symbolized for the residents of Freiburg an opportunity for something else. When I visited the plaza in August, among the things I witnessed as I stood at the base of the elevated pool platform were adults rolling around and luxuriating in the water; one topless woman washing her hair and breasts; children running with glee, pulling their little toy boats behind them; frolicking dogs off their leashes; cans of beer cooling in the water; and people sunbathing on bath towels at the foot of the fountain. All around me was a general sense of good fun. The residents of Freiburg had seen the pool and immediately understood what it was about: PARTY TIME!
Who could a refuse a free public wading pool to cool your body on a hot summer’s day?
Well, I could. As the American-born son of a Polish Jew whose entire family was shot dead and dumped in a quarry, I immediately felt nauseated and confused. Something was clearly wrong here. Why was no one saying anything about it?
Was this the new normal, now almost 80 years after Kristallnacht?
In 1948, in the aftermath of WWII, a few survivors of the Freiburg Jewish community returned after the Holocaust. In a settlement with the city, they signed over the property rights to the synagogue site with the stipulation that the site would be always be used respectfully with awareness of its tragic history.
As far as I’m concerned, this agreement has been broken. You can’t play POKEMON at Auschwitz and you cannot frolic in the water atop a desecrated site.
When the City Council began excavation for construction of the new plaza, they uncovered foundations of the old synagogue. The current Jewish Community asked the city to save the stones so that they could integrate them into the construction of a memorial in another location. The city claimed the expense was too great and quickly stopped the excavation, paving over the foundation instead. They also claimed that, according to a regional Jewish scholar, stones in and of themselves are not sacred objects and therefore the remains of the synagogue were also not sacred.
I was frustrated and upset by my experience at the pool. I am a dancer and my body feels things deeply. That night, I walked the floor, sleepless with anxiety, thinking of a way to speak out.
The next day, at 12:30pm in the midday heat, I stood at the edge of the pool, now filled mostly with children and their parents. I removed my shoes and socks, put on my black velvet yarmulke, draped my old Bar Mitzvah tallis over my head and shoulders and climbed up into the water.
For the next three hours, I danced the role of Jew in the Pool. My sole intention was to call attention to what lay submerged beneath my feet. I danced all around the pool, slowly and deliberately, sometimes in folk-like Hasidic steps, sometimes in Jewish prayer gestures. I summoned up a story with my body about the destruction that lay below me: the fear I felt, the visceral sensation of fire and smoke. I danced the burning of the Torah.
This was not a pretty dance. Sometimes I screamed out. I had to continually remind myself to be extra careful around the children as they zoomed past me, sometimes splashing me. I did not want to frighten them. Children are innocent and beautiful and this was not their fault.
But neither did I accept the claims of officials and citizens of Freiburg, that that the presence of children in the pool, in their many colors, was a sign of rebirth and hope for the future.
Where were the Jewish children in the pool? Not to be found. And if there were no Jewish children in this pool, what does that mean? That the “future” is without Jews? Judenfrei?
I had no intention of dancing in public in Germany this summer and making a spectacle of myself. I’m shy and I don’t even like to dance at parties. But I had to move because my body insisted.
Most of the parents in the pool were actively indifferent to me. Even as I posed next to them with a painfully distorted body, they refused to look. On the other hand, as I danced, I could see the public — perhaps two hundred people in the plaza — watching and absorbing, some of them visibly disturbed, some giving me signs of solidarity.
My friend, Eva-Maria Berg, a German poet, arrived and stepped in the pool with me. Then she stepped outside and stood witness. Strangers came up to ask her the reason for my dance. Conversations took place, some difficult, but others in solidarity with us. Photos were taken, videos posted on social media.
Things moved quickly in the next few days. A new community of protestors was formed. A petition was written, circulated and published in the city newspaper. “The water basin in the form of the Old Synagogue should be a venerable memory and a reminder of the crimes of the Nazis,” read one. A silent vigil was planned.
On September 10th, over 100 people, including Germans and Christians and Jews of all ages, held hands and made a human chain, circling the pool in silent protest. Newspaper articles covered it, and factions of the City Council came out in solidarity with the protestors.
More recently, an official announcement from Mayor Dieter Salomon proclaimed that the city would quickly put up “provisional” informational tablets around the pool about the Old Synagogue. He also promised that he would hold a meeting with the different Jewish communities of Freiburg about the future of the site.
On Friday, the city of Freiburg announced that some temporary information plaques will go up next week. But they are only temporary, and the Jewish community does not feel that the situation is resolved. There is as yet no concrete plan to deal with the actual memorial site and the stones.
The desecration of the synagogue’s memory in Freiburg is not just a Jewish issue. It’s about how human beings respect the Other. Stones themselves may not be sacred, but the communal memory of a great tragedy is.
Yehuda Hyman is a writer, dancer and the Artistic Director of Mystical Feet Company, a Brooklyn based theatre ensemble.