Professor of History Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld studies how the history of architecture reflects the journey of the Jewish people — before and after World War II

Professor of History Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld studies how the history of architecture reflects the journey of the Jewish people — before and after World War II

by Alan Bisbort

One of the first buildings that caught Dr. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s eye when he and his family moved to Connecticut to teach at Fairfield in 2000 was the Second Congregational Church in Greenwich.

Sitting on the highest point of land along the Connecticut coastline, the church is, he said, “a towering presence in the surrounding environment.” From his apartment, Dr. Rosenfeld — a professor of modern German history and modern Jewish history at Fairfield — could see the church. What struck him — an oddity with which he opens his most recent book, Building After Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust (Yale Press) — was that it was designed in 1856-58 by a German-speaking immigrant from Bohemia named Leopold Eidlitz, America’s first Jewish architect.

A Christian church built by a Jew was certainly a break with Jewish history. Indeed, in Europe, Jews had traditionally been prohibited from being architects until the modern era. Buildings constructed by or for Jews simply did not call attention to themselves for fear of persecution.

Equally intriguing to Dr. Rosenfeld was the “faintly postmodern, stone-clad building” that housed Temple Sholom, the Conservative synagogue in Greenwich that his family joined when they arrived.

Dr. Rosenfeld learned that in 1953, the leadership of the temple had been offered a design by famed American architect Philip Johnson. They ultimately rejected it. Johnson’s design was later accepted by Kneses Tifereth Israel in nearby Port Chester, N.Y., and became “one of the most important modernist synagogues in early postwar America.”

Here, again, an architectural project came equipped with a curious backstory that spoke to Dr. Rosenfeld’s research. Philip Johnson, Dr. Rosenfeld writes, “was an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer in the 1930s and 1940s before making a dramatic about-face after World War II.”

Johnson, in fact, had been put on trial for sedition in 1944. After the war, Johnson — who is best known in Connecticut for his “Glass House” in New Canaan — sought to rehabilitate his image by, among other things, offering to design for a synagogue for free.

Further research revealed that two other architects in America with anti-Semitic pasts designed synagogues after the war — Frank Lloyd Wright, with Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Penn., (1954-59) and Walter Gropius, with Oheb Shalom in Baltimore (1954-60).

Congregation B’nai Israel in nearby Bridgeport, a synagogue built by Percival Goodman in 1958, also caught Dr. Rosenfeld’s eye.

Goodman had claimed “that his postwar commitment to synagogue design had been partly inspired by Hitler’s crimes against the Jews,” Dr. Rosenfeld wrote. But, after visiting the Bridgeport synagogue, Dr. Rosenfeld found himself wondering: “Why were there no visible signs of the Holocaust’s legacy in the building’s architecture?”

Dr. Rosenfeld discovered that this was true of almost all post-World War II buildings whether designed by Jewish architects or not. Post-war architecture seemed to have scrubbed itself of the past. Ironically, this was the same period in which Jewish architecture and Jewish architects were in the ascendancy. Indeed, Jewish architects have dominated the international field since World War II. Many of the best-known architects of our time have been Jewish, from Daniel Libeskind, best known for his Freedom Tower proposal at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan after 9/11, to Frank Gehry (born Goldberg), whoseflowing, metal-cladstructures have wowed people from Spain to Los Angeles. Other postwar Jewish architects comprise a who’s who of the profession: Peter Eisenman, Robert A.M. Stern (now dean of Yale’s School of Architecture), Gordon Bunshaft, and Louis I. Kahn, who designed two separate museum buildings at Yale University.

But architecture in the current postmodern period has a more expressive character than in the mid-20th century, and recent important buildings have engaged openly with the painful history of the Jewish people.

The most visible manifestations of this trend can be seen in the waves of new Holocaust museums and memorials being built worldwide — all designed by Jewish architects and all inspired by Jewish history and religious traditions. There have been many Holocaust museums and memorials built in the U.S. (in Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Florida, and elsewhere), taking their cue from James Ingo Freed’s widely praised U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993 in Washington, D.C.

Why have Jewish architects dominated the field since the Holocaust? What does their work tell us about the vagaries of cultural history and the complexities of our collective memory? Is there even such a thing as “Jewish architecture”?

These are the sorts of questions that Dr. Rosenfeld, a cultural historian, has pondered over the past several years.

To Dr. Rosenfeld, who is author of several books, including the forthcoming Hi Hitler! The Nazi Past in the New Millennium (Cambridge University Press) and the director of undergraduate Judaic Studies program, architecture — like the other arts — is a reflection and repository of historical and cultural memory.

“If a building sees the light of day, actually gets built roughly approximating the ideas of the architect, then it is more representative of its culture than an obscure book or piece of music,” said Dr. Rosenfeld. “It stands in a public space and has to be acknowledged every day by people who pass by it or work or live inside it.” Building after Auschwitz has the heft of a definitive text about a subject that Dr. Rosenfeld stumbled upon while pursuing a PhD at UCLA in the mid-1990s. After receiving a Fulbright scholarship in 1989, he spent a year in Munich researching and taking classes on European politics and history. He was there when the Berlin Wall fell.

“I thought I’d picked the wrong city, being in southern Bavaria, far from all the excitement,” said Dr. Rosenfeld. “But it turned out to be a better decision to be in Munich because Munich was the birthplace of Nazism and had a huge historic legacy that had been largely swept under the rug.”

Dr. Rosenfeld witnessed some of the “sweeping” firsthand. Though the city was greatly damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, much of the city was intact and the rest was quickly restored to its prewar state. Because of this, Munich when Dr. Rosenfeld arrived was, one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. And yet, he noticed something subtle going on beneath the surface: Munich was living in blissful denial.

“It was as if they were saying, ‘We want to make it like it was and pretend none of that destruction and the Holocaust ever happened. We believe traditional architecture is more healthy’,” he said. “So they rebuilt in the most conservative and traditional way possible.

“That’s what led me to the ‘memory’ aspect of cultural history,” Dr. Rosenfeld said of his subsequent research, which found expression in his first book, Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments, and the Legacy of the Third Reich (2000).

Many Jewish architects of the postwar period adopted the international, modernist style prevalent during the time. It has only been recently that Jewish architects seemed to have engaged with the trauma of history in their design.

Dr. Rosenfeld takes pains to dispel any notions that he is being judgmental when he wonders why Jewish architects took such a long time to address the Holocaust. That question is part of a larger question, of course — why did it take everyone such a long time to address the Holocaust, a term that didn’t really come into popular parlance until the 1960s, driven by the writings of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi.

Modernism, at least in architecture, was defined by a clean, boxy, industrial style, and characterized by what it left out — nearly all personal or identifiably cultural or decorative elements. This led to what Dr. Rosenfeld calls “the hideous plethora of modernist skyscrapers of no distinction, the destruction of neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal, and one-size-fits-all architecture.”

With its near total erasure of an architectural past, modernism played conveniently into that need to serve as a blank slate on which Jewish architects could build a new and better world.

“Modernism was new and was abstract and upbeat and pro-technology and the Holocaust can’t fit in to any of that,” said Dr. Rosenfeld. “The Holocaust was dark and exposed the destructiveness of technology — which, after all, helped create the extermination camps. So, Jewish architects avoided confronting this fact and built as if the recent past had never happened. They didn’t draw on their Jewishness. They were working with the generic and universal.”

A financial crisis in the 1970s initiated a crisis of ideas in world architecture. It was during this lull that modernism’s stranglehold was loosened in the name of post-modernism, which allowed room for personality of the architect to become a greater feature of design.

The transition opened up new possibilities for Jewish architects. And into that space walked Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), a seminal figure in 20th-century architecture to whom Dr. Rosenfeld devotes an entire chapter of Building After Auschwitz. After a trip to Israel in 1949, Dr. Rosenfeld writes, Kahn became more interested in the Jewish past and the Holocaust. Though trained in the modernist style, Kahn broke the grip of the faceless International Style by echoing past civilizations, including the Jewish people in his designs. Because he opened the door to post-modernism and the Holocaust museum genre, Dr. Rosenfeld calls him the “most influential Jewish architect of the 20th century.”

Dr. Rosenfeld closes his book with a chapter on the new genre of Holocaust museum architecture.

“There was the fear that these museums would lead to the ‘Disneyfication’ of the Holocaust,” said Dr. Rosenfeld. “But these buildings are evocative enough to dispel that.”

He points to the life story of the architect of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, James Ingo Freed, as not atypical. Born in Germany in 1930, Freed was able to escape with some relatives in 1939, but his mother’s side of the family died in the extermination camps. While designing the D.C. museum, Freed went to Auschwitz, a visit that changed him and his style of architecture. His final design reflected this, with echoes of guard towers, train stations, train tracks, and camp entrances, and so on. The result is a building that no visitor can leave without being changed.

At the time of its opening, Freed said, “I have to make a building that allows for horror, sadness. I don’t know if you can make a building that does this, if you can make an architecture of sensibility. Because that is really what it is.”