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.

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