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

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.”

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