Two recollections of moments and details from spring-times past. Above: A kite, a delighted child, and a patch of green on the shore of the Golden Horn near Fener, Istanbul, 2012. In the background, a shipyard and dry-dock dating from early Ottoman times. Below: Blossoms, greenery, and the weathered, roughly-welded sheet-metal wall and numbered spaces of an empty parking lot in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014 (the straightforward text on the signs: “paid unguarded” + “parking”).
The night of November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass: Throughout Nazi Germany (including Austria, which had folded itself seamlessly into Nazi Germany some months before) synagogues were plundered and set afire, with crowds of bystanders cheering, and police and fire brigades standing idly by. Shops owned by Jews were looted and destroyed, Jewish men beaten and arrested, Jewish women terrorized and molested. All this a seeming apotheosis of European religious antisemitism, exclusionary nationalism, “scientific” racism, nostalgia for a past that never was, and urban economic, social, and spatial competition.
In Vienna, all but one of the city’s monumental synagogues and modest prayer-houses were destroyed during the 24-hour rampage. How are they remembered today? Barely, and by few. Memorial plaques mark the sites of a quite a number of the city’s destroyed synagogues, but their texts are as often as not confusing and bland, with events sanitized and the perpetrators obfuscated by overuse of euphemisms and passive voice in German and by shoddy accompanying translations into English.
Phantasm and Reflection: Two Photos of Monuments without Words
The photographs above and below portray two impressive memorials to two Viennese synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht. Both memorials eschew words for silence and didacticism for emotion.
The photo at the top was taken through a large plate-glass plaque set as a memorial on the corner of the Eitelbergergasse and Neue-Welt-Gasse in the posh Viennese suburb of Hietzing. The plaque stands across the street from the one-time site of the “Neue Welt Tempel,” a freestanding structure, quite modern in its time, designed by architect Artur Grünberger in a style seemingly influenced by the Viennese Secession. The Neue Welt Tempel was constructed in the late-1920s and early-1930s in the midst of Hietzing’s quiet tree-lined sidestreets and Jugendstil mansions.
Silkscreened onto the surface of the glass plaque is a finely-rastered, semi-translucent reproduction of an archival photograph of the exterior of the Neue Welt Tempel taken sometime in the mid-1930s, probably from the exact location where the plaque now stands. By positioning oneself at just the right angle and distance from the plaque, a viewer is treated to a mirage … suddenly, the present and past are juxtaposed, and a ghost-like image of the Neue Welt Tempel appears to sprout from the surface of the yellow apartment house now standing on its former site. For a moment, the Neue Welt Tempel reappears as if still there … and then, just as suddenly, juxtaposition is lost and the illusion fades.
In the photograph below, a sparse, minimalist garden fills the length and part of the width of the one-time footprint of the 1870s, Neo-Renaissance style, “Turnertempel” synagogue at Turnergasse 22 in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, not far from the Gürtel and the shopping thoroughfare of Mariahilfestrasse. The greenery at the edges of the garden offsets the starkness of the gravel surface, concrete pathways, and benches of well-weathered wooden beams. The trees at the left of the photo are lindens. Summers, the scent of linden blossoms fills the garden and, as the weeks pass, fallen linden petals turn into perfumed dust that cushions the garden’s gravel surface. The total effect is apt: life emerging from, but never quite obliterating, destruction.
This past summer, I stopped at the Turnergasse memorial garden a number of times to read, write, reflect and rest. There were few other visitors: workmen on lunch and cigarette breaks, occasional pairs of daytime beer drinkers, small numbers of neighborhood residents, judging by their appearances and voices, immigrants mostly, from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Did they know what once stood at the site where they were sitting? Were they aware of its fate? Could they sense the one-time prayers, concerns, and celebrations of people who had preceded them, and who had played out-sized roles in Vienna’s former greatness and in the shaping of the city in which they now live and the rights and security they now enjoy? Probably not. Most people in Vienna, like most people elsewhere, are propelled by the intentionality of their own immediate concerns. Others in Vienna, native-born Austrians and immigrants both, turn up their noses at the memories of Jews and bristle at reminders of their murder. But for those of us open to it, to those of us who bear the weight of its absence, a presence seems to hover in the garden at Turnergasse.
Footnote on Resources
For the past months, a small exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum showcased the research and meticulous computer-generated recreations of the exteriors and interiors of Viennese synagogues and the urban contexts in which they once stood, done by Bob Marten and Herbert Peter, and published in book form some years ago as Die zerstörten Synagogen Wiens: Virtuelle Stadtspaziergānge and later in English as The Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna.
Three gardens in the town of Kıyıköy on the Black Sea coast of Turkish Thrace.
Kıyıköy — literally: “coastal settlement” — is the all-too-obvious modern Turkish name for the ancient Greek Black Sea port and walled settlement of Medea. By late-Ottoman times, the town, eventually known as Midye — Turkish for “mussel” — was populated in large part by Greeks, whose lives and livelihoods (fishing and coastal shipping) faced seaward, and by Bulgarians, whose lives and livelihoods (dairy production and garden farming) faced inland. Bulgarians left Midye during and after the Balkan Wars of the 1910s, and Greeks in the forced population exchanges that followed Turkey’s war of independence in the 1920s. Demographics have changed — today’s Kıyıköy appears to be populated by Turks and Roma — but the part-Byzantine and part-Ottoman walls of the town still stand and still mark its periphery, and Kıyıköy’s rarely-frequented harbor still provides safe haven from the capricious currents of the Black Sea.
The three gardens portrayed herein are set in the expanse between Kıyıköy’s formerly-Greek town center and its still-extant town walls. At the top: the front garden of the home of a Roma family. Middle: A backyard vegetable garden. Last: A solitary pupil in the playground of a private kindergarten awaiting the imminent start of the school year. All three photos were taken in 2013. The camera: My usual Fuji X100 with and without a wide-angle conversion lens.
In a recent series of posts about Sofia, Bulgaria, I focused on the present-day appearances of the exteriors of Soviet-era, brutalist-style, prefabricated concrete-panel apartments block complexes built in the 1970s and 1980s, and on implications thereof re: issues of public and private space and of the nature of infrastructure. However, Sofia is more than mere concrete.
Sofia is a paradoxical city. Over the last century-and-a-quarter its population has grown by a factor of 100, from less that 20,000 to almost two million. It is one of Europe’s most compact and densely populated cities — a potential advantage in terms of energy efficiency and non-automotive mobility, if and when properly capitalized upon. Not least, Sofia is also one of Europe’s greenest cities — in terms of its tree-lined streets and unusually high ration of green-space to built-space. Expansive parks, heavily-wooded and well-manicured, anchor the north, south, east, and west cardinal points of the city. Smaller parks dot the its and a greenbelt circumscribes its periphery.
Sofia’s parks were cornerstone features of a city plan drawn-up off-site in Berlin by the Nazi German architect Adolf Müssmann during the years of Bulgaria’s venal 1930s/1940s alliance with Hitler’s Germany. The plan, by the way, was so foreign to the nature of Sofia and so imbued with Hitler’s visions for Berlin that it alienated Sofia’s otherwise quite pro-German municipal authorities and was in large part ignored. After World War II, dedication to park space were the only elements of Müssmann’s concept that the newly-installed Communist regime retained in Sofia’s first post-war city plan drawn up in 1948. In the decades since the fall of Communism in 1989, shady property and real estate development deals have eaten away at the edges of Sofia’s once-ample green-space. More recently, however, the green-space that remains appears, year by year, to be better and better maintained and more fully utilized.
Pictured above and below are two of Sofia’s smaller parks. Both are the creations of religious traditions that emerged from the late-nineteenth scramble to create, shape, and give legitimacy to a Bulgarian national identity and to create new, vernacular-language, and supposedly indigenous spiritual spaces as alternatives to the once-ubiquitous power of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in what is now Bulgaria.
In the photo above: The garden of the Theological Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The autocephalic Bulgarian church was reconstituted in 1870 by a firman (writ) of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in part as a concession to Bulgarian aspirations for political, cultural, religious, and linguistic autonomy.
The clerical buildings in the background of the photo tell a story of their own. They were designed is what is retrospectively called the “Bulgarian National Style” — actually an eclectic amalgam of Moorish Revival, Secessionist, neo-Baroque ,Jugendstil, and supposedly neo-Byzantine elements characteristic of the work of Friedrich Grünanger, an Austrian-Hungarian architect who spent the bulk of his career in Sofia and who designed a number of the city’s iconic structures including, in addition to the Seminary, the city’s central bath house and what is now Sofia’s one remaining synagogue.
The supposedly neo-Byzantine elements that gave facades of Grünanger’s edifices their ostensible “Bulgarian National” character are horizontal courses of glazed-tile-work meant to simulate horizontal courses of brick interspersed between and cushioning courses of stone, a structural and decorative feature that was actually a signature, not of Byzantine architecture. but of the architecture of the Ottoman Turks, the non-Christian, “foreign” tradition that the Bulgarian National Style was meant to supplant and to obliterate from memory.
Grave of a mystic …
In the photo below: The carefully tended garden surrounding the grave of the late-19th/early-20th-century Bulgarian religious syncretist and mystic visionary, Peter Deunov. Deunov, a son of one of the first clerics of the reconstituted Bulgarian Orthodox Church, studied at a Methodist seminary in the United States but, following his return to Bulgaria did not enter the ministry. Instead, he founded a nature-oriented spiritual movement of his own, one that remains active and vibrant to the present day. Deunov’s journey from belief to belief was not atypical of the experimental searching for new religious and political identities characteristic of urban Bulgarians of his generation. Izgrev (tr. “The Dawn”), the suburban neighborhood surrounding the garden, was founded as a colony by Deunov and his disciples in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Deunov garden is one of the lushest, well kept, and peaceful green spots in Sofia — this the result of the voluntarism and sense of community of those who maintain it. May it remain that way.