BERLIN – Along a narrow canal in one of Berlin’s largest Muslim neighborhoods sits a ghost — the site of a synagogue largely destroyed by the Nazis on the November night in 1938 known as Kristallnacht.
Eighty years later, a Palestinian-born German politician and the leader of Berlin’s Jewish community stood together on a recent morning outside the building’s single remaining wing and outlined a plan to give the ghost new life.
If they can raise the funds, the two hope to rebuild the Fraenkelufer synagogue as a house of worship and neighborhood meeting place for people of all faiths and none. The aim, they said, is to send a message of reassurance at a time when rising Islamophobia and fears of a new wave of anti-Semitism in Germany are deepening.
“Everywhere, people are trying to split our society,” said Raed Saleh, a 40-year-old Social Democratic leader in Berlin’s state parliament.
Saleh, who came to Germany from the West Bank with his family when he was 5, sees the plan to rebuild the synagogue in Kreuzberg, home to many mosques, as a gesture of inclusion.
“I wouldn’t be a good Muslim if I didn’t champion Jewish life in my home city, Berlin,” he said.
The synagogue’s old side wing is still used for services, but the street is closed off and guarded by police since attacks in 2000 and 2002. News reports of recent anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin’s schools and abroad have intensified unease.
“Our members are afraid to show their Jewishness,” said Gideon Joffe, 45, chairman of the Jewish community in Berlin. “They don’t wear the yarmulke. They don’t wear the Star of David. That’s why we think it’s really important to revive a building like this one.”
Fears of a new surge of anti-Semitism flared last month when news media reported an increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the city. At the same time, far-right groups and the Alternative for Germany party have used such reports to fuel anti-refugee rhetoric, blaming the attacks on Muslims, said Juliane Wetzel, of the Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University in Berlin.
For Saleh, the Fraenkelufer project is a way to build on signs of openness.
“We want to send a signal that Jewish life is part of German culture,” he said. “You can only meet hate and discrimination by opening doors and reaching out.”
Joffe and Saleh, along with members of Saleh’s party, came up with the idea of rebuilding the synagogue last year, on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass). Nazis and their supporters across Germany set fire to the building’s interior, burned Torah scrolls and destroyed ritual objects.
During the war, the shell of the building housed military vehicles. Now, said Joffe and Saleh, the old side wing is getting too small for a growing Jewish community, and the neighborhood’s residents need a place to meet.
After the Holocaust, when Berlin’s Jewish population shrank from 160,000 in 1933 to 7,000 in 1945, new synagogues were not required. But in recent decades, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Israel have revived the community and created a need for more space. The city — which has about 80 mosques and Muslim prayer rooms — has 11 synagogues in addition to Fraenkelufer.
Mario Marcus, a 67-year-old retired surgeon who has attended services in the side wing — originally a youth synagogue — said more Jews are moving into Kreuzberg.
“We don’t have enough room here anymore,” said Marcus, who married in the side wing and whose sons had their bar mitzvahs there.
Marcus acknowledged that he notices tensions between Muslims and Jews.
“The problem is that we live in a reality that has nothing to do with the propaganda that Arabs grew up with,” he said. “So we have to create opportunities for them to meet us and for us to reach out to them.”
The project, which will cost an estimated $31 million, is still unfunded. But already it carries profound symbolic meaning, said Marcus’ son, Jonathon.
“The possibility of a reconstructed building is hugely significant for us,” said Jonathan Marcus. “The last member of our community who remembered the old building died a few weeks ago. How do we make sure people remember now?”