A unique art exhibit in Winnipeg is giving people the chance to see what synagogues in Germany would look like today had they not been destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Synagogues in Germany: A Virtual Reconstruction opened in late January of this year at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery.

Adam Muller is an Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba and is part of the group that brought the exhibit to Winnipeg. He focuses his studies on representations of war, genocide and mass violence, among other topics.

According to Muller, the project started after an attack on a synagogue in Germany in 1994, which was the first attack on a synagogue since Germany had reunited four years earlier. In response to that attack, architects, architecture professors and graduate students from Darmstadt Technical University recovered the designs for old synagogues destroyed during Kristallnacht and started to digitizing them so people can understand how important they were to the Jewish communities who used them prior to their destruction.

It started with one synagogue, but in the years since 1994, they’ve been able to recreate 24 more after decades of research.

“It takes about a year to complete each design,” said Muller. “These spaces were so destroyed that often the records of their existence like building permits or plans were destroyed as well.”

Muller says the exhibit offers more than just an imagining of what these synagogues would look like today. He says the exhibit also aims to educate people on the fact that the destruction of a synagogue was not only the destruction of a place of worship, but also the destruction of a meeting place for Jewish communities and the destruction of a place they would go when they needed refuge.

“By burning down the synagogues, the Nazis uprooted Jewish communities and made it impossible for them to process the events that were happening to them during this time,” he said. “Jews in Europe could not get together in those community spaces and develop effective responses and strategies of resistance because those key anchors were gone.” 

This is tied to the larger point that Muller wants people to take away from the exhibit; that genocide is not only the act of physically trying to eliminate a group of people, but also the act of targeting and destroying their culture.

“The Nazis attempted to target these buildings as part of a wider assault on Jewish culture,” said Muller. “These synagogues were deep investments for the Jewish communities who used them.”

Winnipeg is the first stop in Canada for the exhibit, which is important for Muller, because he thinks Canadians, and in particular, Winnipeggers can learn more about cultural genocide and understand that it has happened here and continues to be an issue today.

“It gets you thinking about that relation to Canada and attempts to destroy Indigenous cultures,” he said. “It helps to show how and why there has been a genocide committed in our own country.”

Overall, Muller hopes people who visit the exhibit will empathize with groups who have been targets of genocide and groups that have been fractured because their identities were taken from them.

“I want people to appreciate the kind of alienation and distress that arises from having your culture stripped away,” he said. “I think that is an extraordinary lesson we need to learn.”

The Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery is located at 600 Shaftesbury Blvd at the south campus of Canadian Mennonite University.

The exhibit runs until March 4, 2017.