The Judengasse in Frankfurt was once one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe. Today, its traces have been largely erased. The interdisciplinary project METAhub makes its remains accessible again, on site from April 13 - 30 and through digital practices.
How do architectural and digital spaces shape the way cultural heritage is engaged with in a city? And how does (post-)digital culture impact museums, their collections and their role in a public discourse? Such questions animate METAhub, an interdisciplinary collaboration that revolves around the material and immaterial heritage of the Judengasse, the former Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt. The Judengasse, located between what is now Konstablerwache and Börneplatz, was one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe. Today, its traces have been largely erased from the cityscape. METAhub brings together curators, researchers, artists, and performers to make its remains once again visible and tangible, on site and through digital practices. The festival “Mapping Memories – Judengasse Extended” presents the outcome of this collaboration from April 13 to 30, 2023.
For SchirnMAG, Johanna Laub speaks with Prof. Dr. Mirjam Wenzel, director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, and Israeli architect and researcher Meitar Tewel, about notions of remembrance and reconstruction, architectural interventions and post-digital formats.
METAhub brings together the Jewish Museum, the Archaeological Museum and the Künstler*innenhaus Mousonturm. How did this interdisciplinary cooperation between different cultural institutions in Frankfurt come about?
Mirjam Wenzel: Initially, the city’s secretariat of culture initiated a collaboration between the municipal museums of Frankfurt, which aimed to enable access to their digitized items across one online platform. Based on this process, the Jewish Museum strengthened its cooperation with the Archaeological Museum in order to bring together digitized items of Jewish cultural heritage from the area of the Börneplatz and the Judengasse. The site’s remnants are stored at the Archeological Museum, while knowledge of the Jewish history and culture, as well as the ceremonial objects and scripts, are being preserved by the Jewish Museum. Visual representations of the site are collected by the Historical Museum; documents by the Institute for Municipal History. These collections have recently been digitized and are now available on METAhub’s new online platform. The collaborative process that led to this website includes Künstler*innenhaus Mousonturm who added a rather experimental approach to the question: how do we enable the experience of a site-specific culture and its history, when all traces have been erased? The aim of our collaboration project METAhub is to bring the remnants of Jewish cultural heritage back to the sites, both digital and performative, in material as well as in immaterial ways. This then serves as a kind of intervention into public space raising awareness of the destruction and loss that underlies its contemporary appearance.
METAhub really grounds digital means of knowledge production within the urban architectural space. Could you tell us more about where the upcoming festival takes place and what significance this site has for the project?
Mirjam Wenzel: The project started in 2021 with the festival “Mapping Memories – Ver(antw)ortung Börneplatz”, on the site of the Börneplatz Memorial. It was dedicated to the Börneplatz Synagogue, which has a particular importance in Jewish cultural history. It was a focal point of what is known as the Jewish Renaissance movement from the beginning of the 20th century. Yet, in the public sphere, this history has been erased. On the contrary; every city employee can have his or her daily lunch in the cafeteria that is built directly on the site of the former synagogue. Our aim was to reflect on the heritage of the Börneplatz Synagogue and to reintroduce its importance, on the site itself.
This time, we dedicate our festival “Mapping Memories – Judengasse Extended” to the heritage of the first Jewish ghetto in Europe. Museum Judengasse presents the foundations of five houses from the ghetto, which were excavated during construction work of an administrative building in 1987. Yet, most of the material traces of the Judengasse remain beneath the ground of the Kurt-Schumacher-Straße and the street called An der Staufenmauer. With this year’s edition of the festival, we would like to raise awareness of the heritage hidden underneath the pavement and cobblestones. Only over the course of the project, did we realize that a vaulted cellar of the Judengasse still exists underneath one of the houses constructed in the 1950s. This cellar, dating back to the beginning of 19th century, will be accessible to the public for the first time.
It seems important to the Jewish Museum to not only use this platform to remember the history and culture of the Judengasse, but also to reactivate these remains for and together with the contemporary Jewish community.
Mirjam Wenzel: The Jewish Museum Frankfurt is not just a commemorative institution – we are always trying to redefine the relevance of Jewish spaces and their history, of historical places and their contemporary appearance by offering new approaches and building up new relations with people and their stories. For the METAhub festival in 2021, Künstler*innenhaus Mousonturm invited the Israeli artist Ariel Efraim Ashbel. He developed a series of performances reflecting upon what the heritage of Börneplatz synagogue means to him today. This series gained momentum with the celebration of his bar mitzvah at age 40 in the Westend synagogue over a weekend of joy and performances with his family and friends in Mousonturm. METAhub does not only aim at creating awareness of history. History is not the past. It shapes the present and how we perceive the city and the way we live together today. METAhub makes the past accessible while negotiating how we define ourselves in relation to the past and what it means for us today.
Meitar Tewel, your proposal for an architectural intervention for the coming “Mapping Memories” festival is the result of a long-term research process of about a year. From what perspective did you approach this project?
Meitar Tewel: My project “Neualtland” was carried out as my Master’s thesis at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft. Relocating to the Netherlands from Israel, I found myself fascinated by the persistence of some of the Jewish communities in Europe after the Holocaust. When starting to read about the Jewish history of Frankfurt and being exposed to the collections of the Jewish Museum, I noticed an almost unbearable gap between this very rich and elaborate culture, which developed into one of the most significant Jewish centers in Europe, and its absolute absence from the cityscape today. When you visit the historical site of the Judengasse, it looks like a completely ordinary, generic, postwar urban environment. This gap became the catalyst for my work: I try to negotiate between the different historic layers and to register memory by architectural means, while deliberately keeping it ordinary and non-monumental.
You have previously worked with the architect Alfred Jacoby, who is also an important figure for the Jewish community in this region. What did you learn in the course of your conversations with him and how did they accompany your experience in Frankfurt?
Meitar Tewel: During my Master’s studies, I took an elective, which explores postwar religious buildings with a secular twist through graphic novels. When looking for precedents, I found Alfred Jacoby’s synagogue in Darmstadt that he designed in 1988. My conversations with him about his work gave me a first glimpse into pre-war and post-war diasporic Jewish culture, which are often perceived as disconnected. While working on this current project, Alfred’s role became even more significant. When researching in archives for materials about the site of the Judengasse, I found that Alfred’s father, the architect and Jewish-Polish Holocaust survivor Ignaz Jakubowitz, designed one of the office buildings on the former site of Frankfurt’s destroyed Hauptsynagoge in the 1960s. This was a surprise to everyone, including Alfred. It’s not clear if Jakubowitz was aware of the history of this plot. But it reveals an unexplored connection between the historic and modern Jewish communities in Frankfurt.
Your architectural project has a very specific title, “Neualtland” (New Old Land), which you already used for the graphic novel on Alfred Jacoby’s synagogue construction. Can you elaborate what the title refers to and what you take it to mean in this specific context?
Meitar Tewel: It’s a reference to a canonical Zionist novel called “Altneuland” (The Old New Land, 1902), written by Theodor Herzl. This piece lays out a utopian vision of the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land, the Land of Israel. Relocating to the Netherlands, I thought this term can be reversed to refer to the communities who stayed in Europe or rebuilt themselves after the war. In Frankfurt, I felt the term “Neualtland” (New Old Land) holds onto two ends of its history: On the one side, the Judengasse with its very rich and complex history, and on the other, the new cityscape and the new cultural conditions. After starting to work here, I learnt about the Neue Altstadt (New Old Town), which I never directly referred to in my project. Still, it was interesting to see how different the approach was there in relation to what I am proposing. What I am trying to do is to allow the “Neu” and the “Alt” to coexist and to conduct a dialogue between them.
In what forms do you engage with the architectural and historical layers of this site, and where will we able to see your proposals?
Meitar Tewel: This is an architectural project on paper, meaning that it’s not intended to be constructed, but I’m open for suggestions (laughs). The proposed interventions are represented in physical models, drawings and other forms of visualization. They will be exhibited in the recently discovered cellar that we talked about before. This project will extend to the public space, where I will work alongside the local choreographer Fabrice Mazliah. On April 16th, we will be holding a field workshop together to temporarily demarcate the edges of the historic street in relation to the contemporary street. The public is welcome to join and to take part in this act of memory and recontextualization.
I would like to come back from the discussion of remembrance and reconstruction to the significance that digital spaces and practices hold for METAhub. Mirjam Wenzel, in another context you have spoken about the “post-digital” museum, which encompasses a change of attitude towards the museum’s relation with digital culture. Could you elaborate how METAhub ties into this idea of the post-digital?
Mirjam Wenzel: For me it’s an exemplary post-digital project. When it comes to the topic of digital transformation, museum directors in Germany tend to first talk about the need for funding and technological knowledge. I personally find other issues more relevant and important like for instance, the changes in attitudes, caused by institutions granting public access to their collections. The term “post-digital” was invented by Nicholas Negroponte in 1998. It emphasizes different aspects. First of all, on 24-hour-accessibility across the globe, which changes the way we perceive ourselves as physical institutions. It also includes an emphasis on the moment, the fact that digital experiences take place in the now. That is also why the combination of digital and performative contributions within the collaborative process of METAhub work so well – they both focus on the present. At the upcoming festival, there will be an installation by performance collective LIGNA that inscribes the past’s memory via sound into the public space. And there is the digital project “Unboxing Past” by Helgard Haug from Rimini Protokoll. She filmed the inventorying of the archeological findings and opened a digital space for people to reflect on this process. Within the framework of the festival, this reflection will also take place on site (as “Unboxing Past – Live”). It is important to me that in whatever we do in terms of digital projects, we always think about the impact and relevance on social and physical spaces.
This change of attitude towards digital culture, how does it affect the work within the museum, beyond having, for example, a department that is responsible for digital content?
Mirjam Wenzel: Developing a digital strategy in the museum doesn’t mean opening a new department. It means firstly enforcing the digital literacy amongst our colleagues, so that they embrace digital forms in their perception of what their work is about. This is also partially an issue of awareness. We are already sitting in front of the computer and using software all day long. For us, it’s very important in the Jewish Museum that whatever program we develop, we embrace digital forms of storytelling, be it on Social Media, in form of a blog article, a media guide tour or a project like METAhub. We are also constantly developing our collection strategy further and are collecting more and more born-digital objects. Currently, we are considering how to best collect and preserve internet communication. This is of particular importance when it comes to the field of contemporary Jewish life. How do we preserve the present, which is partially digital? How do we find the right forms to make it sustainable for future generations so that they can reflect on that specific historical moment, which is now?