Berkach – Thuringia (English)

Location: Thuringia
About this community: Records from the 17th century document the earliest presence of Jews in Berkach, around 1626. From these sources we know that a Jew moved to Berkach during the Thirty Years War; more Jews followed soon after and settled in the village. Most of the Jews lived under the protection of the lords von Stein and initially resided in specified districts of Berkach, in Zehnthof and Hinterdorf. However, they were permitted to use the communal facilities of the village, such as the village outhouse and well. Jewish prayer services were held in private homes. Berkach Jews buried their dead in Kleinbardorf. Only in 1820 did the Jewish community purchase property to lay out its own cemetery east of Behrunger Landstrasse. It opened in 1846.
Until the first half of the 19th century, the number of Jews in Berkach steadily increased. In 1740, 12 Jewish families lived in Berkach and 32 in 1819. In 1833, the Jewish population numbered 152 Jews (33 percent of the town’s population). They initially traded cattle and goods (textile, wool). Around 1900, Jews owned several businesses in the village; there were also craftsmen among them.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish community established several institutions. In the 1740s, Berkach Jews rented a building which they called their "shul" (synagogue). In 1762, a synagogue was built; it was in use for almost 100 years. From 1850 to 1854, a new synagogue and a school building were constructed on Muehlfelder Strasse. The festive opening took place on June 1, 1854. The synagogue had a Torah ark housing six Torah scrolls.
The new Jewish elementary school next to the synagogue had 45 pupils registered around 1860. However, due to the declining number of Jewish children, the school had to be closed and was sold in 1898. Subsequently, the Jewish schoolchildren attended the local village school.
Initially, Berkach Jews operated three mikvot (ritual baths) in private homes. When the establishment of a new mikvah was officially demanded by the authorities, a new mikvah was sponsored by Samuel Isaak in 1838 and opened on today's Poststrasse.
The Jewish community employed a teacher who also served as shochet (kosher butcher) and chazzan (cantor). Very well-known was Hermann Ehrlich (1815-1879), the community's chazzan and teacher. He lived in the village and published a magazine for Jewish music. Today some of his works can be found in certain libraries, even in New York. Another much appreciated chazzan was Loew Friedmann (1818-1893). For nearly 30 years, he served the community as an auxiliary chazzan on the High Holidays and as the local chazzan's deputy. He passed away in 1893. The association Chewra Chasuk Emuna (Strength of Faith), founded in 1842, helped the local and non-local poor. The organization celebrated its 50th anniversary in October 1892.
From the 1870s, the number of Jewish residents decreased due to migration and emigration. In 1913, 37 Jews lived in Berkach and only 28 in 1924/25. At the time of the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933, approximately 20 Jews were still registered in Berkach.
On Pogrom Night in November 1938, the synagogue and other Jewish community buildings were not harmed or damaged. The synagogue and the school building were spared from arson by intervention of local residents. In the following year the buildings had to be sold to the municipality. The former synagogue was misused as a smithy and later as a warehouse. The Jewish cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis. Nine Jews were arrested and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp; one of them, Guthmann (Goetz) Friedmann, did not survive the ordeal. Ten Berkach Jews managed to flee from Nazi Germany and immigrate to Palestine, Australia, and the USA. In 1939, Lothar Goldschmidt, a community member, managed to save one of the six Torah scrolls which is now housed in a synagogue in New Jersey, USA. In 1942, the remaining Jews were deported to Theresienstadt, among them were Moritz Buxbaum, Ida Buxbaum née Sachs (1894), Dina Buxbaum (1927), Hans Kaufmann (1903), Helene Kaufmann, Salomon Stein, and Else Stein. At least 38 Berkach Jews perished in the Shoah.
After 1945, the ownership of the synagogue building changed a few times. It was first used as stables (Pferdestall) and from 1949 to 1989, as a blacksmith's shop, workshop and storage by the local LPG (Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft, an agricultural cooperative). In 1990, the Berkach's political community purchased the former synagogue building and had it thoroughly restored in 1990/91.
Today the names of Berkach's deported Jews mentioned above can be found on a wooden board in the vestibule of the renovated synagogue. In addition, the memorial plaque also commemorates the fate of the following Berkach Jews: Rosalie Friedmann, Rudolf and Rosa Goldschmidt and their son Hermann, Klara Gutmann, Hulda Hoffmann, Guthmann Friedmann and his daughter Resie Friedmann.
Sources: Kuestner, Eike: Juedische Kultur in Thueringen. Eine Spurensuche, Sutton Verlag, Erfurt, 2012. Schwierz, Israel: Zeugnisse juedischer Vergangenheit in Thueringen. Eine Dokumentation. Erfurt, 2007. Spector, Shmuel (ed.): The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, Yad Vashem and New York, University Press, 2001
Online sources: http://www.jüdische-gemeinden.de/index.php/home http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/19735 http://www.synagogen.info/ http://www.thueringen.info/berkach-juedische-synagoge-ber.html http://www.tlz.de/web/zgt/leben/detail/-/specific/Zu-Besuch-in-Berkach-Ein-Dorf-mit-reichem-juedischen-Erbe-321589307 http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/berkach_synagoge.htm http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/juedische_friedhoefe.htm http://www.grabfeld.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=154:juedische-geschichte-in-berkach&catid=37:geschichte&Itemid=68
Located in: Thuringia