VR and Jewish Culture: Almost Reconstructed Destroyed Synagogues

VR and Jewish Culture: Almost Reconstructed Destroyed Synagogues

Photo: Mark Gellert, University of Darmstadt

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The Nazis destroyed about 1,400 synagogues during the November 1938 pogroms. But they were recreated virtually: a scientist from TU Darmstadt has already reconstructed 25 synagogues for virtual reality.

“For many, the topic of temples is a completely new topic,” says Mark Grellert, a doctor of engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt. “A lot of people don’t know how cool these buildings once were.” The architect has now digitally reconstructed 25 synagogues destroyed by the Nazis. It is clear to him: “As far as the feeling of being physically present in the room is concerned, nothing beats virtual reality. The technology now is so good and so inexpensive that it is relatively easy to do.”

Digital reconstruction using diagrams, photos, and contemporary witnesses

Grellert created digital models with students from the Department of Digital Design at TU Darmstadt. Three to four students work in one synagogue for three semesters. They learn technical knowledge, but they also learn a lot about Jewish culture in relation to synagogues.

“He starts looking for sources,” Grellert says. “Fortunately, in many cases there are still charts, sometimes photographs as well. Since these are black and white photos, the interior colors are blurred at first. Sometimes we are lucky and we can track down eyewitnesses who relay from their memories what it was like inside a synagogue Jew.” With 3D Studio Max, models are created, textures like wood or bricks added, and eventually the light is set. Where does the sun shine through the windows, how does the light reflect?

New life for semi-forgotten cultural buildings

Anyone who wears VR glasses next takes a small trip back in time. Inside the synagogue, spectators sit on a bench as rays of light fall through the windows from the side and the sounds of choral singing. Pressing the console button changes your perspective of the gallery and opens a view inside the synagogue.

A view inside the Dortmund synagogue, reconstructed for virtual reality

Inside the Dortmund Synagogue: The ruined Jewish culture and history are brought to life thanks to VR. | Photo: Mark Gellert, University of Darmstadt

Grellert brings forgotten Jewish religion and culture back to virtual life. For example, the Dortmund Synagogue with its semi-oriental dome, the red velvet walls of the former synagogue in Hanover, a cross-dome in Cologne that sparkles in bright colors with a blue night sky and stars. The synagogue in Plauen looked surprisingly modern: Bauhaus-style with green and blue walls, it opened in 1930 before it was destroyed by the Nazis eight years later.

Exhibitions in Frankfurt and Erfurt: Rediscover Jewish history with virtual reality glasses

Grellert’s digital work has been on display in an exhibition since the end of 2021. In the towering dugout of the Friedberger Anlage in Frankfurt am Main, the Frankfurt Jewish Museum and the association “9. November “hold an exhibition. Using the Meta Quest 2 VR glasses, visitors could be taken to the Frankfurt Synagogue, which was located at this exact location. The experience is presented as a VR movie where the organizers do not want to confuse visitors with an interactive VR application.

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Grellert’s VR reconstruction was also discovered in Erfurt and they wanted to use the inspiration to virtually recreate the Great Synagogue of Erfurt. A team of staff from the University of Erfurt, the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt and the University of Jena built the 3D model. Visitors can view the building destroyed in 1938 using virtual reality glasses at three locations in Erfurt: in the “New Synagogue”, at the “360 Degrees Thüringen Digital Discover” gallery in downtown Erfurt and at the “Pot & Sons” memorial site.

On a website you can view a 3D model of the Great Synagogue in Erfurt in a web interface – but of course it can’t be compared to a virtual reality visit. The Jewish religious community of Nuremberg has also shown an interest in this type of knowledge transfer and wishes to offer virtual synagogues on the site.

Virtual reality models as templates for 3D printing and other anti-oblivion projects

Grellert uses another side effect of digital reconstruction: 3D models can be printed from a computer as a physical model using the “rapid prototyping” method. One of the models of Grellert, made of plaster and cross-section, is already open in Kaiserslautern, which allows for a peek inside. The Jewish Museum in Berlin displays four synagogue models.

Benches at the Plauen Synagogue Gallery in virtual reality, interior view with benches and altar

View from the gallery of the reconstructed Ploen Synagogue in virtual reality. | Photo: Mark Gellert, University of Darmstadt

Dr. Eng. Grellert is now working on a new project: the digital reconstruction of the Cologne ghetto. There, near the Town Hall Square, is a huge archaeological area covering an area of ​​6000 square meters. A new museum is planned here and the virtual synagogues will be the highlight of the exhibition.


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