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Disappearing synagogue takes suburbia to task

World-renowned German artist Gregor Schneider has covered a synagogue near Cologne with the façade of a drab suburban house. But by hiding it, he challenges visitors to look more closely at history and memory.

"There's no way of getting there," an elderly woman with tiny white curls tells me on the train. She's talking about the synagogue in Stommeln, a small town northwest of Cologne. The synagogue is hidden just off the main street in a courtyard, 10 minutes on foot from the train station.

But getting to the synagogue is impossible at the moment. It has been replaced by a small, square, detached house labeled with the address "Hauptstrasse 85a." Hauptstrasse - or Main Street - 85a is the newest installation of the "Kunstprojekt Synagoge Stommeln." Since 1991, the local cultural department has invited an international artist to Stommeln every year to work on the synagogue. This year, it's German artist Gregor Schneider.

The arts project in Stommeln is rooted in the synagogue's history. It is the only synagogue in the Cologne region to have survived the Nazi regime. After World War I, the Jewish community in Stommeln diminished, with more and more members moving to central Cologne. The community finally sold the synagogue to a local farmer in 1937. Its new function as a storeroom ensured that the synagogue, which was built in 1882, survived the Night of Broken Glass pogrom in 1938.

Inaccessible normality

But now the synagogue has disappeared after all, leaving a bright yellow modern house with a white garage door in its place. It's the perfect picture of German suburbia, with a doorbell and mailbox reading simply, "Schneider."

The doorbell reading Schneider on Gregor Schneider's version of the synagogue in Stommeln, Copyright: Gregor Schneider / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The doorbell completes the picture of suburban idyll

Gregor Schneider is the artist who pulled the plaster over everyone's eyes. He built shiny, new façades around the aged, brown bricks of the synagogue, disguising it as a single-family home. Architectural elements are not unusual in Schneider's work. In his "Haus u r," the artist turned his childhood home into a strange labyrinth over years, building walls inside walls and nesting exact copies of rooms within the originals. The work created a sort of uncanny meta-reality, where doors open into nothingness or lead simply to new doors. He replicated parts of the work in the

German pavilion

for his prize-winning entry at the

Venice Biennale

in 2001.

Hauptsrasse 85a is hardly a labyrinth. It's a picture-perfect row house. Initially, seeing the house made me laugh. And then it made me curious to see the original synagogue beneath its façades.

But the house at Hauptstrasse 85a remains closed to visitors. The synagogue is completely sealed off from the outside world. You can run your hand along the bumpy plaster, pull at the garage door, and press your nose against the windows. But to no avail: The doors don't open and the windows have sliding curtains, which goad visitors with flowery lace that remains frustratingly untransparent.

Curiosity, bafflement or disappointment on the faces of visitors in Stommeln - Angelika Schallenberg has seen it all. In a café around the corner, Schallenberg, who heads the local culture department in the local suburb of Pülheim and has been in charge of the project since it started, explains that visitors come to the synagogue in Stommeln with "certain expectations" for the location or the artist.

The yellow facade of the new house covering the Stommeln synagogue, with the mailbox, the door, the window and the garage door, Copyright: Emily Sherwin / DW

The synagogue is still there - beneath the surface

The house on Hauptsrasse 85a is hardly likely to be what visitors came for. Usually the artistic projects at the synagogue in Stommeln deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, as Schallenberg explains. She invited the first artist to work on the synagogue in 1989. "No matter what they do, every little bit of nothing an artist places in the synagogue is immediately loaded with meaning," she says.

Enforced commemoration

"This is an arts project that is dedicated to memory," Schallenberg adds. "But the moment art becomes subservient to the purpose of commemoration, it's no longer art. It then quickly slips into the sphere of commemorative kitsch," she cautions.

But Schneider's work is certainly not commemorative kitsch. Instead, Schallenberg thinks the artist has "worked against the idea of institutionalized memorial sites as much as possible." After all, he is not only making fun of suburban small-mindedness by hiding his own work behind the disguise of provincial normality, he is also questioning the entire concept of Germany's institutionalized commemoration of the Holocaust.

The tip of the former synagogue's gable, where the Jewish star used to be, Copyright: Gregor Schneider / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The tip of the former synagogue's gable used to display the Star of David

A visitor who is unaware of the existence of the synagogue would never recognize the house as a Holocaust memorial. All the evidence pointing to the existence of the synagogue is gone. The signs leading there have been removed; the gate leading into the courtyard no longer features a Star of David or Hebrew lettering; the gable on the façade of the building also no longer bears a Jewish star. Only an empty circle remains.

As Schallenberg explains, in the period after World War II and into the 1970s, many synagogues were demolished or were converted and given a new, non-religious function. It is this "post-war German need to start over" that the artist is now imitating, according to Schallenberg. In this way, Schneider's Hauptstrasse 85a directly confronts the history of the synagogue and Germany's troublesome history.

Not so sorely missed?

For many of the residents of Stommeln, Schneider's artistic intentions have remained as invisible as the synagogue itself. There is a street market out on the main boulevard today, just around the corner. No one there seems to have noticed that the synagogue has vanished. "What project do you mean?" asks one vendor as she lays out potatoes on her vegetable stand. "I haven't looked at it, no. But I saw something about it on TV," she says and shrugs.

Just a few steps away, between a convenience store and a flower shop, the yellow house seems distant from the hubbub of the market stalls. In the quiet of the courtyard, I look up once again at Schneider's transformed synagogue, which organizers claim will remain a detached house indefinitely.

On second glance, some traces of the original building have remained: The roughcast façade may have covered the original synagogue's Jewish star, but not the unusual shape of the roof that once framed it. The synagogue isn't really gone - it's just not on display as a public memorial.

Instead Gregor Schneider calls on each individual visitor to take the time to look beyond a deceptively normal surface.

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