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How Cologne's Jewish community rebuilt after World War II

Stefan Dege
April 5, 2024

The oldest Jewish community in Germany took a step toward returning to normal life after the Holocaust 75 years ago. In 1949, a new synagogue was consecrated in Cologne.

A man seen from behind wearing a blue-and-white yarmulke. The people around him are out of focus. Cologne, June 6, 2019.
Today, Cologne has one of the largest Jewish communities in GermanyImage: Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance

Radiologist Michael Rado remembers well the no-frills prayer hall on the ground floor of Ottostrasse 85 in Cologne. There were fewer than 15 rows of seats for those praying, and a curtain separated the men's and women's areas. Rado had his bar mitzvah there as a 13-year-old, an important religious ritual for a Jewish boy, comparable to confirmation among Christians.

Today, Rado is 75 and co-chairman of Cologne's Jewish Synagogue Community, the oldest Jewish community in Germany.

A black-and-white photo of nine boys and girls of different ages standing with two adult men, one bare-headed and wearing glasses, the other wearing a hat.
After World War II, there was a revival of Jewish community life in Cologne. Seen here is a group of Jewish children posing with their rabbiImage: Privat

Seventy-five years ago, on April 6, 1949, the Jewish community in the city was reborn. The small house of worship on Ottostrasse was part of the former "Israelite Asylum," which was built around 1908 and originally included a hospital and a retirement home. 

A difficult new start after 1945

The Gestapo and SS, criminal units of the Nazi regime, deported the old and sick from the site in 1942, and bombs struck the complex.

More than 11,000 of Cologne's Jews died in the Nazi extermination camps. Following World War II and so soon after the systematic murder of millions of Jews, who was left in the Jewish community in Cologne?

"There were only a few. A handful," said Rado.

View of the small synagogue on Cologne's Ottostrasse, in black and white
The small synagogue on Cologne's Ottostrasse was later replaced by a larger synagogue on RoonstrasseImage: Kölner Synagogengemeinde

"Most of us had one foot out the door, psychologically," said Rado, whose parents left Germany in time, fleeing to what is now Israel. "It was clear to everyone this wasn't a place to stay forever," he added. "I grew up with that certainty."

Rado said this attitude persisted for a long time among Jews in Cologne. In 1952, when he was 7 years old, he returned to Germany with his parents.

Rado still has yellowed black-and-white photos from his family album. They show children playing soccer and a friendly, smiling rabbi with schoolchildren — memories of Jewish community life as it began to flourish on Ottostrasse and continued elsewhere later on.

Cologne's Jews have a turbulent history

That was because, as the congregation grew, its members decided to rebuild the synagogue on Roonstrasse, which the Nazis had burnt down. The house of worship was reopened on September 20, 1959, marking a new milestone in the 1,700-year history of the Cologne Jewish community, considered the oldest in Europe north of the Alps — and certainly the oldest in Germany.

Roman Emperor Constantine first mentioned a Jewish community in Cologne in an edict from the year 321, and Jews lived in Cologne until being expelled from the city in 1423. It wasn't until 1798, during the French occupation, that they were allowed to return.

View of the exterior of the Cologne synagogue on Roonstrasse.
The Cologne synagogue on Roonstrasse was rebuilt in a neo-Romanesque styleImage: DW/Weitz

Several synagogues were built in the subsequent years, including a large complex from 1861 on Glockengasse, near the famous perfumer 4711 — and finally, the Neo-Romanesque synagogue on Roonstrasse was built in 1899.

Until the start of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933, Cologne had the fifth-largest Jewish community in Germany, with some 18,000 members. But in 1938, all the city's synagogues and temples were plundered and set on fire.

Religious services among the ruins

In 1945, after the end of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany, Cologne's few surviving Jews initially congregated in the ruins on Roonstrasse, then in a prayer hall on Ottostrasse, and finally in the small synagogue.

Young members of the Jewish community present Pope Benedict XVI (r) with a shofar in Cologne on 19.08.2005.
Pope Benedict XVI visited the Jewish house of worship during World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A center with a hall, administrative wing, youth home, kindergarten and retirement home became part of the rebuilt synagogue on Roonstrasse. The project was supported by the chancellor at the time, Konrad Adenauer, a former mayor of Cologne removed from office by the Nazis. Financial support for the construction came from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Representatives from politics, the church and culture attended the opening in September 1959.

"Alongside the joy, there were certainly also the shadows of the past," the Domradio broadcaster quoted from the local bulletin at the time.

The rabbi at that time, Zvi Asaria, was quoted as saying: "The situation in Cologne at that time was by no means one that could be described as peaceful coexistence between Jewish and non-Jewish Cologne citizens. We are tolerated. That's all."

Michael Rado, co-chairman of the Jewish Synagogue Community Cologne
Michael Rado is co-chairman of the Jewish Synagogue Community CologneImage: Jüdische Synagogengemeinde Köln

The history of the Jewish community also includes a visit by Pope Benedict XVI during the 2005 Catholic World Youth Day in Cologne. Today, the city's Jewish community has around 5,000 members. "Some of them have the feeling again of needing to be ready to leave," said Rado, citing the growing threat of right-wing extremism and antisemitism.

However, half of the members are over 50 years old. There is little tendency among them to leave Germany for Israel. "I personally don't feel threatened," said Rado, "as long as this government protects the Jews sufficiently — and it does."

This article was originally written in German.