Hitler's hub became my happy new home

A former Nazi hotbed may not be an ideal gap year destination, but Janine Fess explains how Jewish students can learn from a journey to the unknown


Leaving the UK for my year abroad in Germany, I knew relatively little about the area where I would be living. I soon learned that Bayreuth, a traditional Bavarian town, was once the home of composer Richard Wagner, the second home of Hitler, and, to my surprise, the site of possibly the oldest synagogue in Germany.

Since I arrived here, I have been touched by the warmth of Bayreuth's Jewish community.

The current shul dates back to 1715, when it was originally built as a theatre for the Markgraf Georg Wilhelm. In 1759, 10 Jewish families re-settled in Bayreuth - with just enough men for a minyan.

The gallery and structure of the then vacant theatre's main room suited a synagogue perfectly: the upper circle served as a majestic ladies' gallery and only went around the north, west and south walls, so that the eastern wall was already free to house the Ark facing towards Jerusalem.

Bayreuth offers a taste of modern Jewish life in Germany

All that was needed was to change the iconography and the décor in order to make it suitable for prayer.

Hitler's love affair with Wagner's music led Bayreuth to become a symbolic hub of the Third Reich. On Kristallnacht Jewish stores and homes were looted. The synagogue was vandalised, but it was not set alight due to fears that a fire might spread to the revered Margravial opera house next door.

Today's community of 500 is a lively and active one. When I first set foot in the shul in October I was greeted by all the familiar Friday night tunes and a rather cosy Shabbat dinner in the succah.

This communal dinner takes place every week. For many congregants from the former Soviet Union, this community is their family. Being far from home, I've certainly felt that way too - and have gained a few babushkas along the way. There's even a small circle of Jewish students at the Universität Bayreuth, where I study.

It takes commitment to keep the community going. There's no permanent rabbi, and so sometimes a rabbi from Vienna - a whole day's drive away - or a couple of yeshivah students from Frankfurt will travel to join the service.

Without a kosher butcher in Bayreuth, meat is delivered in huge communal orders from Vienna and frozen for months at a time.

German language classes are organised to aid integration, and excursions to sites with Jewish heritage take place throughout the year.

During renovation work in 2009, sacred texts and religious items dating back to the 18th century were found hidden within wooden beams in the shul's attic. Felix Gothart, the head of the community, wants to share this discovery and has ambitious plans for the future. Construction of a mikveh has started and will be followed by a refurbishment of the shul and the development of a Jewish museum.

Bayreuth offers beautiful surroundings and a university with an excellent reputation, along with a strong and supportive community steeped in history and full of life.

Janine, 21, studies law with German at Birmingham University. She is from Bushey, Hertfordshire

    Last updated: 7:12pm, May 10 2012