German researcher recreates Nazi-destroyed synagogues for VR
Around 1,400 synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis during the November pogroms in 1938. But they are being recreated virtually: A scientist at the German Technical University of Darmstadt has already reconstructed 25 synagogues for virtual reality.
“For many, the topic of synagogues is completely new,” says Marc Grellert, a doctor of engineering at Darmstadt Technical University. “Many are also unaware of how magnificent these buildings once looked.”
The architect has now digitally reconstructed 25 synagogues destroyed by the Nazis. For him, it’s clear: “As far as the feeling of really being present in a room, nothing beats virtual reality. By now, the technology is so good and so cheap that it’s relatively easy to do.”
Digital reconstruction through building plans, photos and eyewitnesses
Grellert is creating the digital models with students from the Digital Design department at TU Darmstadt. Three to four students work on a single synagogue for three semesters. In the process, they learn the technical know-how, but also a lot about Jewish culture in connection with the synagogues.
“It starts with finding sources,” Grellert says. “In many cases, fortunately, there are still building plans, sometimes photographs. Because they are black-and-white photos, the colors of the interior are unclear at first. Sometimes we are lucky and can track down contemporary witnesses who report from their own memories what a synagogue looked like inside.”
The team uses 3D Studio Max to create the models, add textures like wood or brick looks, and finally set the light. From where does the sun shine through the windows, how is the light reflected?
New life for almost forgotten cultural buildings
Those who then put on VR headsets take a short trip back in time. Inside the synagogue, viewers sit on a bench while rays of light fall through the windows from the side and choral music plays. By pressing a controller button, the viewer’s perspective changes to the gallery and opens up a view of the synagogue interior.
Grellert thus brings almost forgotten Jewish religion and culture back to virtual life. For example, the synagogue in Dortmund with its almost oriental-looking domes, the velvet-red walls of the former synagogue in Hanover, and a cross-shaped dome in Cologne with a blue night sky and stars that shines in brilliant colors.
The synagogue of Plauen looked surprisingly modern: in the Bauhaus style with green-blue whitewashed walls, it was only inaugurated in 1930 before Nazis destroyed it eight years later.
Exhibitions in Frankfurt and Erfurt: Rediscovering Jewish history with VR headsets
Since the end of 2021, it has been possible to view Grellert’s digital work in an exhibition. In the “Hochbunker” at Friedberger Anlage in Frankfurt am Main, the association “Initiative 9. November” has set up an exhibition.
Here, visitors can use the Meta Quest 2 VR headset to transport themselves to the Frankfurt Synagogue, which stood at this exact location. The experience is offered as a VR film, as the organizers would rather not overwhelm visitors with an interactive VR app.
People in Erfurt also learned about Grellert’s VR reconstruction and wanted to use the inspiration to recreate the Great Synagogue of Erfurt virtually. A team of employees from the University of Erfurt, the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt and the University of Jena built the 3D model.
Visitors can use VR headsets to view the building, which was destroyed in 1938, at no less than three locations in Erfurt: at the “Neue Synagoge,” at the “360 Grad Thuringia Digital Discover” exhibition in downtown Erfurt, and at the “Topf & Söhne” memorial site.
On a website, you can view the 3D model of the Great Synagogue of Erfurt in a web interface – but of course, this cannot be compared with a visit in virtual reality. The Jewish Community in Nuremberg has also shown interest in Grellert’s work and would like to present the virtual synagogues on site.
VR models as templates for 3D printing
Grellert takes advantage of another side effect of digital reconstruction: the 3D models can be printed from the computer into a physical model using the “rapid prototyping” method. In Kaiserslautern, one of Grellert’s models, made of plaster and open in cross-section, is already on display, allowing a look inside. The Jewish Museum in Berlin also already has four synagogue models on display.
Meanwhile, Dr.-Ing. Grellert is working on a new project: the digital reconstruction of the Jewish quarter in Cologne. There, a huge archaeological zone extends over an area of 6,000 square meters near the Rathausplatz. A new museum is planned here and the virtual synagogues will be a highlight of the exhibition.
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