Island artist Barney Zeitz is leaving on June 29 for his first trip to Germany, but he is not going for a vacation. Mr. Zeitz will be heading about two hours northeast of Frankfurt, to Flieden, population 9,000.
On March 4, 2015, Mr. Zeitz first heard from Marie Ariel of Cambridge. She explained, “In May 2013, I visited an Evangelical church in Flieden, Germany, because the building (trashed but not destroyed during Kristallnacht) had been the synagogue in which my father had his bar mitzvah.”
She said the pastor of the church, Pfarrer Holger Biehn, welcomed her and her friend Richard Olson, who lives in Edgartown, and told them the history of the building post-1938. “Later,” she told Mr. Zeitz, “I told him I had with me a photo of the interior of the building when it was a synagogue. Pastor Biehn was more than pleased, because he said they had no record of what the building looked like when it was a synagogue.”
Biehn had mentioned that his church would like to have a Jewish artist design and make some new stained glass windows for the building. “So, with some delay,” Ms. Ariel told Mr. Zeitz, she asked friends for suggestions. Pam Goff, who lives in Chilmark, suggested Barney Zeitz. Ms. Ariel looked at his website and forwarded the link to Pastor Biehn, who wrote back on Feb. 28, 2014, “Thank you for your help by finding an artist for our windows. I think Barney Zeitz makes some very interesting works and his style may be wonderful in our church.”
Ms. Ariel, about 70 years old, came to the Vineyard to visit Mr. Zeitz in his studio with her friend, a retired Lutheran minister. She loved his work, and they had a wonderful hour-and-a-half visit. She had Mr. Zeitz create a portfolio of 25 images of work he has created for Christian and Jewish places of worship. The pastor and committee members, along with a regional committee, looked at it to help them make their final decision. Mr. Zeitz says he understands that the pastor “really wants a connection to Jewish people, and has been reaching out to the Jewish community in Frankfurt.”
Although Mr. Zeitz’s own family came from Germany, he is not sure where. Mr. Zeitz has created stained glass windows and artworks for Jewish temples and churches, as well as memorials, museums, hospitals, nursing homes, and the Wang Center for Performing Arts in Boston. He is a master of stained glass techniques, including a fused technique that he created. He says he is intrigued by the project in Germany, and will visit the former synagogue which has housed Flieden’s Evangelical church since 1950, and meet with the pastor and other committee members, who are interested in commissioning Mr. Zeitz to create six stained glass windows to commemorate Flieden’s Jewish history, marrying that with other history.
According to Destroyed German Synagogues and Communities webpage, Flieden’s Jewish history began in the mid-1500s, and peaked in 1895. The church is actually housed in a newer synagogue, built in 1870. The windows Mr. Zeitz will create are one part of a larger restoration project for the church.
In a recent letter to Marie Ariel, Pastor Biehn wrote: “On 10th of November we had a memorial event in and in front of our church on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Pogrom Night (Kristallnacht). There were so many people that the room was full, and nearly 30 people had to stand outside. There were more people than in any other memorial event in the years before. I think there is a new interest about the history of our village, and there are less people who try to hush up these occurrences.”
In the photo Marie Ariel had of the synagogue, one could see that the mullioned windows were clear glass. Mr. Zeitz says he is already kicking ideas around in his head. While in Germany, he will take measurements, and determine whether the committee would like individual windows, or have all of them tied to a theme. The community there will have to raise the funds once he has a plan — the State Church will match any funds raised between July and November, 2015. “Then maybe we do a Kickstarter, and get people on this side of the ocean who care just like Marie Ariel did,” he said.
Mr. Zeitz says he has learned that the church wants to set an example in both Germany and Europe: “There are only six or seven churches in Germany that once were temples, and most have a small memorial plaque. But they want to make a statement. So I’ll go and sit in the space alone, and get a sense of what I think is appropriate. I might start designing as soon as I get back. I’m going there to pay to tribute to 500 years of Jewish life in Flieden.”
The Times will follow this story when Barney Zeitz returns.