The Life of the Synagogue

Glockengasse Synagogue, Cologne

Bronze medal obverse shows synagogue exterior
Synagoge zu Coeln eingeweiht am 29 August 1861
Bronze medal commemorating the dedication of the Glockengasse Synagogue, obverse

This bronze medal commemorates the dedication of the Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne on August 29, 1861. The synagogue’s construction was financed by the banker Abraham Oppenheim (1804–1878), whose father, Salomon Oppenheim, Jr., was among the first to relocate to Cologne after Jews were readmitted to the city in 1789 after being expelled in 1424. Abraham entered his father’s banking business and found success financing the German railway system, insurance associations, and the engineering and cotton industries. He was a confidant of Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797–1888), who in 1868 made Oppenheim the first unbaptized Jew to be ennobled in Prussia. 

The reverse of the medal shows the synagogue interior
Medal reverse

In keeping with his status, Oppenheim engaged Ernst Zwirner (1802–1861), lead architect of the Cologne Cathedral, to design the new synagogue. In this he followed Jewish tradition in Venice, Amsterdam, Vienna, and the United States, where Jewish congregations engaged the same leading architects as the local elite and prominent institutions. Zwirner’s Moorish design is an early example of a style adopted by many synagogues built in Central Europe in the mid-19th century.

Unlike the architect, the creator of the commemorative medal was a Jewish artist, renowned Belgian-Jewish medalist Jacques Weiner (1815–1899). Weiner focused on engraving the interiors and exteriors of great European monuments. The Glockengasse Synagogue medal is representative of his skill but not his subject matter; he almost exclusively engraved churches and cathedrals. Decorated with the Order of the Knights of Leopold and that of the Prussian Eagle during his lifetime, upon Weiner’s death, the King of Belgium sent his family an autographed letter of condolence and offered military honors at the funeral.

By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish community of Cologne had already expanded to the point that a second grand synagogue was required, leading to the construction of the Roonstrasse Synagogue, dedicated in 1899, approximately 100 years after Salomon Oppenheim’s arrival and Abraham Oppenheim’s birth in the city. The Glockengasse Synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. The site is now occupied by the Cologne Opera.