“I have come to a dead end”, that is what Günter Rombey, mayor of the borough of Ehrenfeld concluded when he was doing research on how official ownership of the land in 93 – 101 Körnerstraße was transferred. After all, the Ehrenfeld Synagogue was situated on these premises until it was destroyed in the 1938 raids against all Jewish institutions by the Nazis. Afterwards the high-rise bunker was erected. He reports in detail how he was trying in vain to obtain information from various offices. It was only in a report by the architectural conservationists years later that the whole story was revealed.
In 1926 the plot of land was bought by the Jewish community to build a new synagogue. It was the renowned architect Robert Stern (*8/11/1885 in Cologne, d. 13/3/1964 in New York) who designed the new synagogue and redesigned the neighbouring building so that it could host a religious school for boys and girls. Robert Stern had designed various other buildings for the Jewish community in Cologne. On September 18, 1927 the building was officially inaugurated. It was only 11 years later in the night of November 9, 1938 that the building was burnt down in the pogroms. “The people in Körnerstraße were just standing by and watching”, an eye-witness reported.
In 1942 and 1943 the plot of land was sold to the state by the remaining Jewish institutions. The surrounding plots of land frequently changed owners – in one case the owners were dispossessed as they had become British citizens. It is due to this large number of changes in ownership and the ensuing confusion that it was believed right into the 1990ies that the high-rise bunker had been erected on the site of the former synagogue.
The erection of the high-rise bunker
It was a Führer immediate action programme that stipulated that bunkers had to be built by the cities and town councils in the country. However, the bunker in Körnerstraße was only built in 1942/43 after Cologne had suffered the first heavy losses in the air raids. As the bunker had to be built very quickly the architect Hans Schumacher decided not to build the bunker on the premises of the former synagogue as it would have taken too much time to remove the remains and the foundations of the old building. The high-rise bunker is a three storey detached building made of raw reinforced concrete with various architectural features. It could house up to 1,500 people.
Hans Schumacher had been involved in building houses in Cologne and after the war he built modern schools and was a member of the team who designed the new Archbishop’s Palace.
A listed building
In 1995 the bunker in Körnerstraße became a listed building. The reasoning for it was that the law claims that a building must be historic in the sense that it is representative for a certain time, which is definitely the case regarding the fact that it is closely linked to the destruction of the synagogue and the war started by Nazi Germany.
What to do with a high-rise bunker after the war?
The bunker was actually undamaged when the Allied forces entered Cologne. Thus it had served its purpose to protect the civilian population against the air raids. However, Ehrenfeld, just like vast parts of the city was severely damaged and the bunker served as shelter till ten years after the war. Whole families had to live in small units about the size of three beds without a ray of light. To grant some privacy thin walls were erected which were later pulled down again.
The federal government of Germany was still the owner and thus the building was renovated in 1962 for the first time. Little is known about the use of the bunker in the 1960ies and 70ies. Graffiti suggest that it was used to store furniture and to host studios for local bands. What is known is that the bunker was used for an art project in 1981 by Daniel Spoeri, a professor of Art. The central idea was to bring Art to unusual places, the Ehrenfeld bunker was one of them, even though there was only some dark blue light at the time.
In 1983/84 the bunker was yet again renovated to serve its original purpose to protect the civilian population in the times of the Cold War. It was in 1988 that a group of local politicians, citizens and the Catholic Church suggested that a memorial be erected to commemorate the pogroms against the Jewish population in Ehrenfeld and use it to educate people against racism, suppression and war. On September 1, 1989 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the German attack on Poland there was an art exhibition with various objects dealing with the issues named above. After some right-wing graffiti were found on the walls there was a huge banner saying “Ehrenfeld against violence and racism”. The percentage of people with a non-German background is actually 34.3 %. In 1991 there was an exhibition with drawings from children in the concentration camp Theresienstadt, which had previously only been shown in the USSR, Prague, Jerusalem and Frankfurt.
From then on there were various art exhibitions dealing with issues such as death, AIDS, radioactive contamination, the use of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and other forms of unbound violence.
In 2003 there was an abrupt end to all exhibitions as the fire brigade wanted to use the bunker as storage room. They also claimed that it was unsafe for people to be in the building. However, the bunker remained the focal point of memory. Every year a large group of citizens gather here to commemorate the destruction of the synagogue on November 9, 1939 and its numerous victims. From this place there is a procession to Bartolomäus-Schink-Straße where in 1944 24 forced labourers and some teenagers resisting Nazi ideology were hanged publically.
After some investments in 2007 at least the ground floor was again opened for exhibitions. In the following three years the site was frequently used for exhibitions until one morning in spring 2011 two civil servants from the federal government turned up in the borough mayor’s office and demanded the keys. When it became known that the bunker would yet again be closed to the public there was a public outcry and a group of artists collected signatures to preserve the bunker as a place of commemoration and art. A number of renowned citizens signed, among whom professors, former federal ministers and famous artists. The city council supported the claim but was unable to purchase the building from the federal government.
For this purpose an association was founded in October 2012. Its statute stipulates that the association supports local and international art. This aim is to be achieved by the presentation of contemporary art and other cultural events in the historic building of the Ehrenfeld high-rise bunker.