Temple Beth Israel applies for National Register of Historic Places

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Danielson - posted Mon., May. 6, 2013
Norman Berman and Joel Rosenberg hold an original design drawing for Temple Beth Israel. Photos by D. Coffey.
Norman Berman and Joel Rosenberg hold an original design drawing for Temple Beth Israel. Photos by D. Coffey.

Norman Berman remembers the first time his parents laughed. It was in the barely finished first floor of the Temple Beth Israel in the early 1950s. He was 4 or 5 years old, and it was a moment that has stayed with him ever since.

Berman brought that memory and a host of others to life when he and Joel Rosenberg gave a presentation to the Killingly Historical Society on May 4. The two men are part of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society, a group dedicated to preserving the historical, cultural, religious and social treasures embodied in the temple on Killingly Drive. They were in Killingly to update society members and the general public on the application for the temple to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Determining eligibility for inclusion on the register is an extensive process. The application ran more than 50 pages with accompanying sketches and photographs. It laid out in words, site plans and black and white pictures what the temple meant to a group of Holocaust survivors and the larger community which welcomed them in the years following WW II. Berman brought that history alive by sharing the story of his family, and his recollections of the early years of Temple Beth Israel.

For that group of survivors, the temple was more than a place of worship. It was the first tangible evidence that they belonged in the strange new world where they found themselves.

Berman's parents met in a displaced persons camp in Germany where more than 5,000 Jewish refugees lived in a space meant for 3,000. For eight years, his mother survived in the Vilna Ghetto where Jews were rounded up daily, shot and buried in mass graves in a local forest. She  spent time in three different labor camps before being liberated by the Russian Army in 1945. She made her way to Camp Fohrenwald, a camp run by the U.N and Red Cross.

Berman's father was inducted into the Russian Army at 17 to fight against the advancing German army. His parents and brothers were shot by locals sympathetic to the German occupation forces. When his unit disbanded, he spent years hiding in the forests. Eventually he made his way to Fohrenwald, where he met, courted and married Berman's mother.

Berman used his family's history to anchor the atrocities of WW II in a flesh-and-blood family that lived in northeastern Connecticut. He used his family as an example of how one small temple brought the remnants of a people back to life. He shared his memories as a memorial to those who went before him when they broke ground for a new temple and a new way of life.  

Berman's connection to the temple is deeply rooted not only for the past it helped shape, but for the promise it holds still. And that promise is represented in the architecture of the structure as well as the memories of those who used to worship there.

Built in a modernist style, the temple was designed by two Jewish architects active in Boston at the time. Its gabled roof, banks of windows, and mixture of concrete, wood and stone exterior are hallmarks of modernist design. Charged with satisfying both those of orthodox and conservative Judaism, the design had elements of a quintessentially American architecture. And those elements stressed the future.

The temple was among the first synagogues in Connecticut built largely by Holocaust survivors. It's no wonder that while the design was modernist, a space for a memorial was established for those who hadn't survived the terrible years leading up to and including WW II. A memorial space was built in the temple's foyer where plaques and memorials to the Holocaust could be presented.

The TBIPS expects to hear soon about the temple's historic designation. They intend to keep alive the spirit of those who founded it.

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