Switzerland / French-Speaking Switzerland

Geneva

Beth Yaakov Synagogue

Place de la Synagogue 11, 1204 Genève, Switzerland

Hekhal Haness Synagogue

Route de Malagnou 54TER, 1208 Genève

Communauté juive libérale de Genève – GIL

Route de Chêne 43, Genève, Suisse

Community Center of Geneva

Avenue Dumas 21, 1206 Genève, Switzerland

Place du Grand-Mézel

Place du Grand-Mézel, Genève, Suisse

Historic synagogue of Geneva. Photo by Jean Plançon

It seems that the Jewish presence in Geneva dates from the 13th century, mainly around the  Place du Grand-Mézel in the old town. The Jews were expelled from the city in 1490 and forbidden to stay there until the 19th century.

The Grand-Mézel was the oldest closed Jewish quarter in Europe, established in 1428 (88 years before the Venice ghetto). The old town is situated on a small hill, with the shopping streets on one side and the university and cultural buildings on the other. Coming down from the Grand-Mézel, 200m away you will find the historic synagogue of Geneva.

Reestablished in 1852 by Alsatian Jews, the Jewish community of Geneva was offered a plot of land by the city to build a synagogue as a sign of tolerance toward non-Protestant minorities.

Located at the Place de la Synagogue and combining eastern style with Polish characteristics, the  Beth Yaakov Synagogue was returned to its original colors in 1997: designed in 1857 by Jean-Henri Bachofen, it features a gray and pink-striped facade, four crenellated turrets crowned by domes, and a central dome topped with the Tablets of the Law. The interior (arches and dome) is predominantly light blue, while the stained-glass windows and paneling add to the vividness of the colors.

The University of Geneva was established in 1874, relatively late compared to other Swiss institutions. The urgent need to fill lecture halls unexpectedly benefited from the political upheavals in Eastern Europe. The very reactionary period of the Russian Empire forced many students to leave the country and find places at Western universities. This was especially motivating for women, who found free access to Geneva universities, a rare event at the time. Thus, Jews from the East, often from very modest conditions, made up more than half of the students in Geneva. Among them, Lina Stern, a world specialist in the brain and the first woman professor at the University of Geneva. But also Chaïm Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, who taught chemistry there and founded a publishing house. There he developed with other students the idea of what would become the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As well as many Zionist, communist and Bundist figures.

GIL synagogue. Photo by Romano1246 – Wikipedia

In the spirit of reconciling studies and manual labour, Aron Syngalowski established in 1943 in Geneva the provisional headquarters of the ORT (Organisation – Reconstruction – Labour), founded in 1880 in Russia to help needy Jews. This world headquarters remained in Switzerland until 1980.

The Heikhal Haness Synagogue, serving the Sephardic Jewish community, was built in 1970. This marble construction was needed in answer to changes in Geneva’s community, as Mediterranean Jews have now become the majority.

The GIL – Communauté juive libérale de Genève created by Rabbi François Garaï in 1970, gathers today about a third of Geneva’s Jews. It was the first synagogue in the french speaking world to have the girls read the Torah during their bat-mitsvah.

City known over the world for its diplomatic summits, Geneva inspired many writers, among them Romain Gary and Albert Cohen, diplomats themselves. A wonderful tribute to the city is shared in Albert Cohen’s novel Mangeclous when the Solal cousins stroll around the sights and parks and turn the UN upside down. 

Pierre Richard, Bernard Blier and other actors of the Movie Mangeclous based on Albert Cohen's book
Moshe Mizrahi’s movie Mangeclous (1988), adapting Albert Cohen’s book

Albert Cohen arrives in Geneva to pursue his studies. He became a Swiss citizen and was admitted to the Geneva bar. Following his elaboration of the passport for displaced persons, he will return to the city in 1947 to head the Protection Division of the IRO. Geneva will be the city where Cohen’s work confronts generations and discomforts between them. First of all, between him and his mother, who, like his character Solal, is ashamed of her origins and the characters who represent her too “loudly”. He will cry for these moments of shame in The Book of My Mother and will mock his own attitude in Mangeclous, the main character of this novel and who bears the same name causing a great commotion in the city and the highest UN authorities, by setting himself up as an emissary of the creation of the State of Israel.

The Community Center houses the Jewish main library, rich in several high quality scientific and artistic collections, as well as the Jardin Rose (Rose Garden) and a kosher restaurant. The Jewish Community Center also organizes many cultural events.

The Jewish population in 1900 consisted of 1100 people. In 2021, estimates suggest that there will be 6000.

Interview of Anita Halasz, Cultural Director of the Jewish Community of Geneva

 

Jguideeurope: And now a personal question, which place in Geneva, linked to Jewish heritage, has left a special mark?

Anita Halasz: Several, of course. The place in the Old City where the first strictly closed Jewish quarter in Europe is located is particularly interesting, because, contrary to what is often written in European historiography, the famous Venice Ghetto, created in 1516, was not the first of its kind in Europe. The primacy went back to the city of Geneva, which, 88 years before the Serenissima, and strictly applying the coercive provisions of the 1215 Lateran Council, created it in 1428, under the name “Cancel”. Let us also mention the Jewish cemetery of Veyrier, the only cemetery in the world that is crossed by a political border…

I would like to point out a particularly problematic aspect in Geneva: the authorities generally do very little to promote Geneva’s heritage, including local Jewish heritage. Thus, there are no commemorative plaques to guide the visitor, who is often forced to undertake research or hire a guide to link a given place to Jewish history or, more broadly, to Geneva’s history. The historian Jean Plançon and I founded the Geneva Jewish Heritage Association in order to make this rich heritage more accessible to the general public, notably through a website containing a wealth of information and regular newsletters.

 

You’re organizing a very important exhibit on the theme of “Hidden childhood” influenced by the case of Anne Frank. How did the idea for such a project emerge?

In 2018, the Liberal Jewish Community of Geneva and the Jewish Community of Geneva became interested in creating this event, inspired by the exhibit shown at the Jewish Museum of Basel, entitled “The Diary. How Otto Frank brought Anne’s Voice from Basel to the World”. The exhibition tells the story of the Frank family and the world-famous diary which has been published from Basel. Following the visit of this exhibition, we wanted to set up a project for the general public around Anne Frank, a universal figure, emblematic of childhood gone underground because of persecution. As the 30th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations (UN) of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child falls in 2019, we wanted to take advantage of this interesting anchoring in current events, particularly in the very international Geneva context. We then approached two partners in the commune of Cologny (canton of Geneva), namely the Centre Culturel du Manoir, which regularly organizes exhibitions on its premises, and the Martin Bodmer Foundation, which will present the “War and Peace” exhibition in parallel, in partnership with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It appeared very interesting to us to build bridges with this exhibition, especially in terms of cultural mediation. The Foundation will present a copy of the original edition of Anne Frank’s Diary as part of their exhibition.

This is how an enthusiastic team was born and an interesting network of partnerships developed. We have considered extending the theme to other examples of children who have gone into hiding as a result of persecution, from the time of the Huguenots to the present day, in order to raise public awareness of the mechanism of exclusion that has unfortunately been recurrent in history, and to encourage the public to examine them in the light of the fundamental articles of the International Declaration of the Rights of the Child (which will be reproduced in the exhibition); indeed, the adoption of the latter in 1959 represents the first major international consensus on the fundamental principles of children’s rights.

For the event to happen in Geneva, does it have a particular meaning?

Given the international nature and the fundamentally humanist vocation of the project, Geneva, the capital of international humanitarian law, seemed to us to be the ideal place to set it up. In fact, we are very grateful to all our generous sponsors, both public and private, who clearly share this opinion. But I would like to point out that this exhibition will be offered to other museums from 2020, so it will travel and reach other audiences.

 

The themes chosen and the public aimed show the importance of transmission. You mentioned the importance of explaining the mechanism which drives persecuted children to go underground. How do you share that?

The scenography will be based on three themes: “escape”, “hide”, “be taken”, which will be illustrated with photos, facsimiles of historical documents and personal objects. Articles from the Declaration of the Rights of the Child will be compared with each of the themes. Precarious materials will be used, such as cardboard walls, tents and tarpaulins to refer to the leak. The famous “Annex”, the place where Anne Frank and her relatives hid for more than two years, will be represented in the “hide” room to give an idea of the narrowness of the place. In the “being taken” room, we will recreate the illusion of a prison by means of panels that separate the visitor from the window, giving the impression that the latter is deprived of freedom.

In order to encourage the public to go further in their reflection, particular emphasis will be placed on cultural mediation activities for children and adolescents, in collaboration with the Department of Public Education (Ministry of Education of Geneva), the Geneva Association of Private Schools, as well as local Jewish schools. Guided tours will be organized for them, complemented by workshops, conferences, thematic readings and debates. A rich program of conferences, workshops and concerts will also be planned for the adult public.

 

Exhibit “Hidden Childhood – around Anne Frank’s Diary and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child”, 31 October 2019 through 21 January 2020 at Centre culturel du Manoir – place du Manoir 4, 1223 Cologny (Geneva) – complete program soon on www.comisra.chwww.gil.chhttp://ccmanoir.ch