The Synagogue that lived for 21 years

You will find Calmeyer Street in the center of Oslo, in what is often called the Hausmann quarter. The street is marked by the last 30 years of immigration, seen in the Somali café, Kurdish club, Iraqi hairdresser, Vietnamese fabric store, Vietnamese restaurant, and a mosque. The religious aspect is also covered by several Islamic stores housed in 8, Calmeyer Street. At the end of the street the crowning glory is the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration.

100 years of immigration

It is not just recently that immigrants leave their mark on this part of town. More than 100 years ago Jews were the ones who settled in the Hausmann quarter and southern part of Grünerløkka. In 6, Calmeyer Street, for instance, where you find a Vietnamese restaurant today, shopkeeper Salomon David Selikowitz opened Calmeyer Street’s haberdashery in 1896.

There are few visible traces of the Jews in Calmeyer Street today, but if you go to the back yard of no. 15, you will see a worn two story building with large, curved windows. The building stands apart from the surrounding four storey apartment buildings from the 1890s. One can see that it once was a beautiful building, but it is not easy to imagine how beautiful it was on the inside. Right now not much indicates that the 90 year old building once was one of the capital’s two synagogues, though being used as such only for the first 21 years.

The Synagogue from 1921 to 1942

The cornerstone of the synagogue in 15, Calmeyer Street was placed on August 17, 1920. The synagogue was raised by The Israelite Community (DIM), which had broken with The Mosaic Community (DMT) and established its own congregation the winter of 1918. Among the members one could find people who had played leading roles in establishing DMT in 1892, but most of the members of DIM were poor, recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.

As early as 1918 the new community bought a four storey building in Calmeyer Street with four apartments. The building, which is still standing, had a vacant lot at the back and that was where they intended to build a synagogue. The building facing the street was to house the officials from the community. Buying the building and the empty lot, and building the synagogue was a very expensive undertaking for the small congregation.  The architect, Erik Fjeld, had to change the drawings several times to keep the cost down, but even so this was a heavy burden. Because most of the members were without personal fortune, most of the cost was covered by a few individuals. In addition to that, the congregation had to take out a heavy mortgage.

The synagogue is built in the Orthodox tradition with separate entries for women and men. In the main hall there was room for 200 men while the gallery could take 100 women. The interior was inspired by the large synagogue in Frankfurt am Main. The walls in the entry were richly decorated by the architect’s brother, Lars Fjeld (painter and decorator from Kragerø); he had also worked along with Edvard Munch in his Kragerø period. The journalist Odd Hølås of Oslo Aftenavis visited the synagogue in September 1925 and wrote:  “The synagogue is extremely beautiful. A small architectural masterpiece, and the preconception of the cultural level of the east side Jews crumbles here in this proudly towering synagogue.” Hølås’ illustration includes among others the strictly Orthodox rabbi Scholom Itzchak Lewithan. He strongly influenced the congregation and the synagogue. Lewithan remained with DIM for more than ten years, but returned to Lithuania in 1931 when the congregation no longer managed to pay a rabbi.

Life in the Synagogue

As opposed to the larger synagogue in Bergstien, the congregation in Calmeyer Street had its own rabbi the whole time, as well as a cantor, teacher and school room. In the 1920s it had a boys’ choir and the synagogue was open on a daily basis. There was, thus, a higher level of activity here in spite of fewer members than the sister synagogue had. Until the Jewish method of slaughter was prohibited in 1930, The Israelite Community also had its own schächter (butcher).

In 1939 it was decided to merge the two congregations. The large mortgage of the synagogue was probably the main reason The Israelite Community could not manage on its own in the long run. In the 30s the congregation had been forced to reduce its level of activities. The political situation in Europe may also have played a role; this was a period in time when standing together could be seen as a necessity. One of the conditions to the merger was that the synagogue in Calmeyer Street should be kept running. From 1939 both synagogues were kept running by DMT. The greatest hour of the Calmeyer Street synagogue was in 1938-1942. It was used as the main synagogue during the winter because it was easier to heat.

The Deportation

In the fall of 1942 both synagogues in Oslo were closed down by the Quisling regime in connection with the arresting and deportation of the Jews. All in all 772 Jews were deported from Norway. Only 34 survived. In total 19 people from 8 families in 15, Calmeyer Street were deported. The youngest was John Charles Moritz. He was murdered in Auschwitz, five years old. The synagogue in Calmeyer Street became a storage space and most of the furnishings were confiscated and disappeared –the synagogue would never again be used as originally intended.

After the War

When the Jewish refugees in Sweden and those few who had survived the deportation returned home in 1945, there were neither enough people nor enough money to uphold two synagogues. The synagogue in Bergstien was most intact and again it became the congregation’s synagogue. The main hall in the Calmeyer Street synagogue was rented out to various causes, but the offices in the building continued serving the Jewish Social Agency. The Agency had expanded in the post-war years, especially in connection with accepting the displaced persons

from camps in Germany (also called “replacement Jews” by the Norwegian government). After the Social Agency’s work  was reduced, 15, Calmeyer Street eventually lost its entire connection to Jewish life in Norway, even if the building was owned by DMT until 1981, when it was sold to a private individual. The building has been home to a veterinary clinic and a factory, a Kurdish cultural center, and a Koran school. But now the old synagogue is again filled with Jewish activities, which is of great importance to Oslo, the country’s Jews – and the history of Jews in Norway can be told and made accessible to the public.

Read more about the building’s history under the history of the museum.

Mats Tangestuen