The Great Synagogue of Pilsen reopens after three years of reconstruction

I spoke to Barbora Freund from the Jewish community of Pilsen to learn more about the history of the Great Synagogue and started by asking her what triggered its construction in 1888:

“The Jewish community began to grow exponentially after the reforms introduced by Josef II. Before that, Jews were not allowed to settle in Pilsen, but with these reforms, they were allowed to come back and build their homes here.

“I would say the biggest challenge was when they found out that the synagogue was not just big, but really huge!”

“First they built the old synagogue, but soon it wasn’t big enough for the growing community, so a plan was devised to build this big synagogue that could accommodate the entire Jewish community.

“The second reason was that the Jewish community was quite wealthy and it was a matter of pride. However, already at the time when it was built, it was, let’s say, oversized.

“At the time of the construction of the synagogue, the Jewish community of Pilsen had about 1,200 members and before the war it had about 3,000 members.

What do we know about the history of the synagogue? I know it was originally designed by a Viennese architect, but his plan was not used. Is it true that it was not approved because it would eclipse the local church?

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen |  Photo: Karolina Sedláková, Czech Radio

“I would say it’s more of an urban legend. The real reason Max Fleischer’s project didn’t go through was that it was just too expensive.

“Originally, the synagogue was supposed to be neo-Gothic and the towers were to be 65 meters high. But in the end, a different and cheaper plan was chosen.

And it is the Romano-Moorish conception that we can see today…

“Exactly. But I would like to add one thing regarding the original project. In fact, it has not disappeared completely. It was finally realized, albeit in a slightly modified and smaller version, in the town of České Budějovice. Unfortunately , this synagogue was demolished during World War II.

So, who was the author of the current design?

“It was Emanuel Klotz, who first collaborated with Max Fleischer. And why did he choose the Moorish-Romanesque style? It was because it was fashionable at the time. He was very typical at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that synagogues were built in the Romanesque style.

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen |  Photo: Ondřej Tomšů, Radio Prague International

“There are many examples, like the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest, which is the largest in Europe, or the Jerusalem and Spanish Synagogues in Prague. So it was just a fad at the time.

How come the synagogue in Pilsen was not demolished during World War II?

“Allow me to answer by turning the question around. Why should it be demolished? Pilsen was not part of the Sudetes. We were part of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Sudeten Synagogues were destroyed during Kristallnacht, but we weren’t busy at the time in Central Bohemia.

“So unless the synagogues were destroyed by the local fascists, which happened for example in České Budějovice, the synagogues in many regions managed to survive the Second World War. So it’s not such a miracle that it wasn’t demolished.

“I would say that the regime that followed, I mean the communist regime, did much more damage to Jewish buildings. But during World War II, the primary intention was to get rid of people, not to destroy buildings. Usually they were used as some sort of storage spaces or factories, which was also the case with the Great Synagogue.

I know that the last service was held in the synagogue in 1973. What happened to the building afterwards?

“Basically, they just let it happen, and it got damaged over time. There was some sort of plan to create a swimming pool or a market there, which luckily never happened.

“So the synagogue managed to survive the communist era and it was actually used for services throughout that time, not in the great nave of the synagogue, but in the so-called synagogue of winter, which is a smaller space to hold services at the back of the synagogue.

Over the past three years, the synagogue has undergone a major renovation. What was its main objective and what was the biggest challenge of the reconstruction?

“The synagogue has been restored twice, actually. The first renovation took place in the 1990s, when the exterior of the building was done. This time, the renovations focused on the interior, including all the frescoes and the Aron Kodesh, which is the shrine where the Torah scroll is stored.

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen |  Photo: Martina Klimova, Czech Radio

“I would say the biggest challenge was when they found out that the synagogue was not just big, but really huge! So it turned out during the renovation that there was not enough time.

“Covid presented another challenge. Many workers couldn’t be there because they were sick or in quarantine, so work didn’t go according to the original schedule.

“And of course the whole point of rebuilding the building was to restore its shine and restore its dignity.”

The synagogue opened on Sunday with a Torah scroll carried inside under a velvet canopy. Can you tell us more about the scroll itself? I know it’s the biggest scroll in Pilsen, but you only recently found out that it’s not from Pilsen. How did you discover it and what do we know about it?

“For me, it was definitely the highlight of the reopening. There was a lot of work behind the Torah scroll. It all started two years ago, when we announced a fundraising campaign for its decoration. In meanwhile, we tried to find out something about its history.

“Our final theory is that the Torah scroll likely arrived with the US armed forces after World War II as they were liberating Pilsen.

“There was a gift written at the bottom of the wooden stick that holds the Torah scroll, but it was not visible. So we tried to find someone who would be able to decipher the letters and we succeeded. This is how we found the names of these people and even their photographs.

“What’s interesting is that we always thought the Torah came from Pilsen, but in fact these people came from Straubing in Bavaria. Thus, the Torah scroll was definitely dedicated to the Straubing synagogue.

How long has it been in Pilsen?

“The Torah scroll is in very poor condition, so we don’t read it. We have other scrolls that we read. And we don’t even know how the Torah scroll got to Pilsen. We had several theories, but it looks like we’re finally on the right track to find out.

“So our final theory is that the Torah scroll probably arrived with the US armed forces after WWII as they were liberating Pilsen. It’s not confirmed yet, but it all points to it.

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen |  Photo: Martina Klimova, Czech Radio

It almost sounds like a detective story…

“Oh, that was definitely it!”

You also mentioned the fundraising campaign for new ornaments to adorn the Torah. Who was responsible for the design?

“It was artist and designer Petr Vogel, along with Jiří Urban, who is one of the most famous Czech jewelers. They had been working there for about a year and the design is inspired by the design of the Great Synagogue. It is really beautiful and it really shines with glory.

So if I understand correctly, the Great Synagogue has served as a place of worship more or less continuously since its construction…

“More or less. Of course it was not used in World War II and during communism it was not used regularly. Today we plan to maintain regular services, but only in the winter part of the synagogue The synagogue is too big for today’s Jewish community in Pilsen and the surrounding area.

So how big is the Jewish community in and around Pilsen these days?

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen |  Photo: Martina Klimova, Czech Radio

“For the whole Pilsen region, which for example also includes the city of České Budějovice, it’s 106, so of course the community is very small.”

The synagogue is also open to the general public. It serves as a concert hall and exhibition hall. Is there an exhibition going on right now?

“There are actually two exhibits. The first is a permanent exhibition by photographer Radovan Kodera entitled “Jews used to live here. This is an interactive exhibit housed in old televisions that features more than 1,800 photos of Jewish landmarks in the Pilsen region, past and present. It’s very interesting to see how time has passed.

“The permanent exhibition is installed upstairs on the women’s gallery. The lower room is used for temporary exhibitions and currently features an exhibition by Jindřich Buxbaum, a member of the Jewish community of Olomouc, entitled Seven Blessings.

Finally, why should people make the trip to Pilsen and visit the Great Synagogue?

“Because it’s one of the highlights of Pilsen and it’s really monumental and beautiful. For me, it is very moving that it has finally reopened. And I think its name, the Great Synagogue, doesn’t just refer to its size, it’s really awesome!

Berta D. Wells