Great Synagogue in Pilsen celebrates 125th anniversary

Foto: Ondřej Tomšů

The Great Synagogue in the West Bohemian city of Pilsen is not only the biggest synagogue in the Czech Republic, but also the third biggest in the world, after the temples in Jerusalem and Budapest. This month, the monumental Moorish-Romanesque building celebrates 125 years of its existence.

Pilsen synagogue | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

The Pilsen synagogue, with a giant Star of David dominating the façade, officially opened its doors in 1893. The original design by Viennese architect Max Fleischer, featuring two 65-meter towers, had to be scaled down, since Pilsen residents feared it would be more captivating than the Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew on the city’s main square.

The richly decorated temple only served the city’s large Jewish community for 50 years before it was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. During the communist years the building was dilapidated by neglect. It was only restored to its former beauty in the late 1990s.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Pilsen-based photographer Radovan Kodera is one of the people involved in its rescue.

“The history of the synagogue reflected the history of the Jewish community not only in Pilsen but also in Central Europe. In its heyday, during the First Republic, some 2,500 to 3,000 members of the local Jewish community would gather there.

“After the war, when nearly the entire Jewish community was wiped out, just a few dozen people would attend the services. And then, during Communism, the services ceased altogether, so the synagogue was doomed to gradually dilapidate.”

Luckily, things took a turn for the better after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. In 1995, the Pilsen synagogue was proclaimed a National Cultural heritage monument, and in the late 1990s it went through an extensive and costly renovation.

“The renovation was really complicated because of the size of the synagogue. The floor plan of the building is that of a three-nave basilica, so it’s a really monumental building. It was in such a bad state that there were already beams falling out of the roof.”

Today, the Great Synagogue is mostly used for cultural events. Due to its excellent acoustics and a unique atmosphere, it serves as a concert and exhibition hall. Radovan Kodera again:

The Great Synagogue in Pilsen | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International
“Regular services don’t take place in the synagogue these days, because the Pilsen Jewish community doesn’t have a rabbi or a cantor. So today, services mostly take places in the Old Synagogue.

“There are altogether three synagogues in the city. The Old Synagogue located close to the city’s main square and next to it the Auxiliary synagogue, which serves as a Holocaust memorial.”

In the near future, the interior of the Great Synagogue as well as the nearby rabbi’s house are set to undergo another extensive renovation, largely financed by an EU subsidy. It will mainly involve the interior of the Synagogue, where the wall-paintings, and the organ, are in disrepair.

The renovation of the 19th century rabbinical house will include creating a visitors’ centre and also a small museum focused on the mikveh in the building’s basement. The project also envisages building a garden between the Great Synagogue and rabbinical house.