‘Invisible synagogues’: Czech photographer captures blank spaces where Jewish houses of worship once stood


A century ago, some 400 synagogues stood in what is today the Czech Republic. Scores were destroyed in the lead-up to the Second World War, after Nazi Germany occupied the Sudetenland border region, and scores more during the conflict itself. Even more disappeared under the decades of communist rule that followed. A unique project by the Pardubice-based photographer Štěpán Bartoš, entitled Invisible Synagogues, seeks to document all the “blank spaces” left behind.

“I had done some work in the past related to the mapping of Jewish architectural monuments in the Pardubice and Hradec Králové regions. During that research, I found that there were many ‘blank spaces’ left.

“While many have been preserved, such as the synagogue in nearby Heřmanův Městec, there are many more spaces where a synagogue once stood. I wanted to take photos where something was missing.”

Behind every synagogue gone missing in the Czech lands is a story. Photographer Štěpán Bartoš has set out to document the fate of them all through his Invisible Synagogues project.

Františkovy Lázně | Photo: Štěpán Bartoš

So far, he has visited more than 150 places in Bohemia where synagogues once stood and next year plans to continue his work in Moravia.

Many Jewish houses of worship, he notes, were singled out for deliberate destruction at the hands of the Nazis and local sympathisers, along with entire communities who once prayed in them.

Many fell into disrepair after the Jewish communities themselves disappeared – in the case of the border lands, along with the Sudeten German population, who were expelled after the war.

České Budějovice | Photo: Štěpán Bartoš

Others synagogues were razed – not out of hatred but rather indifference, or in the name of progress – as the communist authorities worked to ‘build socialism’ in Czechoslovakia. Regardless of the intent, the two totalitarian regimes must share the blame, says Štěpán Bartoš.

“The destruction in the socialist era had no ideological framework. This was the normal barbarism of the regime, which often razes entire neighbourhoods. You would never guess that a synagogue once stood there.

“In Pardubice, for example, the synagogue was not demolished until the early 1960s. In its place grew the so-called House of Services. Next to it, there used to be a Jewish school, opposite the equestrian barracks, while across the crossroads stood the Veselka Hotel. ”

Kardašova Řečice | Photo: Štěpán Bartoš

Štěpán Bartoš’s project changed in scope and form as he began photographing the sites. At first, he says, he thought he would take pictures of “blank spaces” and let the emptiness speak for itself.

“I didn’t want to do one of those ‘then-and-now’ comparisons, which are so common. But I came to realise that the absence of these buildings is such a scar on the faces of cities.

“So, I made large prints onto which are engraved, so to speak, with the outlines of the former synagogues, on an approximate scale.”

An exhibition of Štěpán Bartoš’s work so far on his ‘Invisible synagogues’ project opens this Monday evening at the Exil Theatre in Pardubice. The prints are now also on display at Galerie nEUROPA in Dresden, as well as outdoors, at some of the actual “blank spaces”.

Mirotice | Photo: Štěpán Bartoš
Authors: Brian Kenety , Jakub Maly
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