Pilsen’s Great Synagogue re-opens after three-year reconstruction

Pilsen synagogue, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The Great Synagogue in Pilsen, has opened its door to the public after a three-year renovation. The monumental building, which is the second biggest synagogue in Europe and one of the five biggest in the world, opened last Sunday, just a few days before the start of Passover, with a Torah scroll being carried inside under a velvet canopy.

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

“The Jewish community started 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 houses here.

“I would say that the biggest challenge was when they discovered that the synagogue wasn’t just big, but that it was seriously huge!”

“First, they built the Old Synagogue, but it soon wasn’t big enough for the growing community, so a plan was conceived to build this big synagogue that would accommodate the whole Jewish community.

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

“At the time when the synagogue was built, the Pilsen Jewish community had around 1,200 members and before the war, it had around 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 wasn’t used. Is it true that it wasn’t approved because it would outshine the local church?

The Great Synagogue in Pilsen | Photo: Karolína Sedláková,  Czech Radio

“I would say that this is more of an urban legend. The real reason why the project of Max Fleischer wasn’t carried out was that it was simply too expensive.

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

And that’s the Moorish-Romanesque design that we can see today…

“Exactly. But I would like to say one more thing concerning the original project. It actually didn’t completely disappear. It was eventually carried out, although in a slightly modified and smaller version, in the town of České Budějovice. Unfortunately, that synagogue was torn down during the Second World War.”

So who was the author of the current design?

“It was Emanuel Klotz, who originally co-worked with Max Fleischer. And why did he choose the Moorish-Romanesque style? That’s because it was in fashion at the time. It was very typical for the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries for synagogues to be built in the Romanesque style.

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

“There are many examples, such as the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest, which is the largest one in Europe, or the Jerusalem and Spanish synagogues in Prague. So it was simply a fashion at the time.”

How come the Pilsen synagogue wasn’t torn down during WWII?

“Let me answer by turning the question around. Why should it be torn down? Pilsen was not part of the Sudetenland. We were part of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia. Synagogues in the Sudetenland were destroyed during Kristallnacht, but we weren’t occupied at the time in Central Bohemia.

“So unless the synagogues weren’t destroyed by the local Fascists, which happened for instance in České Budějovice, synagogues in many regions managed to survive the Second World War. So it isn’t such a miracle that it wasn’t torn down.

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

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

“Basically, they just let it be, and it was damaged by time. There was some kind of a plan to create a swimming pool or a market there, which was fortunately never carried out.

“So the synagogue managed to survive through the Communist time and it was actually used for the services throughout the whole time, not in the big nave of the synagogue, but in the so-called Winter Synagogue, which is a smaller space for holding the services in the back of the synagogue.”

Over the past three years, the synagogue has been undergoing an extensive renovation. What was its main aim and what was the biggest challenge of the reconstruction?

“The synagogue was restored twice, actually. The first renovation took place in the 1990s, when the outside of the building was done. This time, the renovation work focused on the interior, including all the frescoes and the Aron Kodesh, which is the sanctuary where we store the Torah scroll.

The Great Synagogue in Pilsen | Photo: Martina Klímová,  Czech Radio

“I would say that the biggest challenge was when they discovered that the synagogue wasn’t just big, but that it was seriously huge! So it turned out during the renovation that there wasn’t enough time.

“Covid presented another challenge. Many of the workers weren’t able to be there because they were sick or in quarantine so the works didn’t go according to the original time plan.

“And of course the aim of the reconstruction of the building was to give it back its glow and give it back its dignity.”

The synagogue opened on Sunday with a Torah scroll being carried inside under a velvet canopy. Can you tell us more about the scroll itself? I know it is the biggest scroll in Pilsen, but you have only recently discovered that it actually doesn’t come from Pilsen. How did you find out and what do we know about it?

“For me, this was definitely the highlight of the re-opening. There was a lot of work done behind the Torah scroll. It started two years ago, when we announced a fundraising campaign for its decoration. In the meantime, we tried to find out something about its history.

“Our last theory is that the Torah scroll most likely got here with the American Armed Forces after the Second World War as they were liberating Pilsen.

“There was a donation written on the bottom of the wooden stick which holds the Torah scroll, but it wasn’t visible. So we tried to find someone who would be able to decipher the letters and we succeeded. That’s how we found the names of these people and even their photographs.

“What is interesting is that we have always thought that the Torah came from Pilsen, but actually these people came from Straubing in Bavaria. So the Torah scroll was definitely dedicated to the synagogue in Straubing.

How long has it been in Pilsen?

“The Torah scroll is in a very bad condition, so we actually do not read from it. We have other scrolls we read from. And we are not even sure how the Torah scroll got to Pilsen. We had several theories, but it seems that we are finally we are finally on track to finding out.

“So our last theory is that the Torah scroll most likely got here with the American Armed Forces after the Second World War as they were liberating Pilsen. It is not yet confirmed, but everything leads to it.”

The Great Synagogue in Pilsen | Photo: Martina Klímová,  Czech Radio

It sounds almost like a detective story…

“Oh, it definitely it was!”

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

“It was the artist and designer Petr Vogel, along with Jiří Urban, who is one of the most famous Czech jewellery maker. They were working on it 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 it correctly, the great Synagogue was used as a place of worship more or less continuously since it was built…

“More or less. Of course it wasn’t used during the Second World War and during Communism it wasn’t used regularly. Nowadays we plan to keep regular services, but only in the winter part of the synagogue. The synagogue is too big for today’s Jewish community in Pilsen and in the surrounding area.”

So how large is the Jewish community in Pilsen and in the surrounding area these days?

The Great Synagogue in Pilsen | Photo: Martina Klímová,  Czech Radio

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

The synagogue is also open to the general public. It serves as a concert and an exposition hall. Is there any exhibition on display at the moment?

“There are actually two exhibitions. The first one is a permanent exhibition by photographer Radovan Kodera called “Jews used to Live Here. It is an interactive exposition installed in old television sets and it features over 1,800 photos of Jewish monuments in the Pilsen region, both in the past and present. It is very interesting to see how the time went by.”

“The permanent exposition is installed on the upstairs on the female gallery. The downstairs hall is used for temporary exhibits and it currently features an exhibition by Jindřich Buxbaum, who is a member of the Jewish community in Olomouc, called Seven Blessings.”

Finally, why should people make the journey to Pilsen and visit the great Synagogue?

“Because it is one of the dominants of Pilsen and it is really monumental and beautiful. For me it is very emotional that it has finally reopened. And I think its name, the Great Synagogue, doesn’t only refer to it size, it really is great!”