International Survey of Jewish Monuments

The Reconstruction of Synagogues and Jewish Cemeteries in the Czech Republic
by Dr. Arno Parik, Jewish Museum of Prague

The following report was delivered by Dr. Parik at the International Conference, The Jewish Patrimony in Europe, held in Paris, January 1999,  sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture--ed.

The specific nature of the conditions governing the existence of Jewish communities the discrimination ensuing from religious, economic and political factors, the limitations imposed on the construction of synagogues and residential buildings and the frequent change in or demise of settlements - is the main reason why many Jewish monuments disappeared throughout history without a trace. It happened in the Middle Ages, after the banishment of Jews from towns in the 15th and 16th centuries, and even after the departure of Jews from the small rural communities after 1848. Most Jewish monuments, however, were destroyed during the Nazi occupation and during the 40-year Communist regime. During this time Jewish monuments received only a minimum of care - in fact they were often deliberately destroyed for no reason at all. It wasn't until after November 1989 that it became possible for the first time in history to set about the systematic documentation and preservation of Jewish monuments.

Jewish monuments in the Czech Republic are in the possession of 10 Jewish communities, although some belong to municipalities, societies, organizations and Protestant churches. A significant number of Prague monuments have been entrusted by the Prague Jewish Community into the care of the Jewish Museum, which was returned to Jewish administration in 1994. It immediately set to work on the renovation of the most prominent historical buildings. The first to be reconstructed was the Maisel Synagogue (1592) in 1995, followed by the Baroque Klausen Synagogue (1694) in 1996. The same year saw the completed renovation of the Memorial to the almost 80,000 Czech victims of the Holocaust in the Pinkas Synagogue (1535). The names of all the victims were again inscribed on the walls of this house of prayer, which is the second oldest in Prague. The beginning of 1998 saw the completed renovation of the Ceremonial Hall (1908) of the Prague Burial Society by the Old Jewish Cemetery and November saw the reopening after 16 years of the newly restored Spanish Synagogue (1868). All these buildings now house new permanent exhibitions which place the preserved artifacts into a Jewish historical and spiritual context. Also completed in 1997 was the reconstruction of the provincial synagogue in Golcuv Jenikov (1871), which is used as a depository. Work is now being done on the reconstruction of the synagogue in Brandys nad Labern (1787/1828), which is intended for use as a storage for the museum's archive collections. In 1999 the museum is planning the reconstruction of the modern annex to the Spanish Synagogue, which is to be the new museum center next year. Also being planned is the overall reconstruction of the Smichov Synagogue (1863/1931).

The Jewish Museum is also responsible for the restoration of tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague. In 1994 a specialist committee was set up (consisting of representatives from the Prague Institute for Monument Conservation, restorers, technologists and historians) to establish the way restoration work should proceed. All stone surfaces were cleaned, conserved and divided into two categories: those requiring immediate conservation and those intended for restoration. About 40 tombstones are conserved and about 50 are restored each year. This program of restoration and conservation of tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery is to continue into the future. In 1997 a seminar was held by the Jewish Museum on the preservation of Jewish cemeteries. This dealt with issues relating to technology, conservation and cultural history. While reconstruction work was being carried out in late 1997 in the cellar of an old house in Prague's New Town, a discovery was made of a large number of fragments of mostly 14th century tombstones from the oldest Jewish cemetery of Prague.

Since 1990 the Jewish Museum has also being carrying out a systematic documentation of Jewish Monuments in the Czech Republic, including the gathering of  archive data and information on Jewish settlements. This documentation is being carried out in co-operation with the Jewish Heritage Council and was partly published in 1995. A brief compilation of data that had been gathered earlier by Jin Fiedler was published in the book "Jewish Monuments of Bohemia and Moravia" (1991). The archive is currently being digitalised and supplemented by findings made in other archive reports and all kind of sources. However, it already constitutes a comprehensive basis for a future encyclopedia covering approximately 600   Jewish communities and including data on settlements, synagogues, houses of prayer and cemeteries that belong to Jewish communities. At present extended entries on Jewish settlements by Jin Fiedler are being added to the five-part encyclopedia "Towns and hamlets in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia". So far three volumes. have come out in Prague since 1996.

On the basis of the above documentation it is now possible to form a relatively clear idea as to the amount and the condition of Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and community/residential buildings. Throughout the last thousand years there have emerged over 600 Jewish communities in what is now the Czech Republic. Most of these historical Jewish communities lived in connected residential districts, ghettos and Jewish quarters/streets. Places with older and larger Jewish communities in particular included over 300 such housing areas , about 100 of which have survived at least in part to this day. These natural groups of Jewish monuments also suffered the heaviest losses. Most of the former ghettos were pulled down after emancipation and converted in the post-war period. Reconstruction projects can only be influenced indirectly by means of co-operation with local authorities and monument, preservation centers.  The towns in Moravia that are attempting to preserve the original characters of these urban units include Trebic, Boskovice, Mikulov and Velke Mezirici and in Bohemia they include Kolin, Polna, Breznice and Harmanuv Mestec.

100 years ago there were around 400 synagogues in what is now the Czech Republic. Even in the pre-war period about 50 synagogues in small rural communities were either demolished or converted for residential purposes.  During the Nazi occupation at least 35 synagogues were set fire to and demolished in the border areas, which had been occupied since October 1938. During the remainder of the war at least a further 25 synagogues were destroyed - mostly prominent contemporary buildings notable for their size, location and decoration. During the Communist Regime almost 100 synagogues were demolished.  Some were condemned due to unsound structural conditions, some had to give way to modern developments but many were demolished for no reason at all. There are now approximately 200 synagogues in the Czech Republic, almost half of which, however, have been seriously damaged by subsequent conversion projects. Only 3 synagogues in Prague and 1 in Brno are still used for their original purpose. 30 synagogues now house various cultural centers, around 40 were transferred in the post-war years to Protestant churches, 48 buildings were converted for residential usage, 38 contain storehouses, while the rest are used as offices, health centers, manufacturing bases and commercial institutions.

The second largest investor involved in the reconstruction of Jewish monuments is the Prague Jewish Community, which is responsible for the management of 28 synagogues and 159 cemeteries in three regions of Bohemia. 1996 saw the completion of the European Union supported project for the reconstruction of the Renaissance High Synagogue (1568), which is used for divine services. The ambitious reconstruction of the exterior of the Old-New Synagogue (ca 1270) took place in 1998, while this year is seeing the complete reconstruction of the interior of this monument, which is one of the most prominent in Prague. While the building survey was being carried out the following measures were taken: uncovering of part of the original paving, lowering of the floor level to the original height (by 15-25cm), uncovering of stone arches in the main hall, restoration of the decorative stonework of the aron ha-kodesh, portal, coping stones and 32 brackets. The installation of a new heating and air-conditioning system will maintain a constant temperature and help preserve the damaged decorative stonework of the building. The reconstruction will be completed by the middle of this March. Last year saw the completed reconstruction of the prayer hall in the synagogue in Jeruzalemska Street (1906), the window stained glass of which are also being repaired. The overall reconstruction of this building, including renovation of the valuable organ, however, exceeds the current financial possibilities of the Jewish Community.

1995 saw the completed reconstruction of another synagogue owned by the Prague Jewish Community - the late Baroque synagogue in Rychnov nad Kneznou (1782), which is used as a regional Jewish museum and memorial to the writer Karel Polacek. Since 1995 reconstruction work has also been carried out on valuable Baroque synagogues in Ustek, Polna, Ledec nad Sazavou, Breznice and Luze. Of these, the reconstruction of the synagogue in Bfeznice (1725/1822) is of particular interest as it led to the uncovering of a number of well-preserved layers of paved floors and foundations of the original bimah and aron ha-kodesh. The synagogue in Polna (1683) on the Bohemian-Moravian border is also a highly interesting building plans dating from 1852 were found depicting its disposition prior to modernization. At that time the large four-cornered bimah and steps leading to the aron were pulled down and plaster with traces of rich Baroque paintwork was removed. The reconstruction of the synagogues in Polna and Bfeznice should be finished this year. Thanks to its remote location the synagogue in Luze (ca 1760) avoided modernization and the bimah remained intact in the main central area. In the synagogue in Ledec nad Sazavou (1736) fragments of the original ornamental vault decoration and of the painted background to the aron ha-kodesh as well as some of the inscriptions on the west wall were revealed under numerous coats of later paintwork. Preparations are now being made for the reconstruction of the synagogues in Caslav, Jicin, Cesky Krumlov, Habry and Nova Cerekev. These projects, however, require even greater financial resources.

Ivancice.  Gravestones at Jewish cemetery, Photo: Ruth E. Gruber

Domousnice.  Repair of wall at Jewish cemetery.  Photo: Mojmir Maly

Of the projects carried out by Jewish communities outside Prague should be mentioned the reconstruction of the Great synagogue in Pilsen (1892) which is believed to be the second largest in Europe. Repairs to the exterior of this buildings were implemented in 1996-97 with support from the state, the city of Pilsen and an ad hoc foundation established by the local Jewish community. A gala concert by the cantor Malovany in the February of 1998 marked its opening. The reconstruction of the interior, paintwork, appurtenances and large organ, however, still require considerable funds that as yet are not available. The Pilsen Synagogue is to house a concert hall and a permanent exhibition on the history of Jewish communities in the region of west Bohemia. Work has begun on repairs to the roof of the Old Pilsen Synagogue (1859), which is the venue for prominent exhibitions and summer folk concerts. The resources of other Jewish communities in Bohemia - Ustf, Teplice, Dem and Liberec -are limited and barely suffice for the maintenance of cemeteries, community centers and prayer halls. In addition, the vast majority of synagogues in the west and north-west part of the country were destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War. The costs of reconstruction for such large synagogues as the one in Deem (1907) and in particular the one in Zatec (1872) far exceed the resources of these communities. A modern building for the state science library is now being developed on the site of a destroyed synagogue in Liberec (1889) - a new prayer hall is being built above the surviving foundations of the old building.

A number of synagogues in Bohemia have remained in the possession of local authorities as they have already invested in maintenance and repairs. The first reconstruction to be completed was that of the Baroque Synagogue in Rakovni'k (1764), which houses the Vaclav Rabas Gallery and is the venue for chamber concerts. The Baroque Synagogue in Kasejovice (1762) (in which was established a local museum in the 1950s) was renovated in 1994 and now houses an new ethnographic exhibition dedicated to Jewish and local folk art. The most prominent Jewish building owned by a town is the synagogue in Kolm (1642/96), which has been partly reconstructed by remains closed - its restitution is the subject of a legal dispute between the local authority and the Jewish Community in Prague. Work begun in 1997 on the reconstruction of the synagogue and ghetto remains in Hermanuv Mestec (1728/1870) on the basis of an earlier project. The local authority in Nova Kdyne purchased the local synagogue (1863) from a private owner, after which it began renovation. A unique case of co-operation between a town, a private foundation and the state took place during the reconstruction of a former Jewish house in village Dobra Voda in the Sumava foothills near Hartmanice, where the Museum by Simon Adler was opened in 1997. Some synagogues became the property of various societies - for example, the synagogue in Radnice (ca 1780) is, now owned by a nature preservation society and the synagogue in Ckyne (1828) by the Society of Friends of Israel. Sooner to later after the revolution other synagogues came into y private ownership. In the case of buildings of historical value the Prague Jewish Community seeks to gain them back - for example the synagogues in Nova Cerekev (1855) and Kosova Hora (ca 1740). Also privately owned is the newly discovered synagogue in the Terezin Ghetto (1943-45), the reconstruction of which was financed by the Terezin Memorial. In the case of the synagogues in Turnov (1718) and Bezdruzice (ca 1800) and the privately owned prayer hall in Krakovany (1892), the religious community is seeking (in co-operation with the state organs for monument preservation) to have them listed and to ensure their renovation under the supervision of monument preservation bodies.

The most prominent investor in reconstruction projects in Moravia is the Jewish Community in Brno, which is responsible for the management of 10 synagogues and 45 cemeteries. In the last years, the Jewish Community in Brno has been-carrying out the town-and state-supported renovation of the Functionalist Synagogue in Na Krenova (1936) - the roof, part of the facade and interior were repaired last years and the project should be completed in 1999. Since 1991 work has been carried out on the reconstruction of the synagogue in Boskovice (1698). The roof and facade have been completed and funds are being put aside each year for the restoration of local murals from 1704/5 which are among the earliest and most interesting Jewish relics in the Czech Republic. 1995 saw the completed renovation of the Old Synagogue in Holesov (1559/1737) and the opening of a new exhibition on the history and life of the Jews in Moravia. In the same year, reconstruction was carried out on the Old synagogue Velke Mezirici (ca 1760) - an exhibition on the history of the local Jewish community was installed in the gallery, while the main hall is to be used for prominent exhibitions held in collaboration with the local museum. In 1994-97 repairs to the roof and facade were carried out in the rural synagogue in Straznice (1869), which is also planning a historical exhibition after completion of the reconstruction. May 1998 saw the completed reconstruction of the late Classical synagogue in Slavkov (1858), which is being used as a regional archive and study. The remarkable decorative paintwork has been carefully documented and is planned for renovation. The Jewish community of Olomouc is responsible both for the preservation of its cemeteries and the reconstruction of the synagogue in Usov (1784), where a discovery was made of the foundations of the central octagonal bimah and wall inscriptions. Essential repairs have also been made to the flood-damaged synagogue in Kmov (1871).

A greater number of synagogues in Moravia remained in the possession of local authorities which are also contributing towards repairs. Reconstruction of the Upper synagogue in Mikulov (1723) was started as early as the 1980s and completed in 1992 and in 1995 a new exhibition dedicated to the history of the local Jewish community was installed.  1996 saw the completed reconstruction of the synagogue in Hranice (1864), which now serves as the local museum art gallery. The greatest event of 1997 was the completion of the long reconstruction of the Back synagogue in Treble (ca 1700). During the last two years conservation work has been carried out on surviving murals and inscriptions (dating from 1706/7) in the synagogue. These reveal two basic layers of decoration reflecting both the traditional style of Polish synagogues and the original designs of local artists. The installation of a permanent exhibition on the history of the local Jewish community is being prepared in the women's gallery, while the main hall is a venue for lectures and concerts. Also completed in 1997 was the reconstruction of the synagogue in Lomnice (1785), which is used as an exhibition and concert hall. The reconstruction of the large Neo-Romanesque synagogue in Breclav (l868) was finally begun in 1998 - extensive renovation of the decorative murals is in preparation. The synagogue is to be used by the local museum which is based in the adjacent building of the Jewish school. In 1997 the reconstruction of the Empire synagogue in Trest (1825) was completed by the Hussite Church with support from the town.

Apart from a few exceptions, Jewish cemeteries are in the exclusive ownership of Jewish communities. Out of more than 400 Czech and Moravian Jewish cemeteries, around 70 were destroyed during the Nazi occupation and the post-war period. More than 330 Jewish cemeteries and approximately 25 Jewish sections in municipal cemeteries have been preserved at least to a certain degree. Management of 159 Jewish cemeteries is the responsibility of the Prague Jewish Community. Building work is being carried out at 84 cemeteries - i.e., construction and repairs of walls, raising of damaged tombstones, and repairs to cemetery buildings, ceremonial halls and mortuaries. Memorial exhibitions have been installed in a number of ceremonial halls - for example, in Benesov, Pardubice, Dobruska, Zamberk, Ckyne, Rakovmk, Drevikov and Petikozly. In other places cemetery houses are used as caretaker flats (Miada Boleslav, Havlickuv Brod, Hermanuv Mestec, Turnov and Branys nad Labem).  Since 1990, renovation and reconstruction work at 34 cemeteries managed by the Prague Jewish Community has been fully completed, renovation work has been mostly completed at 40 cemeteries, while conservation work has at least been initiated at the remaining cemeteries. Other communities are also expending considerable amounts on the renovation of Jewish cemeteries, but at least 50% of costs are borne by the  state or the relevant local authorities. A recurrent problem is that of anti-Semitic vandalism, which manifests itself in the defacing of Jewish cemeteries. This has recently involved the defacing of the old cemetery in Libochovice (1992), the overturning of tombstones in Golcuv Jernkov (1995) and Svetia nad Sazavou (1997), the spraying and defacing of tombstones in Hradec Kralove (1996), and of the Jewish memorial in Trutnov (1998) on the anniversary of the Crystal Night Pogrom.

In Moravia a total of 46 Jewish cemeteries are managed by the Jewish Community in Brno. 11 cemeteries were fully renovated by 1997 and building work is continuing on the renovation of cemeteries in Brno, Dolm Kounice, Mikulov, Miroslav, Straznice, Lomnice, Jihiava, Veike Mezinci, Holesov, Jemnice, Slavkov and Boskovice. Ceremonial halls were renovated in Treble, Uhersky Brod, Bzenec and Podivin, where an exhibition on the history of the local Jewish community was installed. The Jewish community in 0lomouc looks after 10 cemeteries, to date has carried out repairs to Jewish cemeteries in Olomouc, Pferov and is continuing with the renovation of the cemetery in Usov, Sumperk and Tovacov, where an exhibition devoted to the history of the local Jewish community and burial customs was installed in 1997. 1998 saw the completed reconstruction of the Olomouc Ceremonial Hall.

More rapid progress in renovation projects is hindered by a lack of funds, both on the part of Jewish communities and their partners. In view of the state of the Czech economy, greater support from the state and local authorities cannot be counted on in the immediate future. Neither is it possible for Jewish communities to expend significantly greater amounts on renovating their cemeteries and monuments than to date. In addition, the Jewish Museum in Prague receives no state support, which means that it has to cover most repair and reconstruction work from its own taxable income.

January 1999                                                    Ph.D. Arno Parik

International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA

tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347

Last updatd: January 4, 2003