Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Pilsen Synagogue

Synagogue Rededicated in Pilsen, Czech Republic
by Richard Allen Greene

Pilsen, Czech Republic.Pilsen Czech Republic. Synagogue before restoration. Photo: ISJM.

PILSEN, CZECH REBUBLIC -- Though renovation is not yet complete, the Great Synagogue of Pilsen, Europe's second largest, was reopened on Tu B'Shvat, February 11. Renowned New York-based cantor Joseph Malovany led services attended by both the Israeli and German ambassadors to the Czech Republic, the Czech Minister of Trade and Industry, the Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic, the mayor of Pilsen and his Jewish deputy, and many other dignitaries.

It is not clear exactly what, if any, religious function the synagogue will serve, since the Jewish community of this industrial West Bohemian city numbers about 100, while the synagogue can seat as many as 3,000. Arnost Bergman, head of Pilsen's Jewish community, said that the synagogue will be used mainly for concerts and art exhibitions "in keeping with the character of the building."

The Czech Ministry of Culture provided the approximately 50 million Czech crowns (about US $1.5 million) for the renovation of the synagogue after the local Jewish community failed to raise any money on its own. While the building's exterior and bimah have been elaborately restored, some work remains to be done on the interior walls and ceiling.

The Great Synagogue, which incorporates styles ranging from Moorish to Art Nouveau, was built in 1892, when Pilsen was home to about 5,000 Jews. The original design for the building, which called for a 65-meter tower, was rejected by Pilsen's town council on the grounds that it would compete with the mighty 100-meter-plus tower of St. Bartholomew's Cathedral for dominance of the city's skyline. A subsequent design by Rudolf Jan Stech greatly reduced the height of the building, resulting in the current red-and-cream structure, with its pair of 45-meter towers topped by gold Stars of David.

Though only a tiny percentage of Pilsen's Jewish community survived the war, the Nazis were unable to destroy the Great Synagogue, since it is firmly anchored to buildings on either side. Instead, the German occupiers used the synagogue as a munitions warehouse, a tailor shop, and even an auction hall for the stolen possessions of deported Jews. As George Patton's army advanced on Pilsen in the waning days of the war, Nazi snipers took to the towers of the synagogue, making the building a target for American gunners.

During the Communist era, though, the building suffered surprisingly little damage, according to ISJM member Andrew Goldstein, a British rabbi who attended the opening ceremony. He has been leading tours to the Czech Republic and its predecessor, Czechoslovakia, for more than fifteen years and held secret services in the Great Synagogue on several occasions. "It was built in a very expensive way, with a vaulted brick roof," he said, which gave the building defense against the elements even when it was at its most neglected. The organ was still functional into the mid-1980s, Goldstein said. The interior and the stained glass were intact until after the 1989 revolution that overturned the country's communist government. Only when democracy was restored did vandalism begin to affect the synagogue, Goldstein said.

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Updated: 23-July-98