As we looked back at the bridge from which we had come we noted a giant metronome in constant movement. Aharon told us that once a statue of Stalin stood on that site. When they took it down after the fall of communism, the metronome was created to take its place.
Aharon told us that the synagogues were originally organized by guild. There were 11,000 Jews in the early 1700s so many synagogues were required to meet their needs. Today Czechs have the highest percentage of atheists despite their many churches and synagogues that date to an earlier time. There are about 1700 people who define themselves as Jewish. Of these about 400 are active and 100 are somewhat observant.
We purchased a ticket to the entire Jewish museum which consists of many synagogues, the cemetery and related buildings. Unfortunately they do not allow photographs of the interiors.
These changes were part of a larger effort to wrest power from the church. Joseph II felt that too much power resided in the hands of the religious realm. He abolished the Jesuit order which controlled the education system and secularized it, requiring education to occur in German.
The interior of the Spanish synagogue was ornate and modeled in its intricacy after the Alhambra. Windows were in a horseshoe arch. You can get some idea of the type of building from photos of the Doheny and Rumbach synagogues in Budapest, but I found this building to be even more striking.
Within the synagogue was an extensive collection of silver ornaments for the Torah and other religious items. The collection is significant and includes items from throughout the country for an unusual reason. When deportations began to death camps in 1942, much Jewish property was abandoned. Jewish scholars sought to preserve this property by creating a museum in Prague. The original Jewish Museum dated back to 1906 and this effort sought to build on that effort. The Nazis agreed to the idea of the museum, but they of course would administer it and determine its direction. Their concept was quite different than that of the scholars. They sought to create a Museum of an Extinct Race, one which would justify genocide. It is for this reason that the synagogues and cemeteries of Prague survived even as many of the Jewish residents did not. Many of the original employees of the museum were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.
We next visited the Old New Synagogue. One theory on the name is that there was once an Old synagogue so this was known as the New synagogue. When the Old synagogue was torn down to make room for the Spanish Synagogue this was renamed the Old New Synagogue as there were many synagogues in town to distinguish between. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the world that is in use dating back to 1260. On the other side of the street is the High Synagogue which dates to the 1570s. The street between them is the original ghetto street which is more like a sidewalk than what we would consider a street today.
Our next stop was the Pinchas Synagogue, dedicated to Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz in 1535. It is a late Gothic, early Renaissance building and is now a memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Its walls are entirely covered by the names of those who were murdered, first the town in yellow, then the family name in red and finally the first names, dates of birth and dates of deportation in black. The names were originally recorded after the war. Then in 1968 the synagogue was closed for “renovations” and the walls whitewashed, a reflection of the communist regime’s insensitivity towards the Jews. The synagogue was closed for 20 years. After Vaclav Havel came to power in 1989 he made it a priority to re-inscribe the names.
Upstairs we found an exhibition of the children’s art from Terezin where they were taught by a teacher who subsequently died in the deportations. Each artwork told us the date of deportation and death of the child, with only a few survivors. It felt especially poignant seeing the paintings of their memories of life pre-war and their observations of what they had witnessed, especially knowing that many were murdered just a short time later.
One of our subsequent stops was at the Ceremonial Hall which was the Burial Society. Some very unusual paintings tell the story of an ill person who subsequently dies and is buried. They show the process of cleaning the body, preparing a shroud and the role of the Burial Society in burying the body. The paintings dated to the 1780s, shortly after the cemetery was closed. Tombstones shown in the cemetery painting can be identified today.
Our next stop was the Klausen Synagogue which originally was the site of three small buildings. The word “Klaus” actually means small building. The buildings were a synagogue, a mikveh and a yeshivah. In 1689 the buildings burned down and were replaced with the Klausen Synagogue which is in the Baroque style. Balconies were added to the synagogue for the women at a later time.
Finally we closed our visit with the Maisel Synagogue which was originally built in 1592 as a Renaissance building. It was attached to other buildings so frequently affected by fire. As a result it was rebuilt many times in different styles so can best be termed eclectic. Aharon noted that there are examples of each style of architecture among the synagogues. This points to a thoughtful effort to preserve synagogues based on their different periods even as many buildings were destroyed in the early 1900s.
We came away from our visit with a much better sense of the history of the Jewish community that once inhabited this area and the story told by the surviving synagogues.