The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Town

The power of the names

pinkas-synagogueGrosssova, Grunbaum, Klopper, Meiselova, Friedenthal, Seiner, Ledererova. The 77,297 names of Holocaust victims jump out at visitors, slapping them in the face with the reality of the Jews’ tragic plight during World War II. All of a sudden, the names on the walls are not merely names but individuals, who had plans to make, goals to achieve, and lives to live. Listing the names on the walls of the Memorial of Holocaust Victims of Bohemia and Moravia at Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue brings to mind the horror of those times.

A bloodcurdling effect

The sheer number of names is enough to make visitors dizzy and weak.  The names in black are listed in alphabetical order, categorized by their last place of residence in gold, along with the names of family members in red, their dates of birth and dates of death or date of deportation also in black. The main nave features the names of victims whose last address was in Prague. Among the victims listed on the walls are the grandparents of Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State. However, the names of the 183,000 Slovak Jews who met their deaths at the hands of the Nazis do not appear. On both sides of the Holy Ark visitors read the names of ghettos and extermination camps where Bohemian and Moravian Jews were transported. The high stained glass windows add an even more somber tone to the exhibition. The overall effect is bloodcurdling and terrifying.

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The beginnings of the building

The building now housing the synagogue is referred to in writing as far back as 1492, but it may be much older. Made into a synagogue in 1535 thanks to wealthy Aaron Meshullam Horowitz and his wife Nehama, the synagogue standing at what is now 23 Siroka Street got the name Pinkas in the late 16th century, named after the building’s first owner, Krakow rabbi Israel Pinkas. It is believed that the synagogue was the masterful work of renowned German architect Benedict Riedl of Pistov, who also was responsible for building Prague Castle’s Vladislav Hall with its magnificent vaulting.

The interior in the past

The house of prayer featuring both Gothic and Renaissance elements had a narrow, high single-nave arched by a late Gothic reticulated vault. The front portal of the L-shaped structure hailed from the early Renaissance days. Walls supported by pillars, fluted shafts, five windows with stone tracery, buttresses, and Renaissance rosettes made up the impressive décor. Seats lined the walls while the focal point was on the bimah, in the middle of the room. The Holy Ark and bimah boasted rich stone ornamentation until reconstruction in 1775 when they were covered in red marble stucco. (In the late 18th century, the Ark and bimah would be reconstructed in Baroque style.) The Star of David and the image of a one-pointed hat that Jews wore during the Middle Ages were other features.  Dynamic colors brightened up the space as the ceiling vault, ribbing, columns, and capitals boasted brilliant hues of gold.

The synagogue in the 17th century

The synagogue was expanded from 1607 to 1625 when circular and semicircular windows were added.  A southern wing containing a women’s gallery, a vestibule, and an antechamber, was built at this time. In the early 17th century there were 420 seats. A valuable relic called the Pinkas Synagogue home for many centuries – the banner and robe of martyr Solomon Molcho, who was burned at the stake in Mantua in 1532. Now, these artifacts are in the Maisel Synagogue.

The destructive floods and reconstructions

Because the building was so deep, it was prone to floods. After the floods of 1758 and 1771, the synagogue was reconstructed with Baroque elements. A Rococo grille was added in 1793. After the flood of 1860, the house of prayer was modernized with Neo-Renaissance features. To help prevent flooding, the floor was raised 1.5 meters. The Ark was stripped of its Baroque ornamentation. Benches were installed, and the seats were taken out. While some remodeling took place in the 1920s, the earth fill was not removed until the reconstruction in the early 1950s. At that time the Ark, front portal, and bimah underwent changes.

The history of the memorial

The current memorial came into being during reconstruction from 1954 to 1959 when painters Jiri John and Vaclav Bostik decorated the walls with names of Jewish World War II victims. The information about the victims came from card indexes based on transport records. The public got a first look at the new design in 1960. However, a mere eight years later the Pinkas Synagogue closed again, after the Soviet tanks made their way into Prague, crushing the Prague Spring of liberal reforms.  An archeological dig carried out there in 1968 uncovered wells and a ritual bath dating from the end of the 15th century. The house of prayer would stay closed for more than 20 years. In 1992 it was resuscitated and then went through lengthy, major repairs until 1996 when all the names had finally been rewritten on the walls. Unfortunately, the damage caused by the 2002 floods led to a 10-year restoration period.

The drawings by children in Terezin on the upper floor

The upper floor featured an exhibition of artwork by children imprisoned at Terezin, a World War II transit work camp in central Bohemia. Most of these children were deported to Auschwitz shortly after creating these pictures. Some 8,000 children under the age of 15 were deported from Terezin, and only 242 survived the war. About 4,500 of their pictures were found in a teacher’s suitcase that had been buried. Jana Polakova’s “Tree of Knowledge” and Eva Heska’s “Paradise” are two of the many drawings on display. Both girls died in 1944. In the drawing “In a Meadow,” an orange house has purple windows. A boat floats on a blue river. The artist of this colorful and cheerful rendition, Marianne Rosenzweigova, was one of the few lucky ones who survived the war.

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