The Spanish Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Town

 

By Tracy A. Burns

One of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe

spanish synagogueArabesques, gilt and polychrome motifs with a dazzling combination of rich green, blue and red hues make this Moorish-style synagogue one of the most beautiful in Europe. The interior of this 19th century creation is breathtaking with its Torah ark and central dome as masterpieces of Spanish-inspired architecture. Now a permanent exhibition of Jewish history from the 18th century Enlightenment period to the present is housed in this remarkable building.

The history of The Old School

Hailing from 1868, the Spanish Synagogue was the last house of prayer to be erected in the Jewish Town. It was built on the site of The Old School, the oldest synagogue in the quarter that was the location of the original settlement of Sefard Prague Jews.  The Old School goes back at least to the 12th century. Yet that holy building experienced tragedy after tragedy. The victim of four fires, the synagogue also was damaged in the Easter pogrom of 1389 and was pillaged in 1744. It was shut down by Emperor Leopold I in 1693 but opened its doors again in 1704. During the 18th century Empress Maria Theresa let the synagogue fall into disrepair. At the end of that century, the Renaissance structure was transformed into a late Gothic style edifice. In the 1840s reticulated vaulting was added. The Old School was reconstructed five times from 1536 to 1837. That year the Old School became the first synagogue in Prague to offer reform services and the first in Bohemia to have an organ. Frantisek Skroup, who would later compose the Czechoslovak and now Czech national anthem, Where is my home?, served as organist and choirmaster there for almost 10 years, from 1836 to 1845. He even composed some of the music played during services. The Old School was demolished during 1867.

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Features of the Spanish Synagogue

Thanks to the designs of Vojtech Ignac Ullmann and Josef Niklas, the Spanish Synagogue was born in 1868. The synagogue got its name from the Moorish style that had been greatly influenced by Spanish architecture. Moorish elements were favored by Jewish communities and employed in reform synagogues. The western façade practically screams Moorish. The interior was designed at the end of the 19th century. Low Stucco arabesques, gilt and polychrome motifs all contribute to the grandeur of the building. The columns and ornamentation are rendered in the vibrant hues of green, blue and red that had been popular in medieval Alhambra, Spain. The gold decoration on the doors is an impressive embellishment. The organ is also designed with Moorish features. The upper floor windows were fitted with stained glass in 1882 and 1883. The ark shows an Islamic influence as well, its design also derived from Alhambra. Its gold decoration is stunning. Several types of marble, polychrome and gilt were used in its canopy. The tablets of the Decalogue, the symbol of the Torah, crown the monumental, breathtaking ark. The awe-inspiring central dome with rich decoration is 10 meters in diameter. The vaults and the dome boast arabesque features, and the Star of David plays a prominent role in the décor.

The permanent exposition

The exposition tracing Jewish history in the Czech lands from the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century to the present is filled with intriguing facts and detailed descriptions. Visitors learn that during the age of Enlightenment, Jews aspired to recreate cultural life in Jewish communities via education and hoped to be rewarded with emancipation. At the end of the 18th century, Emperor Joseph II proclaimed that Jews no longer had to wear a badge that distinguished them from Christians. New opportunities for Jews arose in the spheres of education, finance, industry and agriculture. The exhibition explains that the main objective of Zionism was to return to Judaism, restore cultural values and revive the Jewish nation.

More about Czech Jewish history during the 18th and 19th centuries

Texts tell about Jewish-Czech assimilation and Jewish-German assimilation, which was more common in the Czech lands because the language of the Habsburg Empire was German. Several of the many books on display are Siegfried Kapper’s 1846 book Czech letters, poetry in favor of Czech-Jewish assimilation and Leopold Kompert’s 1882 work From the ghetto, the first book to deal with contemporary Jewish issues in German prose. (Kapper, by the way, made the first German translation of Karel Hynek Macha’s Czech poem, May or Maj in Czech.)Perhaps tourists will be surprised that the nationalist uprisings of the revolutionary movements during 1848 were tinged with anti-Semitism.  Professor Tomas Masaryk, who later would become the first Czechoslovak president, defended Leopold Hilsner in 1899 when Hilsner was accused of ritual murder, a superstition in which many believed at the end of the 19th century.

The exposition tracing the 20th century history of Czech Jews

Upstairs the 20th century history of Czech Jews is explained. When the Nazis closed the synagogues in 1942, most of the museum staff was deported to the Terezin or Auschwitz concentration camps. Visitors also are enlightened about the destruction of the Jewish Town during the clearance project that took place from 1896 to 1912. The Prague City Council began demolishing buildings in the Jewish Town during 1895 and a year later raised the level of ground, installed drinking water mains and building wide streets. The narrow, maze-like streets of the Jewish Town disappeared. By 1912 only six synagogues, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Town Hall were proof that the Jewish Town had ever existed.

More features of 20th century Czech Jewish history

The exhibition promotes 20th century Czech Jewish literature that includes the works of poet Jiri Orten as well as the Czech Jewish art world that includes the cubo-expressionist creations of sculptor Otto Gutfreund. A display on Franz Kafka and the Prague Circle created by Kafka’s publisher and close friend, Max Brod, is also intriguing. The relationship between Czechoslovakia and Israel is elaborated upon, too. Visitors learn that during the rigid Communist era of normalization in the 1970s, the secret police kept strict tabs on Czech Jews. Culture and the life of children in Terezin concentration camp is another theme that is explored.

The objects in the exposition

Among the many enthralling artifacts in the exhibition is a 1902 drinking set, a masterpiece of Art Nouveau work by Moser glass company. A Hanukkah lamp from 1873 is a major attraction because it is so rare due to its large size and its use of Neo-Gothic features.  A number of books on Jewish themes can be found as well. Silver Torah finials, Torah shields and Torah mantles hail from the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Black-and-white photographs show what the Jewish Town looked like before it was demolished in the late 19th century.  A copy of the Nuremberg Laws and a book of anti-Jewish legislation from 1940 are on display, too. In the section about Terezin, visitors see the worthless banknotes that were given to Jews living in the Terezin ghetto.

The Spanish Synagogue after World War II

During 1955 the Spanish Synagogue became part of the Jewish Museum. It underwent restoration a few years later. An exhibition of synagogue textiles was located there from 1960 to 1982, but then the sacral building was closed. Reconstruction did not take place until 1994 and lasted four years. During 1998 the present exhibition was open to the public for the first time. Concerts are also held in this space swirling with arabesques, gold décor and dynamic colors.

The functionalist building

Adjacent to the synagogue is a functionalist building that was erected in 1935. The exterior of the buildings is eclectic and unique with a Moorish style façade side-by-side with a functionalist façade.  Based on the architectural plan of Karel Pecanek, the structure served as a Jewish hospital until World War II.

The Winter Prayer Room and silver collection

Now its winter prayer room houses the exhibition of silver that displays Torah crowns, Torah shields, pointers, Sabbath candlesticks, Hanukkah lamps and Levite lavers, among others. The Jewish Museum’s collection of silver includes over 6,000 objects, though not all are on display. While many objects were made in Prague and Brno, some pieces hail from Germany, Austria or the Silesia region of the Czech Republic. All these artifacts were significant in the religious, social and personal lives of Jews, and all these objects came from synagogues, Jewish households or Jewish associations in the Czech lands before World War II. The earliest pieces date from 1600 while the majority of the items come from the 18th and 19th centuries.

 


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