Letter from Europe

The Great Synagogue of Plzen

Issue no. 2015/13


You might expect the most striking building in Plzen to be a brewery. But there's more to Plzen than beer. In fact the most impressive building in the Czech city is the Great Synagogue on Plzen's main thoroughfare.

Dear fellow travellers

You might expect the most striking building in Plzeň to be a brewery. The name of the fourth largest Czech city (often rendered Pilsen in German and English) is synonymous with good beer. The distinctive golden lager known as pilsner (or often just pils) has been brewed in the city for about 140 years.

But there's more to Plzeň than beer. One afternoon last month, we made our way up Klatovská, one of those Czech main drags which simply heave with traffic. The day will surely come when city planners in Plzeň get to grips with the traffic problem which besets the city. Klatovská would be a good place to start. Gaze up beyond the tacky shop fronts and there are some remarkable embellishments to the peeling facades of the buildings that line the road. For those who pause to look, there's everything from baroque to art nouveau.

Walking north beyond a street rather oddly called Americka, we had a first glimpse of a building which outshines any other in Plzeň. It is one of the most impressive pieces of sacred architecture anywhere in Europe — not another Gothic extravaganza like the spectacular St Barbara's Church in Kutná Hora or the much-visited cathedral within the castle complex in Prague. No, it is a synagogue and a very fine one too. The Great Synagogue is a majestic building in the very heart of Plzeň. In terms of size, it is surpassed in Europe only by the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest.

There were times in the past when so vast were the crowds entering and leaving Plzeň's Great Synagogue on the Jewish sabbath that the police had to bar traffic from the local streets. Nowadays the trams take precedence over even the most prayerful of humans.

There are too few surviving synagogues in the cities of central Europe. And even fewer which can match Plzeň’s Great Synagogue for its artistry. Pause in the choir loft and gaze over to the Aron Kodesh — the Holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls are traditionally kept. It looks peculiarly Indian in style. Touch the cantor's platform which is carved from the finest mahogany. Raise your eyes aloft to the Heavens and ponder the golden stars set in a dome of celestial blue.

More's the pity that it's all too rare these days that the Great Synagogue in Plzeň echoes to the chanting of the psalms. One hundred years ago, this was one of the largest kehillot in central Europe. During the nineteenth century, Plzen's growing Jewish population had consistently outgrown smaller synagogues. The Great Synagogue was triumphantly opened in 1892, its Moorish Revival style eliciting much praise from local citizens of all religious persuasions.

That the building survived the onslaughts of Nazi Germany is remarkable. But it emerged from the war in bad shape, and has benefited in recent years from extensive renovation. Now it once again stands proud on the city's principal thoroughfare as a witness to the civic influence and the economic power once wielded by the city's Jewish community. The breweries play second fiddle in the wider story of Plzeň.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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