“Found” Synagogues of Europe
In preparation for our upcoming installation Lost Synagogues of Europe: Eastern European Jewish Postcards I researched the current status and histories of the synagogues featured in František Bányai’s collection. Many of these breathtaking buildings were lost in the course of just two days during Kristallnacht, literally “The Night of Crystal” but more often referred to as “The Night of Broken Glass.” This violent wave of pogroms took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, across much of Europe, and was responsible for the destruction of more than 250 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish businesses.
While I was deeply saddened to discover the number of synagogues that were lost during this time, I was enthralled to find the few that had been remarkably preserved. With the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s road to restoration and revival in mind, I was fascinated to compare its similarity to those of its sister structures in Eastern Europe.
Decin, Bohemia, built 1906
The Decin Synagogue is the only synagogue in the former Sudeten region of Bohemia to survive the Second World War. It was designed in the pseudo-oriental style with distinctive Art Nouveau elements. Services were held by the Jewish community up until the Nazi occupation in 1938.
During and after the war, local officials preserved the structure, although it no longer served its original purpose. Stripped of its religious symbols and decorative elements, the building was used as a warehouse and later as a public archive for many years. Due to neglect, the building fell into a state of disrepair in the later half of the twentieth century. It was not until 1996 that the building was recognized as a national landmark and was returned to the Jewish community by the District National Committee. Total reconstruction of the building, funded by the local Jewish community, began in 1997 and was completed in 2009. The synagogue is now restored to its original glory, and serves as a social and cultural center open to the public.
Caslav, Bohemia, built 1900
This turn of the century synagogue was designed in the Neo-Moorish style by architect Wilhelm Stiassny. Services were held there until the onset of the Second World War. After the war, it was mainly utilized as a warehouse until 1970 when it was re-purposed as the town museum. After years of neglect, the building was in a state of deterioration when it was returned to the hands of the Jewish community in 1994. The restoration of the building began in the early 2000’s, and was funded in part by the town of Caslav and the area’s Jewish community. Today, the beautiful synagogue serves as a cultural center, gallery and concert hall to be enjoyed by the public.
Essen, Germany, Built 1913
At its peak, the magnificent “New Synagogue” of Essen was the social and cultural center for the large Jewish community within the city. In the early 1930s, the shul had approximately 5,000 members. Services were held there until Kristallnacht. Although the building’s interior was destroyed by the fires, its thick limestone exterior proved too durable to demolish. In the early 1960s, the building was renovated for use as a museum for industrial design; all of its original religious elements were removed or painted over. In 1986-88, the building was again remodeled by the state, which restored much of its original decorative integrity and established the “Alte Synagogue” Institution. Today, the Alte Synagogue is recognized as a House of Jewish Culture, which presents permanent exhibitions of historical and contemporary Jewish culture and corresponding cultural events.
Cologne, Germany: Built 1899
Since its original inauguration, the magnificent Neo-Romanesque style Roonstrasse Synagogue has been a center of Jewish history, culture and community. Although it was badly damaged during Kristallnacht, the building was reconstructed and restored in the late 1950s. Today, the synagogue serves as a Jewish community center and houses exhibitions of Jewish culture along with a kosher restaurant.
*Interesting Fact: In August of 2005, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Roonstrasse Synagogue in honor of the 10th annual “World Youth Day”, making him the first pope to visit a synagogue in Germany, and the second pope of all time to visit any synagogue.
Obuda (Budapest), Hungary,
The Obuda Synagogue is the oldest remaining synagogue in Budapest. Its classic architecture and detailed facade garnered the synagogue its reputation as one of the most noteworthy European synagogues of its time. Although the community’s once substantial Jewish population dwindled after World War II, the structure itself survived. In the 1970s, the building was sold for use as a television studio and served this purpose until the early 2000’s. The temple was returned to the Jewish community and re-inaugurated as a synagogue in September of 2010. The Obuda Synagogue is also open to the public for historical tours.
Boskovice, Moravia, built 1698
One of the most exciting restoration projects I uncovered was that of the Boskovice Synagogue in southern Moravia. Originally constructed in the late seventeenth century, the synagogue was built to serve the Jewish population of the surrounding Brno area. Although its exterior is modest and simple in design, the building’s interior arches and vaults are painted with fascinating details including ancient Hebrew prayers, names of former congregants and intricate floral patterns.
Boskovice was the only synagogue in the area to survive the devastation of World War II, but it was neglected for nearly forty years before restoration efforts began. The revival of the synagogue was initiated by the local government in the mid-1980s and was continued by the local Jewish community. In 1994, basic structural reinforcements had been completed, but further financial support was needed to finish the interior. In 2000, the Boskovice Synagogue was recognized by the World Monuments Fund’s Jewish Heritage Program and became one of the organization’s first major projects. In the years since, restoration has been completed and the synagogue’s original details have been preserved and recreated in certain areas. It now serves as a cultural center, concert hall, and testament to the resilience of the Jewish community and its rich and compelling history.
“Altneuschul”, Old New Synagogue, Prague, built 1270
The “Altneuschul” or “Old New Synagogue” is not only one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague, but the oldest active synagogue in all of Europe. According to folklore, the Old New Synagogue was built with stones that were “delivered by angels” from the ruins of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It has been said that this, along with other religious legends, could be the divine reasoning for the synagogue’s incredible resistance to the tests of time. Having survived many wars, including the violence of the twentieth century, the structure remains intact to this day. Religious services, weddings and other ceremonies are held at the synagogue regularly. In addition the building attracts substantial tourist attention for its unique historical significance.
Maisel Synagogue, Prague, built late 16th century
Another remarkable Jewish landmark in Prague, the Maisel Synagogue was originally built during the “Golden Age” of the Jewish ghetto in the city. In the hundred years after its construction, the synagogue’s structure suffered several blows due to outbreaks of fire and was repeatedly reconstructed. Its current neo-Gothic appearance was solidified in the renovations which took place at the turn of the twentieth century. It has not been drastically modified since.
During the Nazi occupation in World War II, the Czech Jewish community’s property and artifacts were stored inside the Maisel Synagogue. After the war, it was subsumed by the Jewish Museum in Prague. Restoration efforts took place throughout the later half of the 20th century and were finished in 1996. As a part of the Jewish Museum, the synagogue is now home to several permanent exhibits of Czech Jewish history which have been modified and updated in recent years. It is now also open to the public for cultural events, concerts and small theatre productions.
The Spanish Synagogue, Prague, built 1868
Also administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Spanish Synagogue is yet another example of magnificently restored Jewish history and culture in the city. Built in the Moorish Revival style, the architecture of the building was inspired by the Arabic period of Spanish historical art and design. A practical addition to the synagogue was built in 1935 which served as a hospital for the Jewish community until WWII. Ten years after the war, the synagogue was acquired by the Jewish Museum and underwent complete interior reconstruction. However, the job was left partially unfinished due to lack of funds and the building was eventually closed in the 1980s. In 1998, the synagogue underwent its final reconstruction and was reopened to the public. Today, the building exhibits multiple installations commemorating influential members of the Czech Jewish community and their historical contributions to the realms of economy, science and culture.
Jubilee (Jerusalem) Synagogue, built 1906
Both the youngest and largest remaining synagogue in Prague, the Jubilee Synagogue was built in traditional Moorish style. Services have been held there continuously since its original dedication with the exception of the period of Nazi occupation. The interior, festively decorated with colorful and intricate paintings, was freshly restored in the 1990s. It was ceremoniously reopened for services in 1996 after the period of restoration, and has recently been opened to the larger public and tourists interested in experiencing its remarkable and unique architectural features.
To learn more about these featured synagogues and other historic synagogues of Europe, I recommend the following resources:
1. “Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning” by Carol Herselle Krinsky
2. “The Architecture of the European Synagogue” by Rachel Wischnitzer
By Museum at Eldridge Street Intern, Gwen Underwood