Monday, 3 June 2013

The Second Biggest Synagogue in Europe, Plzeň

The Grand Synagogue (Velká Synagoga) in Plzeň,

It's my loss that I've only ever been inside two synagogues. Despite ogling exteriors from Berlin to Budapest, the only occasion I had been inside one, prior to visiting the Great Synagogue (Velká Synagoga) in Plzeň, was in junior school. At that time, having temporarily convinced myself of God's general awesomeness, I was really quite excited to check out what other faiths (besides my own nascent Catholicism) had to offer. Being in a synagogue rather than a church struck me as a bit like hanging out with a different, though equally cool, superhero. Judaism could be Batman to Catholicism's Superman (or was it the other way round?). Although things were done differently, and they invoked slightly different means, the end result was the same. 

Nowadays, with my feelings of devotion long since disappointed, I approach visits to religious buildings with a weary sense of duty. Churches are big, usually conveniently located, while often being cheap to visit. I assume that it's with such secular considerations that most tourists are duped into going inside. And once there? There are plain interiors, opulent interiors, silly interiors, pompous interiors. No doubt there is a whole technical language for addressing the interiors of churches, but I normally find my own amateur vocabulary sufficient.

There is, however, a simple reason for my not having visited any synagogues. This is that synagogues are not, at least in Europe, as centrally located as churches. It's easy to visit a church. They are huge, unavoidable monoliths in the centres of town squares. Synagogues, however, are relegated to back-roads and side-streets. They must be sought out. One thing I like about synagogues is the way they so often form part of a row of terraces. Unlike most churches they share a physical space with other, much duller buildings. They sit like dandies, bright peacocks amid a sea of concrete or red brick. They are, relative to their surroundings, self-consciously flamboyant. 

We visit on a hot Sunday in May. The town is in a mostly lazy mood, but behind us a group of young men are drunkenly making their way to a kebab stand. One stands topless in the centre of the road, baiting a tram. Their voices follow us inside to where a young woman is waiting behind a desk. As she hears the voices of the men outside she stiffens her back nervously. Her eyes flash over to the security guard - a pretty old guy - who apparently decides to go outside and check all's calm. He returns a moment later and, seemingly to the girl's relief, shakes his head. The voices of the men drift off and she takes our money. 

The atrium and corridor that connect it with the main hall give off a sense of early 20th century reserve. It is quiet, almost pensive. There is almost nobody around, yet it feels a little like being in a waiting room. A few exhibits spell out in paraphernalia the abandoned ceremony of the place. A splayed tallit hangs in a glass box alongside a dusty looking prayer book. I wonder who risked sheltering them during the Nazi occupation. 

Along the far wall the evolution of the building's design is presented in chronological order, the beguiling, Orthodox-style, onion-shaped towers appearing in a late draft. What strikes you as you look at the designs is the sense of daring and imagination that went into the project. This place was the product of a community growing in confidence. After the designs come the portraits of the various benefactors and designers themselves. All men, they look more like aspiring Charles Foster Kanes than devout worshipers. Their bright faces speak of the bustle of ingenuity. Several are possessed of a certain knowing wiliness, an inventiveness which I imagine being deployed in various arm-twisting meetings. I imagine them making swift telephone calls to one another, or sweeping impressively into meetings, a fan of clerks jogging in their wake. They are no-nonsense go-getters. Despite its present emptiness, it resounds with the echoes of its vanished community. I mean no offense when I say that it has a certain pizazz, an energy depressingly absent from so many churches. Even its name suggests spectacle.


After a fairly pedestrian exhibition of street photos, we go into the main hall, which resembles nothing to my ill-trained eyes so much as, well, a church. The funds to complete its restoration are yet to be found, so the vaulted ceiling and walls remain a little battered. But still, what with the pews and the altar, I naively expect to encounter a cross. These days the main hall is used as a concert space for the likes of Czech crooner Karel Gott, but on this sleepy afternoon its silence is overwhelming. We go up to the balcony and sit for a while. For about half an hour we are completely alone. The sound of traffic is almost muted. It is cool and quiet. But there is an unavoidable sense of sadness about the place. For all the energy of its design and construction, it has still been brutally robbed of its most vital role, of its sense of centrality and purpose for community life. The Jewish population of Plzeň once numbered two thousand. Today it stands at seventy. The synagogue has been transformed from a grand, exciting celebration of community life, of energy and dynamism, into a sleepy museum to itself.          


1 comment:

  1. A book I had recommended to me by an online acquaintance with whom I was corresponding about pre-WWII migrations, deportations, exterminations, and pogroms in this part of the world is "The Enemy At His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I" by S. Ansky and Joachim Neugroschel. It really portrays the tangled...tangles of the region even before the Holocaust.