Saturday, 7 December 2013

Vinohrady Synagogue

Postcard of Vinohrady Synagogue

In the self-styled literarni kavarna (literary cafe) Blatouch two young women play dress-up with the vintage clothes they are selling. To nondescript rinkydink piano they adorn themselves in faux-1920s pyjamas and beads. I walk through from the empty bar, catching sight of their hoard - displayed on hatstands in the backroom parlour - down the jumbled, wood panelled corridor. They laugh slightly as I ask if I can come through. They are surrounded by things - some rich and luxurious; some trashy or just torn - on all sides, strewn gorgeously over the vintage gramophones and kitschy Weimar chairs that make up the cafe's decor.

As I walk towards the parlour - catching a glimpse of a cheap bowler perched on a hatstand; a clutter of suitcases and piled clothes behind it - I am reminded of a photo taken not far from here, in 1939. Unintentionally recreating the oblique angle of Hitchcockian anxiety, a black and white camera points down from the upper gallery of a synagogue in the direction of the far left passage. Things belonging to lives now knocked violently off-kilter are stacked everywhere. Fur coats and expensive hats; old wardrobes and mirrors; stacks of dressing tables. All the material of full lives. The synagogue in question is Vinohradska Synagoga (Vinohrady Synagogue) and it no longer exists. It was bombed - one assumes accidentally - by the Allies in 1945.

The day after the first December snow I walk down to Sazavska Street where the synagogue used to stand. It's still too warm on the groud to settle so the snow forms a thin, icy paste on the cracked pavements. A few pubs - still to open; it's early Saturday afternoon - have swung open their doors to let the cold air filter through their dank passages. These rare stabs of colour and light contrast dramatically with the greys and sunken pastels of the buildings which house them. The roads are nearly empty. An old man with a single crutch carefully makes his way to the road's end, where he will turn left and walk to the potraviny on Francouska. I follow him at a distance and watch him pass by the big faded-yellow block of the modern Zahradni skola (basic school) that has replaced the synagogue. I walk back and forth in front of it for a minute or two as the snow starts drifting down again.

The only sign I can find of the old Vinohradska synagoga is a plaque fastened to the inner wall of the school's entrance:

Na tento misto stala od roku 1896
14 Unora byla bombardovanim
jezce poskozena v roce 1951 zborena

(From 1896 the Vinohrady Synagogue stood here
On the 14th February it was bombed
In the year1951 it was demolished)

After the war a few Jewish survivors returned to find a shell where the synagogue had stood. They recommended the site be turned into apartments for other survivors. The authorities refused and eventually built a totally new structure in the synagogue's place - a typical 50s school bearing a clunky mural of some proletarians tousling over the future. The plaque on the school's entrance shows the old synagogue in its twin-towered glory, though it's fissured down the middle. I like to imagine this last detail was a deliberate insertion by local Jews: a remark upon the unhealable wound inflicted, and the lack of possible redress. After the declaration that a school would be built there, the local Jews requested that the remaining bricks be used to help in the restoration of a synagogue in neighbouring Liben. The city authorities refused on the grounds that the bricks were state property and had to be disposed of appropriately.

The Jewish community of Vinohrady is often forgotten. The old Prague ghetto had, between 1893 and 1913, been demolished. The sinister flood plane that had housed such terrifying myths as the clay-based Golem was finally transformed into a glittering Parisian show-piece. Similarly, Vinohrady, previously a semi-established village, had evolved into an important suburban refuge for the city's wealthy. The city's districts were rationalised and incorporated into a much extended municipal body (this in line with the Habsburg drive towards economic modernisation). Vinohrady was central to this, its magnificent, tree-lined boulevards signalling a notable transformation in urban life and the emergence of a newly-minted, self-confident social class: the industrial and financial bourgeoisie. The swanky neo-Gothic apartment blocks were deliberate statements of wealth. They were also built to be self-consciously historical, a celebration of grandeur and a claim to significance. Traders were no longer to be scorned, but clearly perceived of themselves as the new social drivers of change. Throughout Vinohrady huge spires and squat domes stand atop apartment blocks. Cherubim leer down from archways. Gold-leaf entwines itself around the drooping lips of balconies. Neo-Gothic statuettes retreat into the alcoves of roomy frontages. 

Momentarily triumphant, the new bourgeoisie mistook technical improvements in its local conditions for the form of its world historical predominance. Prague Jewry found, in this sudden liberalisation of money and attitudes, a certain freedom. Vinohradska Synagoga was equivalent to the self-declaration of the Christian bourgeoisie - though fewer mobs gathered outside the latter. Indeed the synagogue took on totemic significance for native anti-semtism. Stereotyped as 'Agents of the Germans', Prague Jewry made its home in quiet Vinohrady. Mobs would descend occasionally, and long before 1939. In the event, the synagogue itself nearly survived the war. But architectural survival was always possible, if only in the form of a museum piece. It was the Jewish life of Prague that would fail to survive. In this sense Nazism and extreme nationalism had the ultimate triumph.