In a city with some of the oldest synagogues in Europe, we wandered into one of the newest, just over a century old. It’s not far from Prague’s main rail station, and we passed it—and were arrested by its startling exterior—while looking for a place to grab lunch and wait for our apartment to be ready.
At first glance, we knew it would be interesting, but had no idea how much! And how puzzling it could be as Where in the World. However, three Gumbo guessers got it, and congratulations to them, in the order received: Jonathan L, TravelingCanuck and PortMoresby.
We didn’t get inside until a few days later, but we knew we had to, and when we did, we were rewarded with even more theatrical splendor. The Jerusalem (named for its street) Synagogue is one over-the-top dazzle of Art Nouveau and Moorish elements. It was built in 1906, and originally called the Jubilee Synagogue, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph or Austria-Hungary. For obvious reasons, that fell out of favor after 1918!
This house of God was built to the memory of the 50-year Jubilee of the glorious reign of the Emperor & King Franz Joseph I... even then, not a popular sentiment among the Czech nationalists.
The architectural mix shouldn’t come as too big a surprise; numbers of other synagogues of that era took on those styles, especially the Moorish elements. Budapest’s Dohanyi Ut Synagogue (l, below) and New York’s Central Synagogue (below, r) are other examples.
The Jerusalem Synagogue was built to replace an older building when it, and several other older synagogues were torn down as part of a slum clearance scheme. The clearance idea had two origins; the old Jewish area of Prague was, in fact, a dangerous and unhealthy slum by that time. But another impetus was to break up the concentration of Jews in one area and, in effect, push them to assimilate, or at least to free up central-city real estate.
The founders of the new synagogue, among Prague’s wealthier Jews, formed the Society for a New Synagogue in 1898, planning on a major and impressive monument. They bought land, and hired a Viennese architect, Wilhelm Stiassny, known for monumental buildings in Vienna; he was also the founder of the world’s first Jewish museum. The committee wanted an impressive and distinctive synagogue, and he gave them one. It opened in 1906.
During the Nazi era, Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic) were governed directly by Germany, and Prague’s Jewish community was decimated. Surprisingly, the historic synagogues of the old Jewish area of Josefov, clustered around the old Jewish cemetery, all survived, as did the Jerusalem—all for a sinister reason. The Josefov synagogues and the Jewish Town Hall there were used to collect and store items stolen from synagogues elsewhere, to be part of Hitler’s Museum of an Extinct Race. The Jerusalem Synagogue was also used to house stolen treasure.
After the war, it was repaired and re-opened by the remaining and returning Jewish community. It’s one of two that still holds religious services, along with the Altnew (Old New) Synagogue. The others are all open as part of the Prague Jewish Museum.
When we visited the museum, there was an exhibit in the balcony (formerly the women’s seating area) about the Prague Jewish community after the way. Sadly, they were caught in yet another crossfire; because of Czech anger toward Germany and Germans, the pre-war German-speaking population of the area was forced out.
Because the Jews were considered by many to be more German than Czech, it was a hard time for them as well. You can see in the pair of stained-glass windows below an evidence of that divided life; the one on the left is dedicated in German to a family’s memory; the other is labeled in Czech.