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Smichov's historical holdout

Smichov's historical holdout

Posted: June 19, 2003

By Frank Forrest

Neglected synagogue gets new life amid malls and offices

Depending on your point of view, the development around Smichov's Andel metro station is either a dream come true or your worst nightmare. The glass-and-steel structures that have sprouted up in recent years either provide good opportunities for shopping, dining and entertainment, or they are gauche monstrosities, out of place in a city as historic as Prague.

In any event, it's safe to say that there's little in the vicinity that recalls the city's history.

Nonetheless, tucked away amid the looming office buildings and shopping centers is a part of Prague's past that is receiving a long-overdue makeover: Smichov synagogue.

"This is the only piece of architecture that gives a sense of this area from the 19th century," said Milan Licka, director of building management for the Jewish Museum of Prague. "It's important that it be preserved and that it does not fall into further disrepair." The Jewish Museum is responsible for covering the synagogue's reconstruction costs, which Licka says are in the tens of millions of crowns. Work is being carried out by the firm Konstruktiva KONSIT.

Painful past

Located at the corner of Plzenska and Stroupeznickeho, the synagogue has suffered more than 60 years of neglect and misuse. Reconstruction work will transform it into a depository for archives, both written and graphic, as well as for 2,500 paintings and 10,000 other artworks owned by the Jewish Museum. The reconstructed building also will house offices for the Jewish Museum, together with a study center.

The tragic history of Prague's Jewish population precluded the synagogue from being restored to its original function.

"Before World War II there were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Prague alone, whereas today there are a few thousand in the entire country," Licka said. "There are a sufficient number of synagogues in Prague to serve the city's Jewish community."

With roots going back to the mid-1700s, Smichov's Jewish community numbered approximately 2,000 members by the end of the 19th century. Attempts to construct the community's first synagogue in 1860 were cut short by lack of finances, and the Smichov synagogue was finally built in 1863. It combined a neo-Romanesque exterior with a Moorish-style interior. In 1930-31 the architect Leopold Ehrmann expanded it and gave it a modern face-lift, thus changing it into one of the few modern synagogues in Bohemia.

The synagogue was closed when the Nazis used the building to store confiscated Jewish property, and it did not fare much better under the communists. From the beginning of the 1950s it served as a warehouse for the machine and locomotive company CKD, whose factory was located across Plzenska street. The synagogue's floor was paved with concrete, freight elevators were built inside, and train tracks actually ran into the building.

The synagogue was at risk of being destroyed in 1986, when planned redevelopment in Smichov called for the building's demolition. Preservationists blocked those plans by insisting that the synagogue be listed as a protected monument.

CKD continued to use the synagogue until 1993, when it constructed a new warehouse in Prague 5-Zlicin, and in 1994 the building was finally returned to Prague's Jewish Community, a formal organization. It remained vacant for the rest of the 1990s, and plans for the current work were formulated in 2001, in conjunction with Prague's municipal office for the preservation of historical monuments. Work, which started in the beginning of 2003, should be completed by the end of the year.

Looking ahead

Licka said the reconstruction work is not only important for the building's preservation but also for the much-needed function it will serve.

"The Jewish Museum has a great deal of archives, many stored outside of Prague within premises that are not ideal," Licka said. The installation of a special air-conditioning and ventilation system will ensure conditions needed for the preservation of written material. Moreover, the synagogue's main sanctuary, which will serve as the main depository, is undergoing the unique construction of three transparent floors.

"Reconstruction in this part will be provisional, so that in the future it will be no problem to take apart the construction and use the space for other purposes such as exhibitions," Licka said.

Apart from reconstruction of the original synagogue, a new addition for the museum's offices and study center is being built, as well as a small adjacent park and a shop for books, cards and souvenirs. Licka also notes that stained-glass windows, which are to be illuminated at night, will "provide a feeling of warmth, in contrast to the surrounding steel, glass and concrete."

Indeed, with the extensive post-'89 changes that are transforming Prague, Licka said that the synagogue's rejuvenation will benefit not only Prague's Jewish residents but also the city as a whole.

"Over 150 years ago our ancestors created something of extraordinary historical value," Licka said. "We have a duty to pass it on to future generations in good condition."

Frank Forrest can be reached at

By Frank Forrest

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