Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Great (New) Synagogue in Plzen: A Star Attraction

Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Facade. Max Fleischer & Emmanuel Klotz, architects, 1888-93. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Facade, dtl. Max Fleischer & Emmanuel Klotz, architects, 1888-93. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Interior view to Ark. Max Fleischer & Emmanuel Klotz, architects, 1888-93. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Sanctuary ceiling. Max Fleischer & Emmanuel Klotz, architects, 1888-93. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The Great (New) Synagogue in Plzen: A Star Attraction
by Samuel D. Gruber

Last week it was announced that restoration work would soon being on the interior of the New or Great Synagogue of Plzen in the Czech Republic (You can read more about plans here). I visited the synagogue this summer, along with other sites in Plzen including the Old Synagogue and the Holocaust Memorial.

Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Max Fleischer & Emmanuel Klotz, architects, 1888-93. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
To say that the Great Synagogue is impressive is an understatement. The building's prominent location, size and abundance of decoration make it one of the best places to experience the community and architectural optimism of European Jewry in the late nineteenth century. What it lacks in architectural originality it makes up for in grandeur. today oday it also stands as a surrogate for so many similar synagogues destroyed between 1938 and 1945, and even - like the great synagogue of Bratislava - under subsequent Communist rule. Tragically, the growing and prosperous Jewish community of Pilsen/Plzen, which numbered about 2,000 when the synagogue opened, was only able to enjoy the building for less than fifty years before the Nazi invasion of the Czechoslovakia. Under Communism, only a few old synagogues in Prague were accessible, and the until the Velvet Revolution, the synagogues of Plzen were largely forgotten - or at least ignored.

The original plan for the Great Synagogue was prepared by the well-known Jewish Viennese architect Max Fleischer (1841--1905), who had designed many other (now destroyed) synagogues and Jewish community buildings in Vienna and throughout the Hapsburg Empire. He proposed a Gothic design with twin 65-meter towers and large buttresses. The ground plan was established and the cornerstone laid in 1888, but work stopped when city councilors rejected the plan fearing the new large building would compete with the nearby St. Bartholomew Cathedral.  In 1891 a revised and smaller design was prepared by Emmanuel Klotz that kept the plan, but lowered the towers and substituted  a mix of Romanesque, Moorish and Renaissance forms instead of Gothic. This design introduced the enormous six-pointed star on the facade. Perhaps this was meant as a sign of defiance - announcing the clear Jewish purpose of the building. Or, it can also be seen as a warning of sorts to Christians that this building - despite it location and size - was not a church.

Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Original design by Fleischer (1888) and modified design by Klotz (1891).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Inside the Plzen Great Synagogue architect Klotz and whoever worked with him on the decoration threw almost everything in the style books into the decorative mix. There is a bewildering variety of historicist and imaginative motifs which sometimes compete, but surprisingly mix well enough to create an impressive interior. There was a large organ from the beginning, and one can imagine the reverberation of organ notes, the  colors from the richly painted ceiling and walls flickering in gas light, and the filtered light through the stained glass windows changing with the hour, combined to create a literally awesome experience for those Jews who first walked in the doors. 

Much has been written about this building. In this post I only want to draw attention to the widespread use of the six-pointed Star of David in the decoration - both outside and in. For the Jewish Community of Plzen, and for their Christian neighbors, the New Synagogue was surely a "star attraction" in the city. Here are some of the many stars  found in the synagogue decoration. Besides the massive star on the facade, stars are sprinkled throughout the interior stucco, painted, and carved wood decoration.

Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Stucco decoration on sanctuary gallery parapet. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Sanctuary ceiling decoration detail.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

The Jewish Star became representative of the worldwide Zionist community, and later the broader Jewish community, after it was chosen as the central symbol on a flag at the First Zionist Congress in 1897. One sees in the Plzen synagogue, however that the symbol was already widely used and had achieved a certain popularity in the proceeding decades. Theodore Herzl and the Zionists took advantage of the success of the relatively new symbol and appropriated it for their purposes.

The Jewish history of the so-called Star of David is explained by Gershom Scholem in his writing about Jewish symbols and mysticism. In 1949 he wrote in his popular essay "The Curious History of the six-Pointed Star" (Commentary, 8 1949, p. 251): "Then the Zionists came, seeking to restore the ancient glories—or more correctly, to change the face of their people. When they chose it as a symbol for Zionism at the Basel Congress of 1897, the Shield of David was possessed of two virtues that met the requirements of men in quest of a symbol: on the one hand, its wide diffusion during the previous century—its appearance on every new synagogue, on the stationery of many charitable organizations, etc.—had made it known to everybody; and on the other, it was not explicitly identified with a religious association in the consciousness of their contemporaries. This lack became its virtue. The symbol did not arouse memories of the past: it could be filled with hope for the future."

From 1897 on the symbol was used by Zionists, but it also continued to be used ever more widely by Jewish communities, organizations, and individuals of all ideologies. 
 
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Women's gallery ceiling decoration detail.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Ceiling decoration near stairway vestibule. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The Great Synagogue was used for worship until the Nazi occupation of Plzen, when it became a storage facility during the war - and thus escaped destruction. It was returned to the small community of Jewish survivors after the war but fully closed in 1973 when the Communist regime allowed it to fall into disrepair.  Restoration took place 1995–98, when the building was stabilized and basic repairs were undertaken,and it reopened in 1998. The community now uses the former winter prayer room - a much smaller space - and the main sanctuary is used for concerts and exhibits. 

I do not know if the new restoration plans call for a total restoration of the original interior decoration, or whether the objective is better conservation - an approach that will protect the original material but maintain the look of damage as a reminder of the sad history of the building and its former congregation.

Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Sanctuary ceiling decoration detail.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Door to rear women's gallery.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Great (New) Synagogue. Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) memebrs list in vestibule. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018



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