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Czech synagogue renewal key part of communal revival

PRAGUE, Feb. 22 (JTA) — It is a tale of two synagogues. One is being restored to its former glory; the other is being rebuilt on the ashes of one of Central Europe’s largest synagogues. Closed for decades since World War II, the Great Synagogue of Pilsen was rededicated earlier this month after undergoing some $1.7 million in renovations. “It was incredible,” said Arnost Bergmann, leader of Pilsen’s Jewish community. “It was like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it.” The synagogue, which has two 150-foot towers, can seat more than 200 people – – almost double the number of the city’s small Jewish community. Participating in the Feb. 11 ceremonies were the chief rabbi of the Czech Republic, Karol Sidon, and Israel’s ambassador to Prague, Raphael Gvir, who carried a Torah to the synagogue from the head office of the Pilsen Jewish community. The speakers included the mayor of Pilsen, Zdenek Prosek, who commemorated the 3,000 local Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The synagogue, which was built at the end of the 19th century, was saved from destruction during World War II because the Nazis used it as a storehouse for looted Jewish property. About 15 years ago, the local Jewish community began raising funds for its renovation. “We approached companies and Jewish communities all over the world,” said Bergmann. “But we couldn’t raise more than $3,000.” Then, in 1991, the Czech government designated the synagogue a historical site and earmarked $1.7 million for its renovation. The Pilsen municipal government also contributed to the effort. An additional $2.9 million is needed to refurbish the frescoes, organs and rabbi’s quarters. Bergmann said the synagogue — which he described as one of the world’s largest — will not only be used for worship, but also for concerts and cultural events, which he hopes will cover operational expenses. In the northern Czech town of Liberec, the local synagogue needed far more than a renovation. When Nazi troops stormed through Liberec in November 1938, demolishing Jewish shops and homes, they intended to crush Jewish life in the northern Bohemian town forever. The local synagogue, which was built in 1889, was destroyed. “There was nothing but ruins,” said Samuel Gutman, head of Liberec’s Jewish community. “The Germans did a thorough job.” But now construction crews are busy erecting a building that will house a synagogue and research library whose collection will reflect its location in the former Sudetenland, which lies at the crossroads of three cultures — Czech, German and Polish. Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938 after signing the Munich Pact with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose widely criticized policy of appeasement was intended to prevent the recurrence of a world war. “We got the land back through restitution and were deciding what to do with it,” said Gutman. “We wanted to pay tribute to those who perished in the Holocaust and decided this undertaking was worthwhile.” The project was launched in October 1995 under the patronage of Czech President Vaclav Havel and his German counterpart, Roman Herzog. They had hoped it would promote good relations between the two countries, both of which have pledged to cover the construction costs. The new synagogue’s sanctuary will seat 120 people — more than ample space for the 84 members of the town’s Jewish congregation. The building will also house a lecture hall and the administrative offices of Liberec’s Jewish community, which consists of 30 families. Gutman said that the synagogue, which is slated to open in the spring of 1999, is the first to be built in the region in 60 years. The new building will also house an extensive library that will include more than 200,000 volumes of non-fiction in Czech and other languages. The library’s vice director, Hana Opatra, said the collection would be unique. “It has a lot of material from the second half of the 19th century and from the first four decades of this one,” she said. “Much of the material deals with issues connected to the Sudeten region.” Authorities anticipate visitors not only from the Czech Republic, but also from Poland and Germany. Certainly, some of the material in the library will touch on what curators refer to as the “sometimes tense and awkward relations” among the three nations bordering the Sudeten region. It is an uncomfortable subject for some — but one that is being given some attention.

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