Around the Jewish World: Czech Town’s Lost Jewish Community Remembered Through Shul Restoration

A 260-year-old Czech synagogue that was set to be flattened by bulldozers 10 years ago has reopened as a lasting memorial to a town’s lost Jewish community.

In June 1942, all 45 Jewish inhabitants of Ledec were transported by the Nazis to Terezin transit camp — also known by the German name Theresienstadt — and later to Minsk in Belarus. The transport was reprisal for the assassination in Prague of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. None ever returned.

After the Jewish community was destroyed, the synagogue was used as a warehouse to store paper and later cement. As time passed, its condition worsened to the point where the local authorities decided to knock it down and build a bus station on the spot.

But in 1990, it was saved by monument enthusiast and photographer Frantisek Pleva, who persuaded the Czech Ministry of Culture to designate the building as a cultural monument.

“I am not Jewish myself. It simply seemed to me a waste of a cultural monument. It is important to preserve because it is a memorial to the community that lived here,” Pleva said.

According to Pleva, the Jewish community always got along well with Ledec’s other residents. “Jews lived together with Czechs without any problems,” he said. “The local Jewish plumber used to play cards with the mayor who wasn’t a Jew.”

Pleva formed an association with three friends to buy the building from a construction company for $250. But realizing they didn’t have the money to restore the building, in 1996 they handed it over to Prague’s Jewish community, which was happy to take on the project.

“This village synagogue is one of the few remaining of its type,” said Prague Jewish leader Jiri Danicek. “Its age is very significant and it is concrete evidence of Jewish history in the area.”

With the support of the local town council, an $80,000 restoration project was launched to convert the synagogue into an exhibition and concert venue. It is expected to become a tourist attraction as the oldest historical site in the town.

For Arno Parik of the Jewish Museum in Prague, the synagogue will play a significant role in the town’s wider community.

“It will have an effect on people who don’t know anything about Jewish culture. The attitude of young people especially will change in the sense that those who have thought of Jewish culture as something exotic or strange will see it as is alive and part of the culture of the country as a whole,” Parik said.

There were some surprises in store for restorers. Scraping away soot from the former synagogue’s walls the legacy of a fire that damaged the building in the 1970s — they found some original floral patterns dating back to the synagogue’s construction in 1739. They also found extracts of Psalm 29 in Hebrew.

The synagogue will partly be used as an exhibition center, detailing the town’s Jewish history. It will include a section on one of its most famous residents, Marie Hermann, mother of the Czech Jewish conductor and composer Gustav Mahler. Concerts are also planned for the synagogue, which contains a memorial plaque featuring the names of the 45 Jewish residents who never returned from Terezin.

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