PRAGUE (Sep. 30)
Prague’s world famous Pinkas synagogue has reopened following one of the most arduous and complex renovation projects ever undertaken by the city’s Jewish community.
The synagogue, which is one of the best-preserved sites in Prague’s former Jewish town, was seriously damaged in August 2002 when water surged through underground channels from the nearby Vltava River during extensive flooding in the Czech Republic.
Local Jewish officials found the entranceway of the shul flooded with contaminated ground water and mud, with water levels reaching more than 4 feet above the ground floor.
The water also destroyed electric underfloor heating and thermal insulation and damaged artificial marble around the shul’s bimah and ark.
The Jewish Museum, which administers the shul, was particularly worried about the structural integrity of the building and the fate of nearly 80,000 names of Czech Holocaust victims hand-painted on the building’s walls.
Museum officials decided to form a team of specialists — including a climatologist, microbiologist, chemist, structural engineer, paint restorer, hydro-geologist and stone restorer — to examine and restore the building.
“It was complicated work because of the geology of the area around the synagogue,” Jewish museum historian Arno Parik said, adding that underground springs had damaged the building’s structure over time.
Museum staff carried out initial restoration work immediately after the floodwaters drained away, cleaning the building with special chemical solutions to prevent mold.
The team of experts then strengthened the shul’s structure with prestressed steel rods, treating individual structural cracks while gradually reducing dampness in the synagogue through artificial condensation. The team also had to maintain constant air circulation and a stable temperature to limit further deterioration.
Despite all efforts to protect the inscribed names, however, experts found that about 1,500 names were beyond repair. Work on reinscribing them will start in October and should be completed by next April.
The $285,000 bill for all the renovation work was covered largely by insurance and donations from a number of Czech and foreign institutions, and from international Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.
“The synagogue is symbolic because there are 350 years of Prague’s history here,” said Parik during a press briefing at the synagogue, which reopened Tuesday. “The reopening of the Pinkas synagogue is important for those young people who are descendants of those who died in the Holocaust and for the many people from around the world who want to come and see the names.”
Michaela Hajkova, curator of the Jewish Museum’s Visual Art Collection, welcomed the reopening of the shul but said the worst was not necessarily over.
“We will still have to monitor the situation,” she said. “We don’t know what climatic changes will take place in the winter when it starts to freeze. We will have to watch whether the cold causes cracking in the walls.”
Also on Tuesday, a permanent exhibition, “Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-44,” was returned to the Pinkas synagogue from the Jewish Museum collections. The exhibition features hundreds of original drawings by the thousands of children under 15 who were held in the Terezin ghetto during the World War II.