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Around the Jewish World: Restored Makeshift Synagogue Draws Thousands to Czech Site

June 5, 2000
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The fading Hebrew inscriptions that adorn the walls of a small storeroom in the town of Terezin can be seen in virtually any synagogue around the globe.

But thousands of Jews have been flocking to the recently discovered room because of its unique role in history — as a makeshift synagogue during the former Czech ghetto’s darkest days.

What makes the place of worship even more special is that it is the only remaining example of its kind at the wartime transit camp, also known by its German name of Theresienstadt, in which more than 30,000 Jews died.

The historical significance of the 20-square-yard prayer room is evident to those who have entered it via a courtyard tucked behind an ordinary terraced house in the center of the town.

“It is unbelievably valuable,” said the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon. “It shows the ghetto from a different side than usual. When I saw the room for the first time it was extremely moving because it shows that people were able to believe there, even in the ghetto during the war.”

The walls of the room, which stands near the original railway track used to transport Jews to Auschwitz, feature a selection of Hebrew liturgical inscriptions along with drawings of Jewish symbols.

On the front wall is a verse from the Amidah, the core of Jewish daily prayer services, “May our eyes be able to envision your return to Zion in mercy.”

The words were almost certainly written by a German Jewish ceramic worker, one of a number of craftsmen living in the neighborhood during the ghetto’s existence between 1941 and 1945. Local experts believe the craftsmen, who were permitted to live in relative comfort because the Nazis needed their skills, used the storeroom as a temporary synagogue.

According to Vojtech Blodig, the Terezin Ghetto Museum’s deputy director of education, the Nazis may well have been aware of the synagogue.

“The Germans’ philosophy was very simple,” Blodig said. “Let the Jews pray, let them play theater and perform concerts in the ghetto because they will all die later.”

Although several similar places of prayer were scattered across the town during the war, this is the only example that survives.

“This room was preserved because for years it was in a terrible mess. It was used as a storage area for boxes and hay,” Blodig said.

“Other rooms in attics or garages were used as synagogues but they were destroyed and no remnants of original inscriptions and drawings on the walls survived.”

The existence of the synagogue only came to light after the fall of communism in 1989, when the granddaughter of the property’s original owner finally revealed its story.

“I knew about the synagogue the whole time,” said local teacher Hana Cerna, 63.

“But because during communism the Jewish religion was taboo, and no one talked about the ghetto, I didn’t tell anyone. The news only broke after the Velvet Revolution,” as Czechoslovakia’s break from communism is known, “when I told my schoolchildren that I had a synagogue at my home.”

The condition of the prayer room had deteriorated badly by the time the Ghetto Museum learned of its existence. After half a century of neglect, inscriptions on the lower half of the walls had perished beyond repair.

The museum reached a deal with Cerna under which they would repair the roof and restore the prayer room in return for regular access. They brought in Prague restorer Dominika Machacova to save what she could of the inscriptions and drawings.

“It was in a very bad state,” she said. “It was very humid and rain was coming through the roof.”

Machacova spent five months conserving the original paint layers, finishing her work in 1997.

“Its historical value is greater than its artistic value. It is a wonderful discovery,” she said.

The prayer room was kept in its original state as much as possible.

“I didn’t want the room to be repainted,” Sidon said. “It is real this way and it would have lost the urgency of reality.”

That sense of reality has deeply moved many of the Jews from around the world who have already visited the site. Local guide Jan Netrval explained that some visitors burst into song or said prayers in the room, while others left letters, candles, flags and flowers.

“It is a great piece of history and some people become very emotional,” he said. “Yesterday there were people whose parents died in Terezin. The ones who were here, or whose parents were here, feel very strongly.”

American rabbi Joshua Hammerstein, writing in the New York Jewish Week after a visit to the synagogue, described it as “an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.”

He continued, “We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn’t matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls.”

Those interested in visiting the site won’t find it easily without arranging an official tour because the owner has no plans to advertise the synagogue openly.

“I know that some of today’s young people, I mean skinheads, do not like things like that. I wouldn’t put a board outside my house saying that I have a synagogue here.”

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