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Prague Shul Gets Facelift, New Life After 60 Years As a Storage Facility

March 5, 2003
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A Prague synagogue is being given a new lease on life after falling into disrepair for more than 60 years.

Smichov Synagogue, described as the oldest and biggest synagogue in the Prague area, is being reconstructed to serve as an archive and reference center for the Jewish Museum in Prague.

The synagogue, built in a neo-Roman style with a Moorish interior, is being restored to its former beauty by the Jewish Museum, which says the “historically accurate” reconstruction will be completed by the end of this year.

The archives and new center are expected to be moved into the reconstructed quarters at the start of 2004.

The synagogue, which will include study and research rooms for professionals and the general public, will be used in part as an archive for papers documenting the history of Czech and Moravian Jewish communities before 1945.

It will also house 2,500 paintings and 10,000 other artworks owned by the Jewish Museum. A special air-conditioning system will be used to preserve the artworks and documents.

The synagogue was originally built in 1863 to cater to a huge influx of people to Prague after a ban on the movement of Jews was lifted in 1848.

By the 1930s, the synagogue was expanded when the local Jewish community grew to between 1,500 and 2,000 members. The expansion, which almost doubled the size of the shul, was carried out by architect Leopold Ehrmann, who is also believed to have worked on Franz Kafka’s tombstone, according to Arnold Parik, an official from the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Ten years later, in the fall of 1941, the synagogue was closed and turned into storage space for goods confiscated by the Nazis from the Jewish community, whose members were sent to ghettos and concentration camps.

After the war, the synagogue served as a storage room for a neighboring factory.

In the early 1990s, the shul was returned to the Prague Jewish community, which turned the building over to the Prague Jewish Museum for reconstruction.

“In 1992, the community did not have enough money to finance the reconstruction as there were more pressing projects to carry out,” Parik said.

In 2000, the museum started planning the reconstruction. Actual work began two years later.

The overall cost of the project is estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the final sum is not known yet, according to Milan Licka from the Jewish Museum’s construction and investment department.

The devastating floods that hit the Czech Republic last August delayed the reconstruction, but Licka said the December 2003 deadline would nonetheless be met.

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