22 April 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
65, Pinkas Synagogue, Prague

The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague is a memorial to 77,297 Czech Jewish victims of the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week, I am offering photographs of synagogues that have welcomed me over the years and offered a place of prayer and reflection. My photographs this morning (22 April 2021) are from the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, a 16th-century synagogue that is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

The Jewish Quarter has six surviving synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. This is the second oldest surviving synagogue in the Czech capital. Its origins are connected with the Horowitz family, a renowned Jewish family in Prague.

The synagogue is built in the Gothic and Renaissance styles. For example, the reticulated vault is in the late Gothic style, but its ornaments have Renaissance features, and the portal is pure Renaissance. An annex in Renaissance style was added between 1607 and 1625, and so the synagogue was extended with a vestibule, a women’s section and a balcony. The annex was designed by Judah Tzoref de Herz, who was also the architect of the Maisel Synagogue in Prague.

The floor of the synagogue is below the ground level so it has suffered repeatedly from floods and moisture. In the second half of 18th century, it was necessary to restore the aron-ha-kodesh or holy ark and the bimah or reading platform, which had been damaged by flood. Both were restored in the Baroque style.

In 1793, Joachim von Popper, a successful businessman and communal leader, donated the wrought-iron rococo grille that still adorns the bimah. The grille is decorated with the emblem of the Jewish community in Prague – the six-pointed Magen David or Star of David with a conical Jewish hat.

Radical steps were taken in 1860 to address the problem of floods. The floor level of the synagogue was raised by 1.5 metres. The baroque bimah as removed, the seats surrounding the walls in the traditional synagogue arrangement were replaced with church-like rows of pews, and the interior was now dominated by a pseudo-Romanesque style.

However, less than century later, during reconstruction in 1950-1954, the original floor-level was restored, as well as the appearance of the synagogue. In the following five years, the inside walls of the synagogue were covered totally with the names and biographical dates of 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the Shoah. These names are arranged by communities where the victims came from and are complemented with the date of birth and death of each individual where these are known.

The memorial was designed by painters Václav Boštík and Jiří John. It opened to the public in 1960, but was closed after less than a decade in 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – ostensibly because of the problems caused by moisture in the synagogue. After the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1989, the synagogue was restored over a three-year period and opened to public. However, it took another three years to restore the inscriptions of the names on the walls that had been damaged by moisture in the intervening years.

An exhibition on the first floor displays pictures drawn by children and young teenagers in the concentration camp in Terezín (Theresienstadt). The children were given drawing lessons and encouraged by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), a painter who had studied at Weimar Bauhaus.

The walls of the Pinkas Synagogue are covered with the names of 78,000 victims of the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 44-51 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 44 ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

The names of concentration camps inscribed on the wall around the Aron haKodesh in the Pinkas Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (22 April 2021) invites us to pray:

God, we have damaged Creation beyond recognition. Give us the strength and resilience to pursue ecological justice and live sustainably.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The wrought-iron rococo grille that adorns the bimah seen from the women’s gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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