As the third largest in the world, the great synagogue is one of Plzeň's most notable architectural landmarks.
The synagogue was built in the late 1800's. The Czech lands were still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, but the reforms of new Emperor Franz Josef in the 1870's gave the Jewish communities the security and confidence necessary for such grand community building projects.
Post-reform optimism and freedom
In this period of optimism and unprecedented freedom the first stones of Plzeň's great synagogue were laid in 1888. The original plans for the synagogue were for a great and impressive building to rival even St Bartholomew's cathedral. It was to be a huge construction in the northern Gothic style with a steep high roof and two soaring 65 metre spires, but precisely because it would compete with the church, the city officials refused permission for the project unless it was redesigned.
The new plans were approved in 1890. The new design preserved the original ground plan but shortened the towers by a third and dismissed the Gothic style in favour of a skillful blend of neo-renaissance columns and arches decorated with Oriental elements.
The synagogue was completed in 1893 and served its community until the Second World War. With only a fraction of the pre-war Jewish community returning to Plzeň after 1945, the synagogue was used less and less and fell further and further into disrepair until eventually being closed for safety reasons in 1973.
Post communist restoration
After the fall of communism, Plzeň's small Jewish community set about raising money to restore the synagogue and with support from the Czech Ministry of Culture and the city of Plzeň it was reopened in 1998 and welcomes visitors from April through October every day of the week except Saturday.
The synagogue is also used as a venue for evening concerts and other cultural events, and the corridors are used to display exhibits of photography connected with Jewish culture. Prayer services are held regularly in a small rear section called the winter synagogue.
The entrance to the great synagogue is on one of central Plzeň's busiest streets; Sady pětatřícátníků. There are four or five steps up to the main wooden doors and the ticket office is just inside and to the right. A corridor then leads around to the right and a side door to the synagogue proper.
The impressive main hall is as wide and high as the interior of St Bartholomew's, but in the synagogue, painted scrolls, vines, stars of David, stripes and geometric block patterns cover almost the entire interior in an opulent arrangement of maroon, deep blue, gold, and dark green.
Right at the rear is the staircase that leads up to the women's gallery and this is the place that offers the best views of the ceiling vaults, the stained glass windows and down across the main body of the synagogue. It was quite a surprise to me to find such a lovely, peaceful place in the centre of Bohemia's second largest city and I could happily have sat in there for hours, just soaking in the atmosphere.
The Great Synagogue in Plzeň
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