2 Czech communities renovate their shuls

PRAGUE — It is a tale of two synagogues.

One is being restored to its former glory; the other is being rebuilt on the ashes of one of Central Europe's largest synagogues.

Closed for decades since World War II, the Great Synagogue of Pilsen was rededicated recently after undergoing some $1.7 million in renovations.

"It was incredible," said Arnost Bergmann, leader of Pilsen's Jewish community. "It was like a dream come true; I couldn't believe it."

The synagogue, which has two 150-foot towers, can seat more than 200 people — almost double the number of the city's small Jewish community. Participating in the recent ceremonies were Karol Sidon, the chief rabbi of the Czech Republic, and Israel's ambassador to Prague, Raphael Gvir, who carried a Torah to the synagogue from the head office of the Pilsen Jewish community.

Speakers included the mayor of Pilsen, Zdenek Prosek, who commemorated the 3,000 local Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

The synagogue, built at the end of the 19th century, was saved from destruction during World War II because the Nazis used it as a storehouse for looted Jewish property. About 15 years ago, the local Jewish community began raising funds for its renovation.

"We approached companies and Jewish communities all over the world," said Bergmann. "But we couldn't raise more than $3,000."

Then, in 1991, the Czech government designated the synagogue a historical site and earmarked $1.7 million for its renovation. The Pilsen municipal government also contributed to the effort. An additional $2.9 million is needed to refurbish the frescoes, organs and rabbi's quarters.

Bergmann said the synagogue — which he described as one of the world's largest — will not only be used for worship, but for concerts and cultural events, which he hopes will cover operational expenses.

In the northern Czech town of Liberec, the local synagogue needed far more than a renovation.

When Nazi troops stormed through Liberec in November 1938, demolishing Jewish shops and homes, they intended to crush Jewish life in the northern Bohemian town forever. The local synagogue, which was built in 1889, was destroyed.

"There was nothing but ruins," said Samuel Gutman, head of Liberec's Jewish community. "The Germans did a thorough job."

But now construction crews are busy erecting a building that will house a synagogue and research library whose collection will reflect its location in the former Sudetenland, which lies at the crossroads of three cultures — Czech, German and Polish.

Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938 after signing the Munich Pact with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose policy of appeasement was intended to prevent the recurrence of a world war.

"We got the land back through restitution and were deciding what to do with it," said Gutman. "We wanted to pay tribute to those who perished in the Holocaust."

The project was launched in October 1995 under the patronage of Czech President Vaclav Havel and his German counterpart, Roman Herzog. They hoped it would promote relations between the two countries, both of which are covering the construction costs.

The synagogue's sanctuary will seat 120 people — the town's Jewish congregation has 84 members.

The building will also house a lecture hall and the administrative offices of Liberec's Jewish community, which consists of 30 families.

Gutman said the synagogue, which is slated to open in the spring of 1999, is the first to be built in the region in 60 years.