The Czech 10 Stars Project includes 10 synagogues and associated Jewish heritage sites, in 10 towns all over the country which showcase the unique cultural heritage of the Czech Republic.
One of them I had visited was Ustek a small town in the Ústí nad Labem Region. It is located 16 km northeast of Litoměřice and has a population of 2,719. The town is renowned for its medieval center where houses with Gothic gables have been preserved.
The Synagogue in Úštěk was founded in 1794 on a high foundation wall of sandstone cubes at the very edge of a cliff promontory. The retaining wall on the cliff subsoil accentuates the height of the building, which stands out from the housing block and is very well visible from all sides above the brook valley.
I was taken to this beautifully restored Synagogue, not very large but symbolic, rabbi’s house and a school by Lenka Kalakavova , a wonderful, knowledgeable and engaging guide, and with Marek Tousek, Managing Director of Magni tour and operator.
The Jewish Community in Ustek dates back to the Middle Ages and the synagogue was built in 1794. It is located in the old “Jewish Lane. There is an exhibition on Jewish life and Jewish education in the rabbinical house. Unfortunately, the exhibition is in Czech only. A lot of the exhibit is self-explanatory, even if one does not understand the Czech explanations.
A permanent exhibition “The Jewish School System”, documenting the history of Jewish education from medieval times until the present time was installed in the premises. Both the house of the Rabbi and the synagogue were also used as a venue for lectures, concerts and other local cultural and social events.
The synagogue and rabbinical house are not open the whole year round , so it it worth clarifying prior to visiting if it is open and what the hours are .It is also worth coming with a private guide who is able to translate the exhibit from Czech , and explain the historical significance.
We took the opportunity also of visiting the Jewish cemetery which dates back to the 16th century. Long abandoned. There are 211 gravestones on the premises now. The older ones are mostly decorated as it was a custom in the old days, but one can find also modern ones from the late 19th century. One of the significant Art Nouveau gravestones, located in the middle of the cemetery, belongs to the Heller Family.
The Jewish Quarter of Třebíč is one of the best preserved Jewish ghettos in Europe. It was listed in 2003 (together with the Jewish Cemetery and the St.Procopius Basilica in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Rear Synagogue is of two synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. It has beautiful frescos inside. The neighbouring house was built in 1798. It was altered into a Jewish Muesum and made after reconstruction in 2011.
The synagogue, also known as “New” (Neuschul), dates from 1669. After 1837, a new part of women’s gallery was added to its northern part (according to Jewish religious traditions men and women were not allowed to share the same space in the sanctuary). Since 1925, the synagogue has not been used any more for religious purposes and was converted into a storehouse. Both experts and common visitors will particularly appreciate the mural paintings in its interior dating from the early 18th century. Today, the synagogue is used for exhibitions, concerts, and other cultural events.
A permanent exhibition of Jewish culture is available in the former women´s gallery, displaying many valuable objects used in secular and religious life of the former Jewish community whose last page of history was written by the holocaust during the Second World War.
Purim festival and festival of jewish culture now used as a cultural center of the synagogue.
The Jewish Cemetery – it is the original medieval Jewish burial ground near the wall of the Benedictine monastery. Today it is one of the biggest cemeteries of its kind in the Central Europe with the area 11772 sq. metres. It is enclosed by massive walls, contains around 11 thousand graves, and nearly three thousand gravestones, the oldest of which dates from 1625.
Third is Terezin memorial tour. It was 18th century military fortress which was turned by Nazis into the only concentration camp on Czech territory during WWII. There more than 33,000 European Jews died.
In the Terezin, the Big Fortress, a former Jewish ghetto featured the Museum of the Terezin Concentration Camp, where you will see many chilling artifacts, such as a collage of drawings by children imprisoned at the camp. Not to be missed is the propaganda movie, which was produced by the Nazis to present Terezin as a “gift” to the Jews from Hitler. This propaganda movie was supposed to dispel rumors about the horrors of life in concentration camps. In this Fortress we saw Nazi headquarters , the headquarters of the Jewish self-administration and the barracks where tens of thousands of Jews lived in vile conditions. A prayer room, a tiny family accommodation for the Jews, a crematorium, a columbarium. We saw how hunger, stress from slave labor and epidemics riddled prisoners’ lives at the concentration camp. It was a very difficult experience to be there.
These are some of the sights to will see at the Terezin Fortress: Former Gestapo Prison Cells, – Jewish Punishment Cell, Solitary Cells, Showers, Tunnel, 500 meters long , Execution grounds, Swimming Pool for Nazi families, Barracks for 120 SS guards, now a Museum, Lord’s House where the Commandant, and some of the guards lived, Former railway tracks, The Crematorium, The Columbarium, Jewish Prayer Room, Replica attic used by craftsmen and more.
Prague’s Jewish Town
The experience of visiting Prague’s Jewish Town (named Josefov in Czech after Emperor Josef II) will grip your heart. Very few European cities can boast of a well preserved Jewish quarter and Prague is definitely one of them. The Jewish Quarter or the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, known as Josefov, is located close to the Old Town Square. It is well preserved and the smallest quarter in Prague.
One of the best ways to get a sense of Prague Jewish history is to walk through Josefov, either alone or with a tour.
The museums in Josefov come under the umbrella of the Jewish Museum (www.jewishmuseum.cz), which manages six sites. The permanent exhibitions at The Spanish Synagogue contain photos of the old ghetto before it was demolished and a section on Prague´s Jewish writers, including Franz Kafka housed on the first floor, the Jerusalem (Jubilee) Synagogue. The newest and largest synagogue of the Jewish community in Prague is an interesting example of Art Nouveau melded with Moorish style. Its interior is richly painted in Art Nouveau style and houses an exhibition of silver religious artifacts. The Pinkas Synagogue was converted into a chilling holocaust memorial in the 1950s. The name, birth dates and dates of the transportation of each of the 77,297 Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust are inscribed on the walls. Upstairs is an exhibition of drawings by children in Terezín, most of who later died in Auschwitz or other camps. At the Ceremonial House, a former mortuary located near to the cemetery, there is an exhibition on Jewish customs and burial traditions. The Klausen Synagogue features an exhibition of the Jewish Museum dedicated to Jewish traditions and customs and contains a display of religious artifacts. The fanciful baroque The Maisel Synagogue houses an interesting exhibition on the early Jewish settlers in Bohemia and Moravia.
There are four main kosher restaurants in Prague, which were opened for tourists and their popularity with locals can be witnessed at Sabbath dinner every Friday night. Located opposite the Pinkas Synagogue, King Solomon (www.kosher.cz) is the oldest of the four, and serves rich Middle European Jewish food and kosher wine in austere stone-clad surroundings. Tables for the Sabbath (either dinner on Friday or lunch on Saturday) have to be booked in advance by filling out an online order form, and there is also a takeaway service. Dinitz (www.dinitz.cz), tucked behind Španělská synagoga, is a kind of Israeli-Middle Eastern-Mediterranean fusion restaurant. Bookings should be made a week in advance, particularly for Friday (for which there is a flat-rate for four courses) or for Saturday. Shalom Kosher Restaurant is run by the Prague Jewish Community and located inside the Jewish Town Hall. At 450 CZK, the daily menu is not cheap, but it includes three courses, salad and coffee. Also in Josefov, Chabad’s Shelanu (www.shelanu.cz) which is a cafe and deli, with dinner daily, offering simple kosher food. There is a salad bar and Shelanu´s specialty is pareve (dairy-free) ‘milk´ shakes. Kosher food can be bought online at King Solomon (www.kosherfoodonline.cz). In addition, there is a great Chabad Grill Restaurant at The Chabad Maharal Center Open daily from 12:30-22:00. (Fridays from 10:00 – 15:00) and they prepare an amazing Shabbat dinner. SPENDING SHABBAT IN PRAGUE? Don’t forget to Reserve your place at the Shabbat meals.
The Jewish Quarter with its unique architecture and history stands apart from the rest of the Prague in the center of the city. And it is definitely a place worth visiting.
Jewish people in the Czech lands have touched the national culture in a way that is unique in Central Europe. The Jews and the Czechs have a long and close history.
To plan a trip to Czech Republic
Call the Czech National Tourist Office at 1109 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10028 212-288-0830 or for more information: www.czechtourism.com
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Guide & New York Jewish Travel Guide
Fly Air Berlin with a great connection to Prague via Berlin: www.airberlin.com