In February 2001 the Jewish Museum in Prague relocated to two
newly refurbished buildings next door to the Spanish Synagogue on the
site of the former Old Shul. The history of these buildings stretches
far back into the past.
In 1834 the Ritual Reform Society in Prague acquired the use
of the Old Shul and the two adjoining buildings which came into the
synagogue’s hands after 1726. The Old Shul was modernized in 1836 and
regular services were introduced on 19 April 1837. As there was insufficient
room for its rapidly growing congregation, however, a decision was taken
in 1866 to build a new synagogue. The Old Shul was pulled down the following
year and replaced by a new house of worship (with 500 seats for men
and 300 for women). This was dedicated on 26 May 1868 and became known
as the Spanish Synagogue.
In 1892 the congregation arranged to buy three small adjoining
buildings on the south-facing side of the synagogue. These were pulled
down and a new congregation building was erected on the site. The ground
floor of this building housed a caretaker’s room, a congregation room
and archive and a winter prayer hall. It was probably around this time
that the Reform Society bought a house on the north-facing side of the
synagogue. This house was demolished during the clearance of the Prague
ghetto at the beginning of the 20th century; it was replaced in 1925
by a larger building whose design (by Lampl and Fuchs) conformed to
a Moorish style in line with the requirements of the heritage department.
The ground floor housed a winter prayer hall, conference hall and office;
the rest of the building was let out to community members. The building
on the south-facing side of the synagogue remained intact until 1935
when it was demolished and replaced, despite opposition from the heritage
department, by a modern Functionalist building (designed by Karel Pecánek )
which included a new entrance hall, gallery staircase and winter prayer
hall on the upper level.
There were originally shops and rented rooms in the south-facing
annex. In 1940 the building was converted by František Zelenka into
a Jewish hospital, which was the only place where Jews could receive
medical treatment at the time. After the war the buildings around the
Spanish Synagogue housed a youth hostel and a Jewish children’s centre.
In the 1950s the buildings came under the administration of the nearby
St. Francis Hospital; geriatric wards were installed and utilized until
the mid-1990s. In 1994 the two hospital buildings along with the Spanish
Synagogue were returned to the Prague Jewish Community, which later
handed them over to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The Museum had them
reconstructed in 1999-2000.
The reconstruction project was prepared by the Czech architectural
practice Znamení Čtyř (Martin Bambas, Juraj Matula, Richard
Sidej). The brief involved changing the function of the buildings in
order to meet the specific operational requirements of the Museum. This
was achieved by enlarging and fully utilizing the interior spaces and
connecting the two buildings on all floors. Another ambitious task was
to install depositories and restoration workshops. This was done in
close collaboration with the architects and an environmental control
specialist (Jan Červenák ) who addressed all interior and exterior
risk factors (i.e., placing archive spaces on the north-facing side
improving the thermal insulation of outer walls, etc.). The new facilities
include the very latest in technology and fulfil all the conditions
necessary for the operations of these specialist units.
The synagogue entrance and a new café run along the facade of
the functionalist building which is oriented onto an open space. On
the shaded north-facing side of the other building are situated the
new archive and library storage rooms, metal restoration workshops and
a ground-floor exhibition hall. The main architectural adaptations on
the ground floor include the café and main entrance. The latter has
been extended into a stylish entrance hall with cladding in high quality
materials. Another important detail of the interior design is the generous
lighting through the stained window of the main rosette above the Ark in
the Spanish Synagogue.
On the ground floor of the newly reconstructed building are situated
the Robert Guttmann Gallery (for temporary exhibitions of modern art)
and a new information and reference centre, which is equipped with the
latest in computer technology. The public areas are located on the ground
and first floors, including the library and study, collection department
study, photo studio, photo archive and curators’ offices. On the second
and third floors are facilities with limited public access - textile
and metal restoration workshops, a new paper restoration workshop, depositories
and offices of the Judaic Studies and Holocaust departments. On the
top floor are situated the economic department, exhibition and public
relations department, computer network section and the director’s office.
A lift has been installed in each building. The Museum’s technical facilities
and stores are located in the basement and the security office is on
the ground floor.
Future Newsletter issues will include more detailed information on the
facilities and operations of the Museum’s departments, depositories
and restoration workshops.
Vavro Oravec - A Painter
In mid-January 2001 a temporary exhibition of paintings by Vavro
Oravec opened in the winter prayer hall of the Spanish Synagogue. This
show, entitled A Painter of Soul, features 34 paintings from 1969-99
which were donated to the Jewish Museum in 2000. The curator is Arno
Pařík . It is the most recent in a series of exhibitions held by the
Jewish Museum which intend to bring the work of completely unknown
or almost forgotten Jewish artists of the 20th century to the attention
of the general public. In 1998 there was a display of naive paintings
by Viktor Munk and two years later a display of paper works by the
little known artist Chava Pressburger (born in Prague and living in
Vavro Oravec was born in the Slovakian town of Tvrdošín (1915),
studied medicine in Bratislava (1933-38) and worked in hospitals in
Bardějov and Nitra. After the establishment of the State of Slovakia
(March 1938) he continued his hospital work for a while and then helped
out in the Jewish Council’s offices in Bratislava and gave lessons to
Jewish children who had been expelled from school. The only art education
he received at this time was a three-month retraining course in the
ceramics studio of J. Horová and S. Fischerová in Bratislava (which
he attended after being banned from practising medicine). He was arrested
in Autumn 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, from where he was sent to
the Gross Rosen Camp and Blechhammer.
After the end of the war Vavro Oravec went to Prague where he
studied stomatology at Charles University and in 1948 began to practice
dentistry. In his free time he tried his hand at painting,visited exhibitions,
attended a course of art lessons and studied the art of the nude under
Jan Bauch. He later turned for artistic advice to his painter friends
from the May 57 group (R. Fremund, R. Piesen, J. Kolínská, J. Balcar,
Z. Sekal, J. Švankmajer and others). He first exhibited his work together
with a group of doctor painters in 1955. Helped on by a natural talent,
he was soon to master the basics of painting, without ever losing his
original naiveté, unique sensibility and distinctness of expression.
Three one-man shows in 1959, 1962 and 1965 reflected a significant
development in his art and his outlook . He never acquired the technical
proficiency and skill of a professional painter, but he turned this
weakness to an advantage. He had to explore and discover everything
for himself, reflecting with humility and a keen awareness of life.
Prof. Jaromír Pečírka said of Vavro Oravec’s work in 1959: ”There is
something mysterious in his pictures... as if the remnants or echoes
of some ancient culture were hidden inside ... the patina of something
that is not new, something that was experienced and cherished not only
by the artist but by his ancestors ...”.
With the exception of a few landscapes and figures, Oravec’s
work was for a long time almost exclusively centred around portraits.
These are imaginary pictures, based on a deep affinity and close relationship.
The faces of children and young girls reflect war-time experiences and
are steeped in sadness.
After the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968
Oravec emigrated to Berne. His work in exile was marked by new motifs
that recall extreme experiences from Auschwitz and the death marches.
His portraits of his ancestors, parents, relatives and friends as well
as his stylized self-portraits tend to depict states of the mind rather
than external features. From the outset, however, a series of portraits
of his kindred spirit Franz Kafka predominated. These were later followed
by portraits of other authors, such as Marcel Proust, Robert Walser,
Hermann Hesse and Ernst Troller, as well as his favourite artists Amedeo
Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Karel Černý.
Vavro Oravec’s pictures all radiate an ineffable sense of magic,
evoking a dreamlike atmosphere and depicting a world that is either
long since past or existing on another level of consciousness. Through
his art he seeks a pathway to himself, to forgotten events, people and
objects, to their hidden meanings and to a sense that is hopelessly
eluding the rest of us in the course of life.
The exhibition runs until 30 April 2001 (daily: 9.00 am - 6 pm,
Saturdays and Jewish holidays: closed).
Jewish Moravia, Jewish
An exhibition entitled Jewish Moravia, Jewish Brno was
held in the Brno House of Art between 17 December 2000 and 18 February
2001. Organized by k 2001 (a company concerned with culture and dialogue)
this show brought together over 500 exhibits and documents from the
thousand year history of the Jews in Moravia and Silesia. Many
of the ritual objects displayed were loaned from the Jewish Museum in
Prague (78 exhibits). Among the finest synagogue textiles on loan were
a Torah curtain from Brno (1697), which is decorated with striking embroidery,
and one of the oldest surviving Torah mantles from Moravia (Loštice,
1735). Loaned metal artefacts of note included an alms box from Brno
(1763), a Torah crown from Miroslav (1816), a Torah shield from Mikulov
(1799), a Kiddush cup from Jihlava (pre-1623) and an 18th century Hanukkah
lamp from Northern Bohemia. The Jewish Museum’s art collection was represented
by 8 portraits from the 19th century. 6 prints and manuscripts from
the 17th century were restored for the purposes of the exhibition.
Purim Reflections in the
A special event, entitled Purim Reflections, took place
in the Spanish synagogue on Monday 5 March. This was prepared by the
Jazz Phonic Agency in association with the Jewish Museum. Leo Pavlát
opened the proceedings with reflec-tions on the subject of Purim. In
the evening Vida Neuwirthová and Peter Rose performed excerpts from
The Song of Songs, the Secretary of the Federation of Jewish
Communities Tomáš Kraus read a letter from the famous Czech actor Jan
Werich on the festival of Purim, and Oren Anolik from the Israeli Embassy
in Prague talked about Purim celebrations in Israel. Musical highlights
included Purim Tunes performed by Michal Fořt, Vida Neuwirthová
and Yizzband, flute variations from Bizet’s Carmen performed by Markéta
Stivínová and guitarist Tomáš Illy and Fantasia on a Persian Dance
performed by Vaselius a Larisa Pomelnik . The event was compered by
the actress Táňa Fischerová and musical accompaniment was by Debora
Dostá-lová. The successful Purim Reflections followed on from
the Hanukkah Meeting-Reflections, a tradition that is set to
continue in the Spanish Synagogue.
Bedřich Fritta, Ivan Klíma: This is not a fairy tale - it’s real!
The Jewish Museum has just published the first English translation
of a short story by Ivan Klíma with unique pictures by the Prague artist
and caricaturist Bedřich Fritta. These pictures were created in the
Terezín concentration camp. The artist compiled them for a book which
he gave to his son Tommy on his third birthday. Bedřich Fritta died
in 1944 shortly after being deported to Auschwitz. His son, then aged
four, was the only member of his family to survive. He has preserved
this book as his father’s legacy. An older boy called Ivan Klíma was
living at Terezín at the same time as Tommy. It was here that his first
literary efforts took shape. The two boys met each other many years
after the war. To accompany Tommy Fritta’s picture book , Ivan Klíma
wrote a story about a boy who didn’t become a number. (English, 108
pages, 51 colour reproductions)
A delegation of the American Jewish Committee from the U.S.