of the Spanish Synagogue
In the second half of November 1998 the Spanish Synagogue was reopened
on the 130th anniversary of its establishment. Closed for almost twenty
years, its re-opening provides an opportunity for the public to revisit
another notable Prague synagogue. This event was linked to the opening
of the second part of the historical exhibition on the history of the
Jews in Bohemia and Moravia.
The opening of the exhibition was inaugurated by the Budapest soprano
Dagmar Wanke-Szendrey, who performed traditional Yiddish and Sephardic
songs with accompaniment by organist Prof. Michal Novenko. Thus, after
many years of silence, the synagogue once again resounded to the sound
of the organ.
The introductory speech was delivered by the Director of the Jewish
Museum in Prague, Dr. Leo Pavlát. Those present were also addressed
by the First deputy minister of Culture, Ing. Zdeněk Novák . To mark
the importance of the occasion, there was a world premiere of “The Rosenberger
Variations”, a work by the contemporary American composer Heyden Wayn,
which was performed by the Czech Wallinger Quartet. The Jewish Museum
would like to express its thanks to the Czech institutions that helped
fund the successful renovation of the Spanish Synagogue and the installation
of the historical exhibitions. Prague City Hall, Komerční banka and
Transgas a.s. provided financial support for roof and facade repairs.
Prague City Hall also provided financial support for the restoration
of the interior and the exhibition project.
History of the building
The Spanish Synagogue is situated in Dušní street, in an area that was
once the heart of the Jewish Town and the core of Prague’s oldest community
of Jews of eastern Byzantine origin. Its spiritual centre was the Old
School/Synagogue, a house of prayer dating from around the 11th or 12th
century, which was demolished in the 19th century. It was on this site
that the synagogue was built. The building forms part of a protected
area that is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage sight.
The Spanish Synagogue was designed by Vojtěch Ignátz Ullmann (the building)
and Josef Niklas (the interior) in a Moorish-influenced Neo-Renaissance
style and completed in 1868. The interior decoration was designed by
A. Baum and B. Münzberg and completed in the years 1882–93. It consists
of a stucco arabesque with richly gilt and polychrome oriental motifs.
Similar decorative features were also applied in the adornment of the
doors, organ, gallery balustrades and ground-floor wall-panelling. In
1882–83 the windows were glazed with coloured panes.
The synagogue was used for religious purposes from the time of its founding
to the Nazi occupation. It was closed during the Second World War and
in 1942 was converted into a storehouse for items confiscated from Czech
Jews by the Nazis. After the war the synagogue once again served its
original purpose, but only until 1948. In the 1950s, during the Communist
dictatorship, the Jewish Museum’s collections and historic buildings
(including the Spanish Synagogue) were transferred to state ownership.
The synagogue was initially used as a textile depository, synagogue
textiles being exhibited here in the years 1960-79. The building was
later closed as a result of its poor technical state, although none
of the essential repairs were carried out. The Spanish Synagogue became
increasingly dilapidated until October 1994, when the newly-founded
Jewish Museum in Prague prioritised its complete refurbishment.
Spanish Synagogue refurbishment
Prior to the planned complete refurbishment, the Jewish Museum carried
out essential repairs to the roof and the building was re-plastered.
The complete refurbishment was begun by the Museum at the end of 1997
and completed in July 1998. The building work was preceded by an archaeological
survey which, apart from the remains of mediaeval masonry, revealed
nothing of any significance. The extensive building work included, inter
alia, complete restoration and conservation of the original flooring,
installation of a heating system, renovation of electrical installations,
painting of all surfaces, installation of a special lift for disabled
access, and installation of a security system and fire alarms. Restoration
work proved to be a particularly demanding task . The rich and spectacular
painted surfaces of the main nave were restored and renovated. The walls
and ceilings were gilded, the latter being decorated in various colours.
The same amount of care was applied to the restoration of the windows
and window panes, which had to be removed and treated in a special workshop,
and all the wooden features: ground floor and gallery doors, wall panels
and balustrades. Restoration work also highlighted the qualities of
the stone Torah Ark (aron) and the organ. The photograph to the left
shows candelabras that have been restored and candlesticks that have
been repaired. From this brief account it is clear just how demanding
the work was, in terms of expertise, organisation, time and financing.
After being reopened, the Spanish Synagogue is now to be mainly used
as an exhibition hall. Concerts can also be held in the synagogue, which
has a capacity of 140 seats and which can boast very fine acoustics
and an excellent late 19th century organ, whose quality is highly praised
In addition to the main nave and gallery of the Spanish Synagogue, the
Winter Synagogue has also been refurbished. This is to be used for temporary
The exhibition History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia from Emancipation
to the Present, which has been installed in the Spanish Synagogue, deals
with the emancipation of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia and the incorporation
of the Jewish population into the economic, political and cultural life
of society from the 18th to the 20th century. On the ground floor, visitors
may become acquainted with the History of the Old School/Synagogue,
the house of prayer that once stood on the site of the existing building,
and of the Spanish Synagogue. This is followed by the Enlightenment
and Emancipation (1780–1867), with documentation on, inter alia, the
professional activities of Jews, Jewish settlements in Bohemia and Moravia,
and the reforms of Joseph II. Focus is on the revolutionary year of
1848 and the completion of the emancipation process in 1867. It is possible
to trace the development of Jewish culture and education in the sections
on the Enlightenment, Wissenschaft des Judentums (the scientific study
of Judaism), education and conservative/reform currents in Judaism,.
Development during the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918) is covered
by exhibits relating to the topics of Czech and German assimilation,
the Zionist movement, the contribution of the Jews to political and
economic life, and anti-Semitism in the 19th century.
In the synagogue gallery visitors can find out about the historical
development of the Jewish population from the establishment of independent
Czechoslovakia up until 1938. This section deals mainly with the status
of Jews in the field of politics, economy and culture up until the Nazi
occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. References to Jewish figures active
in the world of theatre, art, music and literature highlight the significance
of the Jewish community in this period. The remaining sections of the
exhibition are dedicated to Jewish memorials in Bohemia and Moravia,
the Prague Ghetto, the clearance of Prague’s Jewish Town at the turn
of the 20th century, and the history of the Jewish Museum. The latter
section covers the following: the establishment of the Jewish Museum
in 1906 and its activities up until the German occupation, the Central
Jewish Museum during the Second World War (1942–1945), the State Jewish
Museum (1950–1994) and the present Jewish Museum in Prague (established
Connected to the history of the Jews in pre-war Czechoslovakia is the
section dealing with the fate of the Jewish population in the Protectorate
of Bohemia and Moravia (1939–1945). The key topics, which are covered
with great detail in the exhibition, are the Munich Agreement, the Nuremburg
Laws, deportation preparations, confiscation of Jewish property, the
Terezín Ghetto, transports to the East, and liberation. The final section
concentrates on the post-war period from 1945 to the present. The exhibited
documents and objects recall the return of the deported Jews to their
homeland and the revival of the activities of the Jewish religious communities,
in addition to the emigration of Jews and the cultural activities and
personalities of Jewish religious communities. The curator of the exhibition
is Dr. Vlastimila Hamáčková.
The opening of a temporary exhibition
in the Winter Synagogue
On the same day as the opening of the Spanish Synagogue, a temporary
exhibition that focuses on its refurbishment and restoration was opened
in the Winter Synagogue. This includes photographic documentation of
the whole project, covering building work and the restoration of the
interior. The curator of the exhibition is Dr. Arno Pařík .
After visiting the Spanish Synagogue visitors can go to the small shop
located in the entrance hall. This retail area is rented out by the
Jewish Museum in Prague to the Czech firm “Relax-group”. In addition
to souvenirs related to Jewish topics, the shop also sells public transport
tickets, telephone cards and meal tickets for the kosher restaurants
Shalom and Massada. Visitors can also come here to find out about Jewish
Museum activities and the programmes of its Educational and Cultural
Centre, as well as to arrange accommodation in Prague.