Martin Smok is a Czech researcher, writer and filmmaker who focuses on 19th and 20th century Jewish issues in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He has scripted two documentary film trilogies, one about the Working group of Bratislava, one about the post-WWII involvement of Communist Czechoslovakia in the Middle East. He curated exhibits including a permanent exhibit on the post-World War II history of Jewish Prague, now installed in the Jubilee Synagogue there. He is also the Senior International Program Consultant for the USC Shoah Foundation, the Institute for Visual History and Education.
In this article, Smok describes his current project — restoring the memory of the all-but-forgotten pre-war Jewish community in Prague’s Vinohrady district — and appeals to readers for assistance.
FORGOTTEN IN THE MIDST OF MASS TOURISM
By Martin Smok
I’m trying to save the memory of a forgotten Jewish community in Prague. It’s a community whose synagogue was the largest and most magnificent in the city, but a community that is almost totally unknown by the millions today who visit the Czech capital.
“What do you mean, an unknown Jewish Community in Prague?” people always ask me. “We know everything about the Jewish Community of Prague,” they say. “We have threaded through the Old Jewish Cemetery and seen the tomb of Rabbi Löw, the Maharal, the creator of Golem; we have visited the Jewish Museum; we have drunk coffee in the Franz Kafka coffeehouse – and some of use have even prayed in the Old-New Synagogue. How could anything be unknown about such a tourist hotspot?”
Nonetheless, the very existence of the largest Jewish Community of interwar Czechoslovakia, in Královské Vinohrady (or Königliche Weinberge in German), a residential district an easy walk from downtown Prague, remains virtually unknown. Try finding it in your Prague guidebook.
The Synagogue and the Community
With the gradual modernization of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the second half of nineteenth century, not only the ghetto walls were struck down, but also those surrounding the city. Prague expanded in all directions. That is where the name of Vinohrady (vineyard hill) comes from: in what used to be fields and agricultural settlements above the city proper, a new town was built: a modern town for the new century. Jews moved there too, from all over Bohemia.
By 1882, the first organized High Holiday services were held in Vinohrady, in an unidentified prayer hall rented by a certain Simon Engel from Roudnice, a town north of Prague. In 1884 Moses Stark from Horažďovice became the first Vinohrady rabbi and established a permanent synagogue. It was located in the main marketplace of the new city, Tylovo square. At the same time, donations were sought for the construction of a proper house of prayer reflecting the growing self-confidence and economical success of the Vinohrady Jewish Community – which was legally established in 1890. In 1894, a small structure was built, in a plot of land that was to become Sázavská street. Two years later, with major loans from Czech regional banks, a Great Temple designed by the famous architect Wilhelm Stiassny was festively opened right next to it: with two imposing towers and a huge arch over the portal, it was one of the biggest synagogues in the world. The small synagogue continued to serve as a winter prayer hall.(Stiassny later later designed the still-existing Jubilee synagogue in Prague, as well as a number of other ornate synagogues in central Europe.)
Looking back, the temple building may have made too much of a statement for the times. Its two towers marking the Vinohrady skyline soon attracted the wrath of Czech anti-Semites: “Comparing the old and new Bohemia, [one] could not fail to think of St. Vitus Cathedral above the Lesser Town (Mala Strana) and the Jewish synagogue in Vinohrady. While the old Prague lives in the shadow of the cross, its new district is dominated by two six pointed stars. Indeed, the Jews of today are a sort of master that Czech gentry of the past never was,” wrote one Czech daily.
The first attempted physical attack on the synagogue came in late 1897, during nationalist pogroms triggered by the recall of a language reform that was to have given more power to the national minorities of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Jews (who spoke both Czech and German) found themselves caught in middle of a conflict between German and Czech nationalists. Seen by Czech nationalists as German agents, Jews were attacked by Czech mobs throughout Bohemia. In Vinohrady, most Jewish-owned shops were looted and had their windows smashed; some were set on fire. Even the Jewish orphanages were not spared. The situation calmed down only after the declaration of martial law and the arrival of the Army. The German-language newspaper Prager Tagblatt recorded a dramatic incident from December 2, 1897:
“An attack was also planned against the Vinohrady synagogue. Shortly afterwards the arrival of a crowd armed with stones that gathered in front of the building, somebody called out: ‘The Vinohrady Jewish Community is Czech! Let’s leave the synagogue alone.’ And while shouting Slava! and Nazdar! [Czech slogans] the crowd massed in front of the temple eventually retreated from the synagogue.”
In fact, the Vinohrady Jewish community was among the first to adopt a strictly dual language principle: both German and Czech were the languages of its office – and of its prayers. Thus the services and sermons in the temple alternated among Hebrew, German and Czech. For the rapidly assimilating Vinohrady Jewry the imposing synagogue building became a place to be seen. Getting married in the Vinohrady temple was a powerful statement of social status. The synagogue choir included opera stars of the New German Theater of Prague, and services were treated as musical performances. At the same time, the wealthy community cared for its less fortunate: its ladies’ benevolent society, Frauverein, was established already in 1887 and its general assistance society, Hilfsverein, in 1897. There were several Jewish orphanages and other social institutions in Vinohrady, too. And in the interwar years, the community financially supported various youth movements, an old age home in Frankfurt, a sanatorium in Merano, and Jewish schools in what today is Ukraine. For those interested in Kafka it is worth noting that the parents of Julie Wohryzek, with whom Kafka had a romance, lived in the caretaker’s flat next to the main building of Vinohrady synagogue.
The creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 brought another wave of pogroms to Vinohrady, but also a gradual generational change: first a new chief cantor Shaye Sud arrived from Miroslav, then a new rabbi, Dr. Gustav Sicher, a leading figure of Czechoslovak Jewry until 1960, came from Nachod. The synagogue got a new heating system, the residences of the rabbi, the cantor and the custodian were enlarged, and some of the most redundant decorations were removed from the ornate facade. Nobody could have imagined that cantor Sud and rabbi Sicher would be the last ones the Vinohrady community would ever have.
From 1938, after numerous attempts to handle the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and the Czech borderlands after the creation of the Protectorate and the promulgation of the anti-Jewish laws, the Jewish community offices next to the synagogue became one of the collection centers of formerly Jewish property. This is where Jews of Vinohrady were ordered to bring their fur coats, radios, and other items they were forbidden to own anymore. Cantor Sud escaped to America and Rabbi Sicher left for Palestine, and an emergency orphanage for small children, or kinderheim, was established in their apartments adjoining the temple. According to the testimony of Edita Flusserova, one of the nurses there, the first inmates were children of refugees from Germany. The orphanage was managed by Hanka Epsteinova, a true hero of social work with children during the Holocaust. The writer Ruth Bondy, who worked in the Sazavska street orphanage as a cook, has recalled the incredible energy and strength of Epsteinova, and her devotion to the children until her murder in Auschwitz. Unfortunately, no photographs of this forgotten heroine have been found yet.
After the start of deportations of Jews from Prague on October 16, 1941, the kinderheim was moved to another location, and the entire complex of the Vinohrady synagogue became “storage No. 7” that held the stolen property of deported Jews, to be further managed by the Nazi Treuhandstelle organization. The orphanage premises held “paintings, graphics, frames and bicycles”, while the main building was used for storing furniture. The cellar was filled with cooking utensils and similar household items.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1945, at a time when the majority of Jews of Prague had already been murdered, the Vinohrady synagogue was hit by an incendiary bomb during an Anglo-American air raid on Prague. The main hall, filled with furniture, burned down completely — the German authorities allegedly barred Czech firemen from dousing the fire. The small synagogue, front façade, towers, and the living quarters that used to house the kinderheim were saved. Three months later, the few survivors who returned from the camps were faced with a question what to do with the burnt-out shell of the synagogue that was a symbol of a world that did not exist anymore. As anti-German sentiment was running high again, and the synagogue was seen by the Czech authorities as a symbol of Jewish Germanization, a proposal was made by the City of Prague to make it into a gym and sports arena for the Czech nationalist sporting organization Sokol. Another proposal came from the surviving Jewish Community: to demolish the synagogue and replace it with several residential houses, of which one would be given to the Jewish community to house survivors – and a small prayer hall would be allowed to exist there too.
With the onset of Communist rule all these proposals were scrapped. In the spring of 1951 the synagogue was demolished. When the Jewish community of Prague expressed interest in using the bricks resulting from the demolition to restore the walls of the old Jewish cemetery in the Liben district, the authorities rejected the request – they responded that the bricks were strategic material belonging to the state. All traces of the synagogue complex in Sazavska street were removed, and the land and all other formerly Jewish social institutions in Vinohrady were nationalized. (You can find the site of the complex today with this link: http://goo.gl/maps/P9qdb)
In 2011, the city district of Prague 2 in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Prague decided to sponsor a research project examining the diverse Jewish past of what used to be Královské Vinohrady – today split into parts of the districts Prague 2, Prague 3 and Prague 10. This has entailed scouting the world for the last witnesses, photographs and artifacts that could help reconstruct the lives of a proud and prosperous Jewish population that also lived on the borderline between national, linguistic and religious identities.
The research so far hints that most of the relevant material has survived in countries of immigration, not in Prague. Between 1938 and 1940, the Jewish inhabitants of Vinohrady escaped by the hundreds to Palestine – and to Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba and the United States. Only those who escaped could have saved family archives that may help us to fill in the blanks.
So now I have a request.
If your family archives do hold any material that could help capture the history of the Jewish presence in Královské Vinohrady/Königliche Weinberge, please contact me at email@example.com, or join the Vinohrady research project Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/454118427972251/