Many photographers have focused their work on surviving — if ruined — Jewish heritage sites in Europe. The Czech photographer Štěpán Bartoš has a documentation, exhibit, and book project where he photographs the blank spaces in the Czech Republic where destroyed synagogues once stood.
An exhibition of his photos is currently on show in the cafe of the Exil Theatre in his hometown, Pardubice. (It has also been mounted this fall at the Galerie nEUROPA in Dresden, run by one of the project partners, the Kulturaktiv association, and two other venues.)
“I had done some work in the past related to the mapping of Jewish architectural monuments in the Pardubice and Hradec Králové regions,” Bartoš told the Czech Radio’s English language service.
During that research, I found that there were many ‘blank spaces’ left. While many have been preserved, such as the synagogue in nearby Heřmanův Městec, there are many more spaces where a synagogue once stood. I wanted to take photos where something was missing.
Like the Obecnie Nieobecni project, which adds transparent images of matzevot to its pictures, Bartoš added a ghostly silhouette of the destroyed synagogue to the exhibition photos of the places where they once stood.
(The photographer and writer Jason Francisco has also at times focused on empty spaces.)
On the Invisible Synagogues project web site (which is in German and Czech) you can see galleries of his photos, without the added silhouette, arranged according to region. They include sites in big cities, small towns, and tiny villages; there are fields and rural spaces as well as modern buildings, crowded city streets, and even artificial lakes.
The destroyed synagogues ranged from monumental landmarks such as in Prague and České Budějovice, to small village shuls. When viewed one after another, the total erasure of these synagogues — and the memory of them — is quite stunning.
“In the photos we see the places where synagogues used to stand,” states a description of the project on the Kulturaktiv web site.
Most of them disappeared between 1938 and 1989. Sometimes it is obvious that “something is missing” in the picture – only the synagogue has disappeared and other buildings in similar architectural style have remained. […] Mostly, however, it is difficult to imagine the original urban situation of a place through which the so-called construction of socialism swept. It was sometimes quite difficult for the author to find the right place for the creation of the picture…
A century ago, about 400 synagogues stood in what is now the Czech Republic. About 50 synagogues in rural communities were demolished or converted for other use, including residences, well before World War II. Starting with the Nazi occupation of border areas in 1938, about 70 synagogues, many of them prominent ornate buildings, were destroyed by the end of the War. The Nazis all but eradicated more than 150 provincial Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia. Under the post-war communist regime some 105 synagogues in these towns were demolished.
“In Pardubice, for example, the synagogue was not demolished until the early 1960s,” Bartoš told Czech Radio. “In its place grew the so-called House of Services. Next to it, there used to be a Jewish school, opposite the equestrian barracks, while across the crossroads stood the Veselka Hotel.”
Bartoš has documented sites in around 150 places in Bohemia and plans to continue the project in Moravia in 2022.