Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Simchat Torah in Hermanuv Mestec, CZ

(Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006)

I have received word that on Oct. 22, Simchat Torah will be celebrated in the restored synagogue in Hermanuv Mestec, a small town in Bohemia about 60 miles east of Prague.

The even will be a joint celebration by Prague's liberal Bejt Simcha congregation and the Progressive Temple Sinai congregation from Wellington, New Zealand. Temple Sinai has a Torah scroll that comes from Hermanuv Mestec, which it received through the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust. The Trust was responsible for rescuing the collection of 1,564 Torah Scrolls and 400 Torah Binders that formed part of the "precious legacy" of ritual objects looted from more than 150 destroyed Jewish communities and collected at the Jewish Museum in Prague during the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II.

For further information on the celebration, contact Bejt Simcha: kehila@bejtsimcha.cz

Jews settled in Hermanuv Mestec in the early 16th century. At its height, in the mid-19th century, the community numbered about 840 people. Many were active in the local shoe industry. At the outset of World War II, only about 60 Jews still lived there.

The neo-Romanesque synagogue was designed by the architect Frantisek Schmoranz and built in 1870 on the site of an earlier synagogue. It stands in the remains of the old Jewish quarter on Havlickova street, near St. Bartholomew's church, a few steps away from the main market square.

According to a detailed information booklet that I picked up when I visited the synagogue a coupe of years ago, Schmoranz originally had planned a larger and more ornate building with a tower, but that design was quashed over fears by the local Catholic clergy that such a synagogue would overshadow the church.

After World War II the synagogue was used as a church and then as a warehouse -- the first time I visited, in about 1990 or 1991, the sanctuary was willed by piles of huge industrial spindles filled the sanctuary.

The building was beautifully restored a few years ago and now forms part of an art gallery complex. Inside, intricate geometric and floral patterns cover the walls; stained glass windows gleam in the windows, and the Ark, topped by the Ten Commandments, is resplendent with gilding.

(Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006)

The Jewish cemetery has more than 1,000 tombstones, oldest legible dates from 1647, is about 200 yards away, off Havlickova. Some of the older stones feature delicate carving and asymmetric shapes; others have an almost clumsy, primitive look. (It is well maintained, and a caretaker lives on the spot.)

Both the synagogue and the cemetery have been declared national cultural monuments.

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