The sixteenth-century process of confining Jews into ghettos was an expression of a Christian Europe that was wracked by religious wars over the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Although the Church had religious and economic motivations for the segregation, Jews gained a modicum of autonomy among their kinsmen. They practiced their trades and followed their culture and religion in a tight Jewish community milieu.

Interior of the synagogue in Polná, before its restoration, 1991. Click to view enlarged

Though many old ghettos disappeared as they succumbed to modern urban development, some are fairly well preserved. In Polná, a way-station town between Prague and Brno, there is a ghetto complex that has been relatively undisturbed since its inception in 1681. Formerly separated from the town by upper and lower gates, the 32 houses of the complex define 2 courts joined by a narrow passage. The upper court is a large, unpaved open triangle sloping gently downhill — past a well, the hand pump of which still produces water, and a solitary clump of trees — to the seventeenth-century synagogue. The lower court is a small rectangle.

A kehillah lived in this complex for nearly three hundred years, leaving behind not much more than the synagogue, a community building, and a wooded cemetery outside the town. Without Jews since World War II, the ghetto is now a proletarian neighborhood that still projects something of the ethnic atmosphere of its former inhabitants. It has been proclaimed a National Heritage Zone and local authorities have made considerable progress on restoration of the synagogue.

With their 50 families of more than 300 persons by 1714, the kehillah needed a community building. An annual fee of 2 gulden and 20 kreuzer secured a permit to build a Jewish town hall. By the century's end, as the kehillah counted 87 families, 16 new houses completed the larger upper triangle and formed a smaller court on the south below the synagogue. The Jews were loyal patriots. When Emperor Ferdinand V arrived in 1836 for a state visit to the district town of Jihlava, a large deputation of Polná Jews went in grand procession to welcome him. They carried aloft magnificently embroidered flags and held Torah scrolls decked in holiday mantles.

The kehillah reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, with 128 recognized families: a total of 770 persons. Large families of Jewish poor crowded the ghetto houses, while some of the more affluent moved out to the town. A descendent of Count Dietrichstein contributed 80 gulden toward the expansion and repair of the synagogue in 1861. The original vaulted ceiling had cracked despite the 40-year-old iron reinforcements, therefore its replacement was a flat ceiling on steel I-beams under a slightly peaked, tiled roof that held aloft a gilded Star of David. The interior was beautifully refurbished.

Sadly, the kehillah enjoyed its renovated synagogue for only a very short time. The worst fire in Polná history spread through the town only two years later, destroying most of the houses; three thousand people, including all the Jews, lost their homes. Gifts for the victims poured in from many parts of Austria. Four Jews participated on the distribution committee. Although the community succeeded in rescuing the Torah scrolls, the parokhot, and much of the ceremonial silver, the synagogue was a charred shell that had to be completely rebuilt.

The last rabbi of Polná, Rabbi David Alt, emigrated in 1920 after most of the ghetto houses had been sold to Christians and only 85 Jews remained. One of the last resident Jews of that period, Esther Gutman, who came to Israel in 1938, told us of her childhood:

"By 1930 we were only a few Jewish families in town and it was hard for my grandfather, the hazzan, to gather a minyan for the prayers. There was no one to be a shulklapper to summon Jews to prayers, so he used to send my sister and me out to knock on doors and urge people to come to the Sabbath evening services. For holidays, it was his custom to invite the town poor and passing Jewish travelers from Slovakia and Carpatho-Ruthenia to a festive dinner at our house, so that there would be a minyan for prayers."

The Nazis confiscated all Jewish property during World War II. They shipped documents, books, and ritual Judaica to Prague, for the projected "museum of decadent Jewish culture." Of the forty Jews deported from Polná, only two children and two adults returned. There was no one to renew community life. The abandoned synagogue served briefly as a church of the Czech Brethren, then as a storeroom as it slowly fell into neglect and ruin. The roofless synagogue and rabbi's house in Polná were among the early parcels of former Jewish property restituted in the early 1990s to the Jewish community in Prague, custodian of Czech Jewish communities.

Feucel, his wife and Musil, local residents. Click to view enlarged

Facing a narrow alley just off the large court, the north facade of the seventeenth-century synagogue contains two stone portals, each with an indecipherable keystone inscription. The left portal once led to a gallery that collapsed in 1969, leaving only a mound of bricks and broken plaster. The portal on the right leads to a long anteroom and, by a left turn, to the main hall. Two of the original four granite pillars still guard the entrance to the sanctuary, where weeds flourish in the cracks of the broken stone floor. A bare niche in the east wall marks the location of the Ark. A charity box had been torn from the partition wall near one of the pillars, and a plaque that blessed its donor, Yidl Filitz has since been stolen. Built originally in Baroque style the synagogue underwent restorations in 1863 which introduced neo-Gothic elements, the most prominent of which are the tall, lancet arched windows.

After half a century of neglect and misuse, the Polná synagogue is undergoing a restoration funded by the municipality and the Prague kehillah. The work, including research, continues in earnest with support from the Ministry of Culture. The roof was restored in 1992 and scaffolding filled the interior for a long time. A small Aron Kodesh that turned up in the town museum storeroom in 1930 is now undergoing restoration; it served in the small prayer room, but will eventually replace the large missing Ark in the synagogue. When completed, the restored synagogue will serve as a concert and exhibition hall, and it will house a museum of the history of the Jews in the Vysociny region. One section will display selected items from Polná's Judaica, now stored in Prague's Jewish Museum.

Jan Musil, a gentile octogenarian and lifelong ghetto resident, was employed by the Communists in the 1950s to strip the synagogue of valuables. When we visited, he reminisced with us and said, with a wry smile on his ruddy cheeks, ". . . I heard about the Jewish treasure hidden in the synagogue when I was taking down the brass candelabra there. They said it was in the shape of a golden calf, buried somewhere inside. We started a hectic search. We dug all over and knocked on all the walls, but couldn't find it." Then he leaned out from the ground floor window to huddle with Josef Fencl, our translator. Both of them laughed and looked around the courtyard. Fencl explained, "People watched all morning as you crisscrossed the ghetto and the synagogue with your fancy camera equipment. They're convinced that you Jews know exactly where to find the golden calf and that you have come here to take it away."

Abridged from: Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman, Synagogues Without Jews, pp. 167-172 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000)

Introduction l Preface l Interview l Dubrovnik l Rhodes



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