The Great Synagogue of Olomouc

olomouc synagogue

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights reserved

From “Pavel’s Violin”
Chapter 19: By The Theresien Gate
1897

In her day, Maria Theresa had not been a great friend of the Jews. It was an irony, therefore, that so many places crucial to the history of the Jewish people were named in honor of that de facto sovereign, the last but three of the dying Holy Roman Empire. Most were dedicated by her son, Joseph II, perhaps in gratitude for her making his own Imperial career possible. Two of Joseph’s projects, in particular, came to play important roles in the lives, and deaths, of many Olomouc Jews. One was a fortified town near Bohemia’s border with Germany, built between 1780 and 1790. Another was the Theresientor in Olomouc, a triumphal arch in the city wall, completed in 1753. The first, Theresienstadt, would one day become a concentration camp where tens of thousands of Jews died. The second became, in 1897, the site of one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Europe. Yet it, too, was doomed to death and destruction.

Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim ascended the bema of the new Synagogue on the proudest day of his life, and the most joyful day in the history of Olomouc Jews. It had begun some two hours earlier as people were entering the Theresienplatz through the Teresien Gate in the northeast. The gate itself was a magnificent Triumphal Arch, intentionally preserved when the city walls had been demolished a few years earlier. It was made with red brick, and faced with granite blocks and friezes. The keystone of the main arch bore an image of the Empress, and above, in Latin, the legend MTHERESA DGRIGHBR and the date MDCCLIII. Maria Theresa, by the Grace of God Emperor of Rome Queen of Germany Hungary and Bohemia, 1753. It had been part of the Theresien Wall, and contained guardrooms within several smaller arches.

Once through the Gate, guests found themselves on a wide greensward with paths winding through trees, shrubs and spring flowers, with the main path running from the Gate to the Portico of the Synagogue. Those who arrived neither too early nor too late encountered hundreds of people milling about, or clustered in small groups in animated conversation. It was a beautiful spring day, a week before the start of Passover. A Sunday morning of light blue skies and large white clouds. And to the left, the magnificent new Synagogue, the morning sun backlighting the massive central dome.

“Herr Gartner! Herr Gartner, over here!” The architect turned and waved, as the cluster of well-wishers approached him. They were upon him in a moment, competing to shake his hand. Jakob Gartner, the renowned architect from Vienna, had been chosen to build the Synagogue, which had been completed in two years at a cost of nearly two hundred fifty thousand gulden. Gartner happily pointed out various architectural features, as the crowd grew larger around him.

The building was designed in the Oriental Byzantine style with alternating layers of red and white brick. The large central dome caught the eye first, topped by a cupola and spire. At the front corners stood two towers with smaller, matching domes, in a rich green. Five arches, three in the central façade and one in each tower, surrounded arched stained glass windows, topped with rosettes. At the peak of the gable were two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments of the Law. The building measured twenty-two by thirty-nine yards altogether, and the height of the dome was about one hundred and fifteen feet. Perhaps there may have been some sort of synagogue in the old Omolouc, before Ladislav the Posthumous had expelled the Jews in 1454, but certainly it would have been nothing like this. It was a fitting match for the Cathedral of Saint Wenceslaus, across the city.

As 10:00 o’clock neared, the crowd began to hasten through the three front doors, to find the best seats for the concert. The Synagogue had seating for four hundred and forty men and three hundred and four women. But soon there would soon be only standing room. The Jewish population itself was more than sixteen hundred.

The front vestibule in the northwest led directly into the main hall, on the ground floor, for the men. A side stairway led to the women’s balcony, which overlooked three sides of the hall. And in the center of the hall there rose the great dome, an ironwork structure fully as tall as the outside height of the building, and held high by four massive pillars. At the east end of the interior was the elevated bema with the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark for holding the Torah scrolls, in the shape of a small temple. Also on the bema were the Table for reading the Torah, and a pulpit for preaching. Beyond the Ark, to the southeast, was a small daily house of prayer, with its own Ark and pulpit, and benches for fifty people. The choir and organ were set above that, facing out into the hall. The organ, a fixture of the Jerusalem Temple, at least according to Scripture, had been reintroduced to synagogue worship early in the century, not without controversy.

The Synagogue organist had been playing a Bach prelude as the guests entered and found their seats. As the music ended, Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim stood, and surveyed the crowded pews. This was the first official function in the new Synagogue, which had not yet seen its first service of sacred worship. That would come on Friday evening, an especially auspicious Erev Shabbat, because it would also be the first night of Passover.

“This is a deeply meaningful day for the Jews of Olomouc,” he said. “Nearly thirty years ago, the Jewish people returned after an exile of four hundred years. Far longer than our forefathers sojourned in Babylon, and very nearly as
long as we dwelt in the land of Pharoah. Almost fifty years ago, after the rebellions of 1848, our beloved Emperor Franz Joseph released us from exile for a time, and many Jews in the countryside began to come back to Olomouc. It took another twenty years for our emancipation to become complete, but since then the Jewish community in Olomouc has grown and prospered.”

Martha Oppenheim looked down proudly upon her husband from her own place of honor in the women’s balcony. Their own journey had been shorter and easier than that of the Children of Israel. Berthold came from a family of Rabbis. He had been called to Olomouc in 1892 after serving as Rabbi for two years in Miroslav, south of Brno. He had studied in Berlin and Breslau, and Martha was certain he had a remarkable career ahead of him. He had only been in Olomouc two years when the Jewish community decided they were big enough for a synagogue. And no small synagogue either! One a hundred and twenty feet high with three domes, and room to seat almost eight hundred people. She looked around at the cavernous hall, filled to capacity. “I thank Thee, Lord, I thank Thee,” she thought

“And so,” he was drawing to a close, “all are welcome here today. Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, Czech and German.” He added the last with careful emphasis. “Please enjoy our brief concert.”

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk
All Rights Reserved

Sukkos, from “Pavel’s Violin”

sukkah2

       The Feast of Sukkos was everyone’s favorite holiday in Lipnik. The Rabbi explained it as a celebration of the liberation from Egypt, and the wandering in the desert. A time, he lamented, when “the Jews were more religious than they are these days.” The Talmud commanded that once a year, at the end of the Holy Days, Jews should be build a temporary booth, a sukke, in their yard and live in it for a week. Well, strictly speaking only the men were obligated. But the rest of the family “dropped in” often, and all meals were shared there.
“The sukke reminds us that the Holy One, may His Name be blessed, brought us out from slavery in Egypt,” the Rabbi said each year, “and taught us for forty years in the wilderness before giving us the Promised Land.”
But every holiday had its worldly roots as well, and it was those roots that people who were not Rabbis were most likely to celebrate. Originally the Feast of Booths was a harvest festival, when villagers would live in temporary shelters out in the field, bringing in the harvest, and celebrating their bounty.
“Which is why our sukke today,” Levi whispered, eyes darting about for the Rabbi, “is decorated with gourds and vegetables, and wheat, which no Jew ever found in the middle of a desert!”
By the time they had finished hanging decorations, and putting up a table and benches, it was nearly dark. Miryam and Beylke, along with, the daughters in law, began carrying platters and baskets of food from the house. Levi busied himself with a final inspection of the sukke, the Papa’s duty.
It could be of any size a family needed, as long as it had at least three walls, which could be of any material. The roof had to be natural, however, usually cut branches. The Mishna said so. It had to be solid enough to give shade, but open enough so you could see the stars through it at night. In nice weather it was nice. If it rained, it rained. And when the sun went down on the first day of the feast, the celebration would begin. In the gathering dark, Miryam lit the two candles, saying,
“Blessed are you Adonai Eloheinu, who has commanded us to light the candles of Sukkos.” Levi waved a sheaf of grain and a basket of fruit before them.
“Blessed are you,” he said, “Who gives us the fruit of the earth.”
“Can we eat now?” Anshel begged, from behind his mother, and they all laughed.
“I think we have a wise grandson,” Levi said. “Let’s eat!”
~
After the feast, with stars shining through the roof branches and fresh candles lighted, everyone helped to clear away the dishes. Brandy was brought out for the adults, cider for the children, and the eldest daughter, Mryam’s only daughter, Beylke, began the evening’s festivities with the family’s traditional request,
“Tattenyu!” she called out to her father, “Tell us the story of the Little Sukke!”
“Well, children, gather ‘round,” he said with a grin. This was always the signal for everyone to “gather ‘round,” no matter what age, on benches or on the ground, to listen to Reb Levi’ song.
“You know,” he said, surveying his many children and grandchildren, “Our sukke is not so little.” He gestured with a wide sweep of his arm. “But that is because our family is not so little!” Everyone laughed. Those same words were spoken every year. “And this story, about a sukke a kleyne, is not so much about a little sukke, but about a beloved sukke.” He paused and smiled at them all. “A beloved sukke for a beloved family.
“Of course I cannot tell the story without my fiddle!” he announced. The children all clapped with delight, the adults following their lead. Levi reached into a corner behind the table and brought out his old violin, the one he had used for this moment every year since the children could remember.
He made a great show of tuning the strings, taking far more time than was actually needed. This too was part of the family tradition. The young ones jostled and squirmed with anticipation, inching ever closer to their grandfather. The adults remembered days gone by, when they had done the same thing, in the same sukke. Levi continued to tune his strings, with mock seriousness, until he was interrupted by a young voice in the middle of the crowd,
“Grandpa! The story!” and, remembering his place, “Please!” Levi looked up, in pretended surprise.
“What? Oh. Oh yes, the story!” He drew his bow across the strings, testing his tuning.
“This song is an old, old story about our people. It was first told many years ago, when we escaped from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land.” Eidel, Beylke’s daughter, raised her hand.
“Were you there, Grandpa?” she asked. Levi pulled on his beard.
“You think because of this beard I’m as old as Methuselah?” he laughed. “No, Eidele, it was too long ago, even for me. But if you are a Jew, it is always just as if you had escaped from Egypt yourself. One day,” he turned serious for a moment, “you will understand.” He looked all around before going on.
“Tonight, everyone, I have two surprises!” again the children clapped gleefully. “Beylke, my Daughter, come sit with me.” Beylke smiled. She knew what was coming. She went quickly to her father, and sat next to him on his bench.
“Here is the first surprise,” said Levi, his eyes twinkling. “Beylke has been taking lessons from me on the fiddle.” Everyone laughed. That was no surprise. They had all heard the sounds of those lessons for months, beginning with scratches and squeals, slowly becoming softer and sweeter.
“She has been taking lessons,” Levi said, “and now she is ready.” He handed the fiddle to her, “and tonight she will play for the sukkaleh tale!” More joyful clapping, and a cheer from Motke, her husband. Beylke blushed, and raised the instrument into position.
“This is an old, old tale,” Levi began, “and it has been told many times, in many lands, in the many languages our people have known. Many of the words have changed many times, and doubtless will continue to do so in the many years ahead.
“This is really a song about two sukkes,” he held up his fingers. “A little one, and a big one. We are sitting in the little one.” Everyone laughed. “Well, I know it looks big, but, believe me it is little compared to the other.
“The big sukke is our people, the Jews. It is so big that millions of us from all over the world fit into it!” A gasp arose among the children.
“But even if our little sukke looks weak, like a little storm could knock it over,” He paused and looked at one of his grandchildren. “Motel,” he asked, “has our sukke ever fallen down?”
“No, Grandpa, never!”
“Aha!” said Levi. “Never! And the big sukke is just like that. Only much bigger. For thousands of years we Jews have faced many trials and dangers. We have faced many storms, and sometimes we were afraid our story might be all over, and that our big sukke would come crashing down. One time it was the Egyptians in the Torah. Last summer it was the Prussians right here in Olomouc! The big sukke has been shaken by so many storms, but has it ever fallen down, Motel.”
“No!” Motel shouted. ”Never!”
“And so, no matter what fears come upon us,” Levi concluded, “we Jews may be shaken, but we will always stand.”
He nodded to Beylke, who began the sweet, plaintive tune, her slender fingers light upon the strings, playing, not with a learned technique, but with an inborn gift. Levi began the to sing.

A sikele a kleyne,
mit breytelekh gemeyne . . .

There was no sound, except for the father’s voice, and the daughter’s violin.

My Sukkahleh is small, not fancy at all
but is especially dear to me.
Thatch I put on a bit, hoping to cover it,
there sitting and thinking I’d be.

The wind was a cold one,
the cracked walls were old ones,
the candles were flickering low.
At times as if dying, but suddenly rising,
as if they did not want to go.

My sweet little daughter
sensing the danger,
got scared and started to cry.
“Father,” she cried,
“Don’t stay there outside
the Sukkah is going to fall!”

Fear not my child, it’s been quite a while
the Sukkahleh still stands strong.
The wind has been worse my dear,
but it’s been several thousand years,
yet the Sukkahleh still stands strong!

Beylke played the last half of a verse as an ending, and lowered the violin. The children looked around, quietly, in awe, at Beylke, at Levi, at the walls of their own sukkaleh that rustled and creaked in the night breezes. Miryam had tears in her eyes; as did all of all the adults.
“Our People haven’t fallen yet,” Levi said, “and we never will.”

 

Copyright 2017, Walter William Melnyk, All Rights reserved