The Pinkas Synagogue is the third oldest building in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, otherwise known as Josefov, behind the Altneu Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery. The newer buildings from the 17 and 1800's tell a story of acceptance from the non-Jewish community and integration into society. In short, they tell the story of the break-down of prejudice, and the rising quality of life for Jews. The Pinkas Synagogue today stands as a memorial to how wrong those sentiments were.
The Early History of the Synagogue
The original Synagogue was built in the 11th century by Rabbi Israel Pinkas, who gave the Synagogue its name. The story of how Pinkas found the money to build the Synagogue is a very strange one. Pinkas was a very poor man, so poor that he was unable to even feed his family properly for the holiday of Pesach (Passover), which was soon to be approaching. As he lay awake one night pondering his ill fortune, he heard a crash emanate from his front room. He went to investigate and found that his front window had been caved in. Wincing at the surprise expense, given his already severely limited means, the Rabbi began inspecting the window, and found the carcass of a small monkey, whose stomach was full of gold coins, lying in the middle of the broken glass. Evidently, the window had been broken by the monkey being thrown through it. The next morning, Rabbi Pinkas went out of his house to find out what had happenned, only to find the local goldsmith looking for his pet which had gone missing. When Rabbi Pinkas asked what animal the missing pet was, he was told that it was a monkey. Putting two and two together, Rabbi Pinkas immediately went home and picked up the body of the monkey, which was full of gold which he badly needed, and returned it to the goldsmith, ensuring that all of the gold was returned as well. Together, with the help of a confession by the goldsmith's servants, they pieced together what had happened. One measure of the quality of gold can be gained by biting it. The monkey saw the goldsmith biting gold every day and began to do the same, but whereas the goldsmith would simply bite the gold, the monkey would eat it. Eventually the monkey's stomach became full of gold and it died from malnutrition. The servants, on finding the monkey dead, played a trick on Rabbi Pinkas by tossing the monkey through his window, but, on impact, the monkey's stomach split, revealing the gold. The servants later confessed to this crime, and the goldsmith gave all of the gold in the monkey’s stomach to the Rabbi. The Rabbi was so happy that he used the gold to build the Pinkas Synagogue.
In 1535, the ownership of the Synagogue passed to the Horowitz family. The Horowitz family was crushed in the scandal following the death of Diego Pirez. Pirez was a Portuguese man who circumcised himself, renamed himself Shlomo Molko and declared himself to be the Mashiach (Messiah). The Horowitz family were big supporters of Molko (Pirez), and when he was caught and burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition, they lost a lot of money and their position in society.
The Synagogue was closed during The Second World War, as the Jewish inhabitants of Prague were sent to their deaths in the Nazi concentration camps. Ten years after the end of the war, the Czech Jewish community, such as it was, that had returned decided to erect a memorial. They spent four years painting every single name, 77,000 in all, of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who had died in the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, by this point, Czechoslovakia was in the grip of Communism, and the Soviets tried to recast the Holocaust as a mass murder of anti-fascists. In 1967, after The Six Day War, every Communist state, with the exception of Romania, severed diplomatic ties with Israel. Jews inside the Communist states were regularly persecuted as Zionist collaborators and in 1968, in the ultimate insult, the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, which had taken four years to inscribe, were whitewashed.
The Communists claimed that this was due to leakages and essential repair work, but whatever the reason, this was seen as the ultimate attempt by the Communists to recast the victims of the Holocaust and take away the Jewish aspect of it.
In 1989, after Communism fell in The Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. His first act as President was to commission the names to be rewritten on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue. Finally, in 1996, on Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day, the Synagogue was reopened as a permanent memorial. Although the names had to be rewritten after the 2002 flood, the memorial has remained to this day.
In 1997, American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came to Prague and visited the Pinkas Synagogue, and, in doing so, found the names of her grandparents written on the walls, thus discovering her Jewish heritage. Many people feel that this is too cinematic to be true, and that the event was staged. The fact that there are 77,000 names on the walls does make randomly finding two seem all the more improbable, but many still maintain that the story is true.