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Pilsen, Czech Republic

Pilsen (Czech Plzeň) is a city in W. Bohemia, Czech Republic; its Jewish community was one of the earliest in Bohemia. The first documentary record is a decree of 1338, signed by Charles IV, in which the city's administrators were ordered, under penalty, to protect the Jews from molestation.

In 1432, the community bought a plot from the city to be used as a cemetery. It also had a synagogue. Many transactions between Jews and Christians appear on the city records of the 15th century. In 1504, Jews were expelled from Pilsen as a result of a Host desecration charge, and the city was granted the privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis. From then until 1848, Jews lived in surrounding villages and did their business in the town. Jews from all of western Bohemia and Prague attended the Pilsen markets, which became very important in Jewish life.

In 1821–32, Jews were living without authorization in Pilsen and, in 1854, there were 249 Jews in the town. A Jewish cemetery was consecrated in 1856 and a synagogue in 1859. Anti-Jewish riots broke out in 1866. In 1870, the community numbered 1,207. Jews were instrumental in the development of the city into an industrial center of worldwide repute.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the community was among the five largest and most affluent in Bohemia; a Moorish-style synagogue was erected in 1893. The community suffered from the conflicts between German liberal assimilationists, Czech Jews and Zionists. In 1892, the first B’nai B’ith Lodge of Bohemia was founded there.

From 1918, the community supported two rabbis, one preaching in Czech and the other in German. Shechitah was forbidden in 1920 for humanitarian reasons. When the supreme court declared this prohibition illegal in 1934, the attempt to reintroduce shechitah failed because of the higher price for kasher meat.

In 1921, there were 3,117 Jews in Pilsen and in 1930 the community numbered 2,773 (2.4% of the total population). In the fall of 1938, Pilsen became a refuge for many Jews from communities in the Sudeten area, occupied then by Germany, who were supported by funds previously designated for the building of an old-age home.

After the German occupation (March 1939) there were persecutions and arrests of Jews, and the Jewish cemetery was desecrated. A plan to destroy the synagogue was given up only because it would have caused the destruction of an entire city block. In 1940, the rabbi Max Hoch and one of the community functionaries were murdered. In 1942, more than 2,000 persons from all western Bohemia were concentrated in Pilsen and deported to the Nazi extermination camps. The synagogue’s ritual objects were transferred to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague.

After World War II a community was reorganized in Pilsen, numbering 293 in 1948. A memorial for the 3,200 victims of the Holocaust from Pilsen and western Bohemia was dedicated at the new cemetery in 1951. The newly established community, considerably reduced in numbers, was still active in 1970 using the old synagogue and maintaining both cemeteries, and survived into the 21st century. It also administered the Ceske Budejovice congregation.

In April 2022, the Great Synagogue of Pilsen, the second largest in Europe and one of the five largest in the world, opened after a long renovation process. Hundreds of people participated in a parade to celebrate the synagogue’s reopening. Torah was carried during the procession by Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon.

The Great Synagogue, with two 45-meter towers, was completed in 1893 when the city had a population of 2,500 Jews. Daily services were held at the synagogue until 1941. It was not destroyed by the Nazis because they used it to store confiscated Jewish property.

It was later converted to a museum and concert venue before the government agreed in 2016 to return the building to the Jewish community.

It will now house a permanent collection entitled “Here Lived the Jews” and displays of photos of Jewish life in the Pilsen area.

The Pilsen Jewish community has 98 members, according to its vice president Roman Štix.


M. Hoch, in: H. Gold (ed.), Die Juden und Judengemeinden Boehmens (1934), 479–88; Bondy-Dworský, 1 (1906), nos. 213, 222, 255, 256, 258, 287, 307, 321, 322, 336, 423; R. Iltis (ed.), Die aussaeen unter Traenen… (1959), 243–5.

[Jan Herman]

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Historic Czech Synagogue Reopens After Three-Year Renovation,” Prague Morning, (April 12, 2022)