The historic Moravian town of Třebíč, some 140 km south east of Prague, is known for having perhaps the best preserved Jewish quarter in the country. In 2003, the town’s Jewish heritage sites, together with the Catholic basilica of St Procopius, were added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage.
Třebíč is set in a deep valley on the Jihlava River. When you arrive in Třebíč today, you need a certain amount of imagination to picture what the town must have looked like in the past: a thriving Jewish quarter, surrounded on three sides by rocks and the river, set between the castle and the Christian town. Today, Třebíč is besieged by panel housing projects erected in the 1970s and 80s to accommodate the workers of a nearby nuclear power plant. But as soon as you cross the river and find yourself in the narrow winding streets of the Jewish quarter, you feel like nothing has changed.
At the heart of Třebíč’s Jewish quarter is one of the most significant buildings of the former ghetto - the Rear Synagogue. It’s no longer a house of prayer; it belongs to the town and is the starting point for visitors to the Jewish Quarter. Inside the main hall, I am joined by Michal Řídký, a guide for the local tourist centre.
“The synagogue was built around the year of 1669, so it’s about thirty years newer than the front synagogue, and it was built in the Renaissance style. It consists of this main hall, the small hall, and the women’s gallery, because men and women were separated here during the service. Women also had a special entrance to the synagogue, there was a staircase outside. Later, a house was built just next to the synagogue, and the stairway became a part of it. A funny story is connected with that – the owner of the house was obligated to let the women go through his house into the synagogue, so every week, the women would pass through his house.”
That’s one of the charms of the Jewish town. No house is quite like another, the result of centuries of restrictions when the Jewish people could not live outside the ghetto. Many buildings have very complicated layouts; when you want to enter a house, you sometimes have to pass through the one next door. In the late 18th century, the average number of people living in one house was 17. As soon as Jews were granted equal rights in the 1860s, rich families moved to big cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Vienna, or perhaps Brno. Some families remained in Třebíč but bought houses on the town square across the river. Only the poorest stayed on inside the ghetto, and were soon joined by the Christian poor. A religious and ethnic ghetto turned into a social one. After WWI, the Rear Synagogue was no longer used for services.
“It was in the 1920s. Between the wars, it was used as a storage area for leather. There was a tannery in the Jewish quarter, and they used it for storage. After the Second World War, they stored potatoes here until the 1980s, so you can imagine that the building was in terrible condition and it was quite difficult and expensive to restore. But it happened and now it’s used as a cultural hall for exhibitions, concerts, and so on.”
Not much changed inside the ghetto for most of the communist era – except the houses were ever more neglected and shabbier. The authorities even planned to get rid of all the mess, remove everything that was there and replace it with several panel blocks of the type that have since spoilt the town’s skyline.
“Yes, that’s true. It was at the end of the 1970s because this quarter was really in a terrible condition; it was partly empty and nobody cared for the houses too much. That’s why the communist authorities wanted to demolish the whole area, and build here four concrete panel buildings. Fortunately, they didn’t have enough money for the project so it was never done, and today we can admire the interesting streets and everything else in this quarter.”
A new era for the Jewish town started after the fall of communism. People started buying the old houses and renovating them; several restaurants and cafes opened in the old ghetto, catering for the growing number of tourists. Lydie Kheková bought an old house in the ghetto in which she set up a ceramics workshop. She says that the real turning point came six years ago, when UNESCO included the Jewish town, the Jewish cemetery and the basilica on its list of world heritage sites.
“We bought the house in 2001, and in 2003 we completed the renovation, and finished this workshop, so I’ve been making ceramics for six years now. We bought the house two years before it was listed by UNESCO. At that time, nobody believed that it was going to happen, so we restored the whole house. The preservationists liked it very much but we paid for the whole thing ourselves because the town only started subsidising renovations once it was listed in UNESCO. Anyway, there were so many visitors after UNESCO; people just kept coming to have a look. That was quite a boom.”
She lives in what is known as the house with the well. During the renovation of her house, an old well was discovered. She cleaned and restored it, and is happy to show it to all who knock on her door. When she showed me around, an electric pump was running because Ms Kheková uses the water for her workshop.
“When we had Japanese people filming here, they in fact asked me to turn the pump on so that the water surface shivered a little and they could see it better. The surface is right here. The well is four and a half metres deep, and it’s beautifully lined with chiselled stones. Just like the house, it was built in 1724.”
Michal Řídký, my guide through the Jewish town, says that once Třebíč became a UNESCO-listed monument, the numbers of visitors tripled. After a few years, however, the enormous interest slowly dwindled – and so has the pace of renovations in the ghetto.
“I think that in the 1990s the situation was much better because prices were much lower, and it was much easier. Now people seem to prefer buying brand new houses instead of getting an old house in this quarter where you can’t have a garden or a swimming pool and things like that because there is not so much space here. So recently, the process of renovation of the Jewish quarter has been stagnating a little.”
Walking along the narrow streets, you can see some beautifully restored houses, and also houses on the verge of collapse. But Michal Řídký has no doubts that even thought the initial enthusiasm is over, the future of the Jewish Quarter in Třebíč is safe.
“You can see houses which are now under renovation, so I am optimistic. I think it is going to get better. For example, the former poorhouse is now being reconstructed into a hotel, with five small houses around the yard. So it’s still improving but not as quickly as in the beginning.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 6, 2009.
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