David Aschkenas photo exhibit at JCC explores synagogues of Prague and Budapest

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In 23 photos, David Aschkenas tells a reverent story of Judaism in two eastern European cities.

Between 2011 and last year, the Highland Park resident made three trips to Prague, Czech Republic, and Budapest, Hungary, to photograph synagogues, cemeteries and other scenes in Jewish communities that suffered through the Holocaust.

His exhibit at the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill captures the enduring grandeur (such as the stunning three-level Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest) and the loss (a wall of Holocaust victims' names at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague).

"It's an important show, and it's a good show," museum director Melissa Hiller said, lauding Mr. Aschkenas' work for a richness sometimes missing from photos of dramatic scenes. The exhibit, through June 30, also is running at Prague's Jubilee Synagogue.

‘Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas’

Where: American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center, Berger Gallery, Robinson Building, 5738 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill.

When: Through June 30. Gallery hours are Mondays through Thursdays 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Information: www.jccpgh.org; or 412-697-3555..

Mr. Aschkenas visited sites typically off limits to visitors (the High Synagogue in Prague), off the beaten path (a sunlight-dappled graveyard where the trees and markers were covered with moss) and out of the ordinary (the Frankel Leo Street Synagogue inside a rectangle of housing units in Budapest). Supported by the Fine Foundation, the exhibit contrasts the soaring architecture and stained glass in some synagogues with the austere stone pillars and worn wooden chairs at others.

One photo shows a man at Budapest's Rumbach Street Synagogue, a morose look on his face and a makeshift Star of David pinned to his lapel. He was an actor in town to make a film on Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest during World War II who is credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

Mr. Aschkenas, who does not practice his Jewish faith, said his photographic expedition was not a "quest to get back to my roots." But he said he felt a spiritual connection to many of the sites, including the graveyard.

"I don't think anybody's been buried there since about 1910," he said.

The Jewish communities in Prague and Budapest, which suffered not only during World War II but also during the communist period that followed, are resilient. In the postwar period, Budapest's community managed to operate a college for the training of rabbis, a rarity at the time in eastern Europe, said Dov-Ber Kerler, professor of Jewish Studies and Germanic Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., whose research includes the linguistics and history of eastern European Jews.

Today, some of the synagogues that Mr. Aschkenas visited are important tourist attractions while remaining at the center of Jewish life. Budapest has numerous synagogues and, by current standards, a Jewish community of significant size.

"It's quite impressive," Mr. Kerler said.

After graduating in 1972 from Penn State University, where he was a film major, Mr. Aschkenas lived for a year in Boston. He said he'd never owned any camera except "an Instamatic with a flash cube on it," but when he saw a friend develop pictures in a basement darkroom, "it just looked like magic to me."

Now, he takes photos or otherwise works on his craft seven days a week. Granted special access by the Sports and Exhibition Authority, he spent months photographing the demolition of the Civic Arena, a project that resulted in an exhibit at 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown, and a book, "Arena: Remembering the Igloo," which he produced with writer Abby Mendelson.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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