by Steven J. Riekes
(Note: This is a continuation of a description of the Jewish Heritage trip that Margo and I, Nate and Hannah Schwalb, and Bernard and Naomi Bloom took with Professor Stephen Berk of Union College last summer. From Budapest, we flew to Prague.)
The Jewish Quarter of Prague is in the very heart of a beautiful and enchanting city, which also is the capital of the Czech Republic. It contains the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe, the Altneuschul (the “old-new synagogue”), completed in 1270.
The area contains many other famous medieval synagogues. The Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535, is now a Holocaust memorial. Its walls are inscribed with the names of the 77,297 Czech Jews who were victims of the Holocaust, including the names of the grandparents of former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright. In this Quarter, there is the so-called “Spanish” synagogue, with a dazzling Moorish-style interior, and many other synagogues and places of interest.
An important Jewish museum is located in the area which, according to government authorities, is the most visited museum in the city. This museum houses one of the richest collections of Judaica in the world. Ironically, this vast collection was preserved, in part, because the Nazis wanted to create a “central museum of the defunct Jewish race.”
The area contains a Jewish cemetery, with over 12,000 tombstones, which ceased accepting burials in 1787. Included is the tombstone of one of the most famous of European rabbis, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the “MaHaRal” (an acronym, meaning “our teacher, Rabbi Loew”). He was a great religious scholar, who also respected secular knowledge, particularly mathematics. He was well known in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities and, in 1592, had an audience with the Emperor Rudolph II.
Associated with the name of Rabbi Loew is the legend of the Golem. The legend has it that Rabbi Loew created, out of clay, a very large creature, a Jewish Frankenstein, to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitism. However, like Frankenstein, the Golem became out of control. Therefore, Rabbi Loew had to deactivate the Golem, and hid his remains in the attic of the Altneuschul. Despite there being no basis in fact for this legend, souvenir shops all over Prague are well stocked with Golem figurines, most of which look like gingerbread cookies.
There are also many other interesting sites in this area. For instance, there is the Jewish Town Hall, built in 1582, with a clock tower with Hebrew lettering, where the time runs “backwards.”
The Town Hall was built by a fabulously wealthy philanthropist, Mordechai Maisel, who also created the beautiful Maisel Synagogue for his family.
In addition, there is an unusual sculpture, unveiled in 2003, of a mini-Franz Kafka sitting piggyback on his own headless body. Kafka, a Jewish citizen of Prague, was a world-famous author of the early 20th Century.
There are a number of Jewish restaurants located in or near the Quarter. At a kosher one, the King Solomon, we had one of the best meals of our entire trip.
The Jewish Quarter is part of Prague’s Old Town area, containing many interesting medieval sculptures. One of the most interesting is the medieval astronomical clock. Hundreds of tourists wait each hour for various figures to pop in and out of the clock.
On the beautiful Charles Bridge over the Vistula River, there is a sculpture of Jesus on the cross with Hebrew lettering. There is an explanation nearby that states that the Hebrew lettering resulted from an anti-Sematic incident in 1696 and the Hebrew lettering was designed to humiliate the Jews. Nevertheless, the bridge and the whole embankment are very beautiful.
Along the embankment is a music building. On its top are a number of statues of famous composers. One of the statues is that of Felix Mendelssohn. Although he was of Jewish blood, he was not a Jew. His father converted to Christianity before he was born. Nevertheless, when the Germans occupied Prague, despising anyone with Jewish blood, they ordered some Czech workmen to go on top of the music building and cover up the statue of Mendelssohn. When the workmen got to the top of the building, they had no idea which statute was that of Mendelssohn, so they picked a statue of the man with the biggest nose, and covered him up. Ironically, the figure they chose to cover up was that of Richard Wagner, a composer who was a well-known anti-Semite and Hitler’s favorite!
Our trip also included a visit to the nearby small town of Terezin. This town originally contained a fort designed by the Austrians to keep the Prussian army at bay. It also contained a prison. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, they converted Terezin into a ghetto, forcing all the non-Jewish residents out, and overcrowding Jews inside. Thus, the infamous concentration camp of Theresienstadt was created.
At the entrance to this camp, there was the same phony slogan as in Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (Work Makes Free). Many Jewish artists and intellectuals were initially housed in Theresienstadt before they were transferred to death camps.
Nazis used Theresienstadt as a showpiece. In particular, the Nazis wanted to fool members of the Red Cross into believing the Jews were well treated and were enjoying their situation as concentration camp inmates. Thus, this camp had many cultural activities, whereas other concentration camps did not.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Jews were shipped out of Theresienstadt to meet their death at Auschwitz and other places. Even without that, more than 33,000 Jews died at Theresienstadt due to disease and other factors.
Professor Stephen Berk, our excellent lecturer for our trip, raised the question of what the world would have been like if these tens of thousands of Jewish authors, craftsmen, and thinkers had been allowed to fulfill their lives. What would the world have been like if the thousands of Jewish children, such as Petr Ginz, a teenage author and poet, had not perished because of Theresienstadt?
In reviewing a new book, Beyond Courage, Hadassah Magazine noted: “In Theresienstadt, the will to live was apparent in secret classes held for children – in geography, history, math, Hebrew and literature. Before she was deported to Auschwitz, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis hid her students’ 4,500 drawings and paintings in an attic.”
The Professor showed us some recently uncovered areas of Theresienstadt. One may see closet-size rooms in which Jews were forced to live. In addition, a tiny Jewish chapel was recently discovered that may have been hidden from the Nazis. In the chapel, our group said Kaddish for those who perished.
Then, Professor Berk asked the question, “Where was God in all of this?” I replied that this was the wrong question to ask. The real question is, “Where was man, during this period?”
Speaking of religion, our trip to Prague began at Hradcany Castle, which overlooks the city, and is the seat of the government of the Czech Republic. Situated among the public buildings of the castle area is St. Vitus Cathedral, a beautiful medieval gem. It is brimming with gold and silver, and stained glass windows. Our Czech guide, a delightful young man, remarked that on Sunday mornings, only about 15 to 20 people attend services there, even though it is the seat of the Archbishop. Hardly anyone goes to church in Prague, he said. So I asked him what a post-Christian Europe was going to be like. What do Europeans in this new era care about? What do they believe in? How will the Jews of Europe fare in this new era? I received no reply.
The Jews of Bohemia, which is now known as the Czech Republic, have had, historically, their ups and downs. But, relatively speaking, there are significant positive things to remember. For the most part, Jewish culture has thrived in Prague. Czechoslovakia was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the State of Israel and help supply it with arms in its war for independence in 1948. This fall, the Czech Republic was the only European country to side with Israel in the U.N. in the vote regarding a Palestinian state.
We thoroughly enjoyed the people, the concerts, the food, and the whole atmosphere of the City of Prague. Although it has a relatively small Jewish community today, it is a place that has been and should continue to be good for the Jews.
Roll out the barrel!