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May 21, 2015

Jewish Prague

Prague is a gorgeous city.  Tourists seem to joyfully ‘float’ along the cobblestoned streets, eyeing intricately designed buildings painted in pastel hues, carefully carved and sculpted into unique jewels. Like faces, no two are alike.

Prague is also a Disney World for history and culture buffs, complete with a castle that dates back 1,000 years and a majestic, renaissance-baroque cathedral first commissioned in the year 1060.  soprano's voice trills above the cobbled street. The breathy sounds of a violin float in the air. Classical music wafts from the open windows of many conservatories all over the city.

The Old New Synagogue built in
gothic style was completed in 1270
.
Take a boat ride on the River Vltava and admire Prague’s shore from the water with its pretty islands and narrow Venetian-style canals. You will float under ornate bridges, past green parks and alongside soaring church spires. You can even buy a beer for a dollar, which is cheaper than a bottle of water and is half the price of a coffee. No wonder I saw Czechs drinking beer at ten in the morning.

Aside from the castle and cathedral, one of Prague’s top tourist attractions is the Jewish quarter. In this small area stand a few synagogues that are now museums,  and an old cemetery. In the Golden Age, the early 1700s, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere in the world. And by 1708, they made up one fourth of Prague’s population.



Interior of Prague's oldest synagogue.

Jews have lived here since 970. But what did living as a Jew in Prague really mean?  The first afternoon we were there, my husband ran to find a minyan to pray mincha, but no one came except for one other tourist. What happened to the Jews?

We wandered the streets that were part of the Jewish Ghetto and through the hollowed out synagogues that once echoed with devout prayer.

The Jewish cemetery in Prague.
Today, the shuls are filled with displays of silver Kiddush cups, ornate Torah covers and old payer books. The plaques that describe these once revered Jewish objects speak as if they are no longer in use, as if they are relics. The synagogue/museums describe the Jewish holidays and explain the hallowed implements associated with each festival with a numbering system as if we were studying anthropology.

The walls of the Pikas synagogue are filled
with names of those who perished in the Holocaust.
I felt like shouting out above the hushed murmur of the tourists, “Excuse me, Jews are still here.”
I read the story of the Jews as spelled out in the museums and knew this was just part of the story. The Jews were here and now they are gone.  What really happened to the Jews of Prague?

Upon digging, I now have a more defined picture about what it was like to be a Jew in Prague over the last thousand years:

1096: Crusaders arrived, pillaging and slaughtering Jews.
1142: Siege of Prague Castle: more murder and pillaging, oldest synagogue burned down and most sections of the Jewish quarter were in ashes. Many Jews who survived were forced to convert.
1179: Church proclaimed that Christians cannot touch Jews and their already limited civil rights were further restricted. Jews forced to move their community to the right bank of river Vltava and their movements were limited. The Jews were locked in the ghetto every night.
1215: Mandated that Jews should wear distinctive clothes and could not hold public office.
1230-1530: Ghetto shut off from outside world with fortified walls and gates. Hostile mobs would often pillage and burn.
1389: Easter. Prague clergy announced that Jews had desecrated the Eucharistic wafer and encouraged pogroms, leading to ransack and murder in after which nearly the entire Jewish community of 3,000 people were wiped out.
1541: Expulsion from Prague.
1557: Another expulsion.
Spanish Synagogue in Prague.
1745 to 1748: Another expulsion, this one decreed by Empress Maria Theresa.
1780: Finally, religious tolerance while living within the  Ghetto.
1852: Jewish Ghetto abolished and relative ‘peace’ living among Czechs for 87 more years.
1939, August: New decrees against Jews enforced by Nazi officials who took over the region. Jews segregated in Prague restaurants, prohibited from using public pools and baths. Night curfew enforced.
1940, April:  Jews banned from public service. Doctors only allowed to treat Jews.
1940, August: Jewish children restricted from attending Czech schools.
1941, January: Restrictions on withdrawing money from banks, driving license confiscated and forced out of apartments into old tenement housing, Jews forced to behind sit in second tram car
1941, September: Prague Jews forced to wear yellow Star of David, synagogues closed.
1941, October: Jews banned from buying rationed foods and banned from entering many areas of Prague. Deportation of Jews begins with 5,000 Jews being deported to Lodz in Poland.  Theresienstadt transit camp-ghetto opened 60 km north of Prague
1941-44: The Nazis, along with local Czech gendarmerie, deported 73,603 Jews from Prague and other towns to Theresienstadt, sending most of them on to their death at Aushwitz.


A box, hauntingly filled with tefillin stolen
from murdered religious Jews.
I found this powerful description of the deportation from the autumn of 1941 written by Heda Kovaly:


 “The inside of the Exposition Hall was like a medieval madhouse. Several people who were seriously ill and had been brought there on stretchers died on the spot. A Mrs Tausig went completely crazy, tore her false teeth out of her mouth, and threw them at our lord and master, Obersturmbannfuhrer Fiedler. There were babies and small children who cried incessantly and just beside my parents, a small fat bald man sat on his suitcase playing his violin as if none of the surrounding bedlam were any concern of his. He played Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major, practicing the same passages over and over again.”


The horror did not end here.

1948: For the few Jews who survived, they were faced with a Communist takeover that made Jewish practice illegal.
1950: Jews branded as ‘class enemies of the working people’ and anti-semitism encouraged.
1951-1964: Jews suffered exile, imprisonment, forced labor, and, for some, execution.
2015: Around 1,000, mostly secular, religiously alienated Jews live in Prague.


Today, several of Prague's old synagogues contain many artifacts that were stolen from the Jews, then catalogued and stored by the Nazis. These objects are now part of the show called a ‘visit to Prague’ where people from around the world snap photos of mossy-covered Jewish tomb stones and admire ornate Shabbat candles that are no longer lit.


Perhaps my visit to Prague has instilled Kafkaesque thoughts (this is Franz Kafka's hometown after all), but as I was buying tickets for the Old Ghetto, I felt as if I were lining up for a Jewish Disney.  


I wanted to shout out that Jews exist outside of museums and graveyards. But I need not. I am now onboard an El Al flight en route to my home, our Jewish home. 

I am thankful to be living in a place where we live freely, flourish and pray devoutly in dynamic synagogues filled with real live, practicing Jews. And I am grateful to be finally living in a place Jews can finally call home.

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