Our first full day in Prague focused on the Jewish Quarter. This part of the city is just off the old town square: as Shalmi says, in the center, but off center. Because Christians were forbidden by religious law to loan money and Jews were able to loan money to Christians, Jews were invited to Prague for economic reasons, to help in business transactions. The king allowed them to live in a central location, but also required them to pay taxes. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians carried out pogroms against the Jews. The Jews lived with the reality that at any time they might have to leave.
We visited The Old-New Synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in the world, built in the year 1270. This synagogue or shul, from which we get the word “school,” was where Jews studied the Talmud, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. The shul is central in Jewish life. Jewish boys, even in the Middle Ages, began learning to read at the age of three. Because the Jews were always literate, this set them apart from the majority of society. Inside the New Synagogue, Shalmi read the Hebrew inscription on the wall: "Greater is he who says amen than he who reads."
Here, Shalmi teaches us that the use of star of David as a Jewish symbol originated in Prague. Displayed proudly in The Old-New Synagogue is the flag that the emperor allowed the Jews to hoist. The symbol on the flag is the star of David, or Jewish star which was the family symbol of the Cohen family, a prominent family in the congregation when the Jews made the flag. The flag also displays the yellow hat, which was a derogatory symbol because the king made the Jews of Prague wear the yellow hat whenever they left the ghetto. Although it was originally meant to be disrespectful--it was the color yellow because that was a symbolic color of the plague--it later becomes a symbol of pride for the Jews, as they chose to take a negative and turn it into something positive that connected the community.
Before World War II began, when the Nazis came into Prague in April of 1939, occupying the remainder of Czechoslovakia, they required all Jews to register. According to Nazi law, any person who had one grandparent who was Jewish was classified as a Jew. Many Czech Jews, who were highly assimilated, did not identify themselves as Jewish, but they did register. Then one day they received a letter telling them they had been summoned, and needed to bring a suitcase. They were being sent to Theresienstadt,a former garrison town, outside Prague, where we will visit tomorrow.
Next we go to the Maisel Synagogue, a place of significance during the Holocaust, because after the Jews of Prague are sent to Theresienstadt, the Jewish Museum asked the Nazis if they could collect personal and communal artifacts of the Jewish community. During the war, the Maisel Synagogue was a warehouse where Jewish curators catalogued and stored religious artifacts from synagogues, as well as personal religious items. The Nazis even allowed five special exhibitions of the artifacts during the war. Once their task was completed, the Nazis sent the curators of the museum to Auschwitz on the last transport, and only one of them survived.
At the Pinkas Synagogue, we see the memorial to the Jews of Prague and the surrounding towns who the Nazis murdered during the Holocaust. Upstairs,we pause at the name Otto Wolf, from Trsice. Beside this memorial to the Jews killed in the Holocaust, some of our students ask Alexandra Zapruder about meeting Otto's sister, Lici, while researching her book Salvaged Pages. We stand beside the wall bearing Otto's name, birth date and date of death, a person we would not even now about if not for Alexandra's work, and learn more about the diary,and the Wolf family.
Outside the Pinkas Synagogue is one if the most famous Jewish cemeteries in the world, made famous by the false document, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." In this pamphlet used as antisemitic propaganda, it states that the rabbis supposedly conspired to take over the world at a meeting here in this cemetery.
Gabrielle L. says:
I was moved today when I learned about the decree that was forced upon Jews in the ghetto of Prague during the early 1300's. It was shocking to me that Jews could only move out of the ghetto if they wore this bright yellow hat that labeled them outside the ghetto. I was shocked and thought if I had to wear that hat I would not have left the ghetto because I would have been too embarrassed.
The images drawn by the children from Theresienstadt were all drawn like any child that we see now; however, their pictures were more dramatic. Some children drew of their possible freedom, whereas others drew the monstrosities that they witnessed daily. It was amazing to see the terrible situation that young children had to endure and go through at such an innocent age.
Alyssa S. says:
Today I learned how the Jews were treated in the medieval ages when they were in the ghetto of Prague. Besides being treated like an economic object, the Jews were treated as objects when forced to be isolated in public by having to wear these ugly collars and yellow hats. The one amazing thing that the Jews did was taking a symbol of embarrassment and having enough pride to put that hat with the Star of David on their first flag, erasing the shame.
What I found most interesting at the Maisel Synagogue was the yellow hat and badge on display. It opened up for me a whole new aspect of history of which I was unaware: the way Christian kings put Jews in ghettos and how the medieval ghettos sparked ideas for Hitler. I was shocked to find out that others had previously put Jews in ghettos prior to the Holocaust.
Alyssa L. says:
Seeing the names and dates of death at the Maisel Synagogue, I realized that not everyone was murdered in the camps. When we think about the Holocaust we don't always think about the indirect ways that people were affected. However, even the deaths that were a result of a lack of medicine or medical attention and anyone who was sick by natural causes can be linked to the Holocaust.
After seeing the cemetery, the walls of names, and hearing Mr. Barmore talk about all of the artifacts that will never be reclaimed, I am really hit by how many families were decimated in the Holocaust. It is so important to every country and culture to pass on the information from past generations, but the killing of entire Jewish families, destroyed much of their history. I wonder how many years of experience were lost and I mourn for our world because it has lost the oral histories behind these artifacts.