Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 5 - Prague

Joining our group last night was Alexandra Zapruder, author of Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust, the book where we first encountered Otto Wolf's diary. She immediately set to work learning all the names of the students, and her sense of humor and ease with everyone makes her one of our group already. Alexandra made this trip to Prague to accompany us to Trsice to be a part of the dedication of the memorial to the Wolf family and their rescuers.

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.

Vanessa says:
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.

Flori says:

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.

Callie says:
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.


  1. It is amazing for me to witness through this blog your experiences and how personal it makes it. Continue on your journey and looking forward to tomorrow's blog.

  2. I find the story of the yellow hat to be inspirational. How many times in our lives are we confronted with something negative? Instead of shying away from the negativity, this story teaches us to take the power back from such a symbol of negativity and recast it in a spirit of unity and self empowerment. I remain enthralled with your journey. Continued safe travels!

  3. I too am amazed with the story of the yellow hat.
    How brave the Jews were to walk with pride!

  4. I find your faces throughout all the pictures and see in them listening, compassion, learning...being moved by history and its lessons.


  6. Wow the story of the yellow hat amazed me. I have such respect for the Jews.

  7. After reading the last 3 days blogs, I can only hope the future will provide historians as
    knowledgeable as your guides. That future generations can learn as much as all of you. I thank you all for your continuued blogs. To Ms. Tambuscio, thank you as well for your inspiration and drive to continue to educate our students. Be safe to all!

  8. Hi Everyone!

    I just want to let you all know that I'm following your blog, and that you guys are all part of an absolutely amazing experience. They started this trip when I was a Junior at NMHS, and although I've always been fascinated by the Holocaust, I wasn't able to attend this wonderful trip. You guys are all very lucky, (which I'm sure you know) and I think I speak for the entire NMHS when I say that we are so proud of you guys! Keep up the great work!

    Ms. Norton
    (Athletic Office)

  9. Thanks you for sharing such a profoundly moving and personal experience. Your valuable and insightful commentaries are confirmation that this trip is changing each and every one of you. Being able to take this journey through your posts is enlightening for all of your readers. Thank you!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and reflections!

  11. Well, it's been one week since you're gone and think of all you have learned already, enough for one school year!This "hands-on" experience of witnessing historical places and meeting people like authors is invaluable. Hope next week is just as enlightening.
    Miss you all, especially my students, Alyssa N, Alyssa S, and Sam, and, of course, my colleague, Mrs. T!
    Mrs. DePoto

  12. I hope you all are having a memorable time. I cannot wait for when I have the chance to go on this trip. I'm sure you all have learned so much from this experience and I hope you are enjoying this amazing opportunity. Stay safe over there!

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  14. I was just able to catch up on your blog. I love learning about about the lesser known people and stories through you-the yellow hats, the Jews that were in hiding for months, the families that hid them, the memorials built into the sidewalks and the sides of buildings. How insightful to comment on the fact that in order to read the memorials on the ground, one must bow before them.
    I look forward to following your travels and listening to your comments and feelings.
    Continue to have a safe and healthy trip!
    Liz Horgan

  15. Wow, the story of the yellow hats is definitely an encouraging and inspiring way to show how you can take such a negative thing and turn it into something positive. It's an amazing opportunity to follow you all in your travels and experiences, and I wish you all the best!
    Nick Damiano

  16. As a teacher of English and such a lover of books, I am impressed to hear of the value placed on education and literacy within the Jewish community. It is so valuable that religious customs are predicated on the ability and privilege of reading. What a blessing to be literate and even more of a blessing to be FREE to read whatever we want! Imagine living somewhere where your lives and your texts were restricted. Maybe you wouldn't have had access to Alexandra's book. Literacy set the Jews apart from other societies. How will your experiences set you apart? How will you be better for it. I'm loving your work. We miss you all. Take care of Mrs. T!

  17. I am following your trip avidly and find it inspirational and moving. I look forward to talking with you on SKYPE on your return. You are learning so much which I am sure you will never forget. Pass this knowledge on to your children and grand children, so that it is not forgotten.

  18. Thank you for your posts. As I read many of them, I keep thinking of a quote from Anne Frank.

    "I don't believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone are guilty of the war. Oh, no, the little man is just as keen, otherwise the people of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There is an urge and rage in people to destroy, to kill, to murder, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated and grown, will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again." (Anne Frank)

    I think many of the things you are witnessing prove Anne's point!

  19. Wow, Alexandra Zapruder!
    The collection of unique diaries she put together in "Salvaged Pages" is incredible. With each one of the diaries, my understanding of everyday life during the Holocaust deepens. It's great that she gave all those diarists the chance to have their voices heard.

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