Thursday, April 10, 2014

Day 6: Prague




 Our second 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.
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The Old-New Synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in the world, was 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.

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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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Our last synagogue in the Jewish quarter was the Spanish synagogue. This was an ornate synagogue in the Moorish style. Many Jews were apparently embarrassed by its opulence. Shalmi said some Jews felt it was less a place to pray than a place to be seen. He pointed out the massive organ which might equally be found in a large cathedral. 
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Our bus picked us up at our hotel to meet our friends Tony and Eva Vavrecka, hosts for our lovely dinner this evening. Eva is the daughter of Lici Wolf, who had completed her brother, Otto’s diary, after he was arrested and killed by the Nazis. In 2012 Tony and Eva helped us commemorate the first memorial located in the forest by the hideouts where the Wolf family lived for three years. In 2013 they accompanied us again as we commemorated a second memorial to the rescuers in Trsice. The Vavrecka's warm and gracious hospitality touched us all and we are so very grateful for their friendship. 

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Student Reflections:
 
Sarah says:
Today, while walking through the Jewish Quarter of Prague and visiting the synagogues, I learned that each synagogue reflects the state of the Jews living in the area and their relationship with the rest of society. For example, the Old New Synagogue was built in the 13th century in the same Gothic style as Catholic churches during the same period. Additionally, the Spanish Synagogue’s opulence and ornate decorations revealed the ascendance of Jews in Czech society during the 19th century. Despite facing marginalization, the synagogues the Jews of Prague built exemplified the importance of maintaining one’s identity and faith.

Dana says:
Today we visited the Pinkas Synagogue which has been converted to a memorial to victims of the Holocaust and a museum. One of the exhibitions upstairs contained drawings created by children who were living in ghettos. One of the drawings that touched me was by an 8 year old who drew a picture of herself playing with her friends before she was deported to a ghetto. The overwhelming part of it was that she had scribbled it all in black: there were no faces, just blank circles for heads.

Raquel says:
Today we went to the Pinkas Synagogue which had the towns, names, dates of birth and dates of death of 80,000 Czech Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Just looking around and seeing these names made me wonder again why the Nazis would kill so many Jews. I learned that these names are here for a reason, and that is to be remembered. Their names will have meaning for everyone.

Gayle says:
I did not know the origin of the Star of David until today. We visited the Old New Synagogue, which was built in the 1300’s and is still in use today. In the Synagogue hangs a flag on which is a Star of David. The Star of David was first used on a flag in Prague as a Jewish symbol when the emperor gave the Jewish community the right to have a flag which could be raised on holy days. I learned that the Star of David was not named after King David, but was a symbol used by a Jewish printing shop in Prague. I am now curious as to why this symbol was chosen and after whom it was actually named.

Nicole says:
From today’s visits, I learned a lot about the history of Jews in the Czech Republic. When we walked into the Pinkas Synagogue, on the walls there were 80,000 names of Czech Jews that had their lives taken away during the Holocaust. I was amazed at the number of walls in so many rooms of the synagogue, all covered with the names of the people who were so innocent. There are so many names, but even looking at one name had me thinking about that one person and the tragic fate that had occurred.

Mackenzie says:
Today we went to the Pinkas Synagogue which was a museum that had the names and dates of all the Jews in Czechoslovakia that died in the Holocaust. There was a section of the synagogue that displayed the drawings of children in the ghetto. One picture that really stood out to me was of a happy family boarding a train that would then take them to a concentration camp. This family had no idea what was going to occur next.

Trevor says:
Today in Prague I experienced Czech Jewish life through three different synagogues in the city built by the Jewish population. In one synagogue, 80,000 names marked the walls as a memorial to the Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust. I also learned that today there are only 1,800 practicing Jews in Prague, and about 20,000 Jews who are either unaware of their background or do not practice the Judaism.

Shane says:
In the 1800’s Jews separated themselves from their religion to become involved in European culture. The Holy Roman Emperor had allowed them certain privileges but required them to learn German and they fell in love with the German culture. The Germans, however, would not accept them as part of their society, so the Jews immersed themselves in the German culture, forming their own identity, by becoming artists, musicians, writers and scholars. From this would stem a modern antisemitism. 

Matt says:
 What struck me most was how the Jews tried to fit into German society. Synagogues from the 13th to 19th century with elaborate designs and details were built to look like churches. The synagogues had arched ceilings and organs just like churches. All for the sole purpose of being accepted in society.

Tara says:
 Walking through the second floor of the Pinkas synagogue, Nick pointed out something I hadn't noticed down on the first floor of the memorial. Written on some of the panels of the names of those who died during the Holocaust were, from right to left, the Hebrew letters ת (tav), ה (hay), ע (ayin), ב (bet), and ח (chet), which were marked clearly at the top. When I asked, Kamila, our tour guide, said that it was the initials for a Hebrew phrase often put at the bottom of a gravestone. Later, outside in the cemetery, she pointed out a gravestone that had the initials written at the bottom. I found this interesting, as I had never learned this before, and is much like a dreidel during Hanukkah, with נ (nun), ג (gimmel), ה (hay), and ש (shin), standing for "nes gadol hays sham", or "a great miracle happened there".
 
Nick says:
Today, we learned about the Jewish role and standing in early Czech history. The Jewish people were known for their usefulness in trade and were protected and hired by nobility as long as they remained useful. During World War II the Czech Jews were so assimilated into Czech society that many did not consider themselves Jewish. The Nazis, however, defined a Jew as a person having even one Jewish grandparent, and all Czechs who fit this had to register as Jew. Today there are only 1,800 practicing Jews in Prague.

Jane says:
Mr. Barmore discussed how the Jews were a group of people who were not wanted by the society in which they lived, but were needed by that society to advance. This made me think of how the Jewish people seem to continue to struggle and advance despite the obstacles put in their path.

Kyle says:
Today in the Pinkas Synagogue there was a section of the museum in which there were drawings from the Terezin ghetto drawn by young children. There was one that stood out to me. It was at the train station. There were Jewish men and women milling about as if it was normal. They showed no signs of fear as the train was pulling in. These kids had talent, they had a future, and it was ripped away only because they were Jewish.

Kiefer says:
Today we were taught by Mr. Barmore the history of Jews in The Czech Republic. It started in the Middle Ages when the Jews were introduced as businessmen and bankers, and were later even knighted for bringing technology like the steam engine to Czechoslovakia. Before the beginning of World War I, the Jews saw German and Czech culture as their own. They assimilated and made up 25 percent of the richest  people of Germany, though as a whole only made up 1 percent of the population. What struck me the most was how the Czech Jews were so assimilated into the culture that some did not identify with their Jewish heritage when the Nazis came to take them to concentration and annihilation camps.

22 comments:

  1. All those names and the children's drawings, at the Pinkas Synagogue, must have been so hard to see. The origin of the Star of David was very interesting. Your observations and connections in the student reflections show how much you are learning every day!
    Dinner looked yummy, too! Enjoy! :)

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  2. Reading Otto's diary, it is interesting to hear that you meet Otto's niece and when they captured Otto and interrogated him to see where his family was Otto was strong and protected his family. His sister's daughter would not be there if not for her Uncle's love of his family.

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  3. Reading all of your insightful reflections relating to the Jewish history in the Czech Republic depicted in the stunning synagogues brings back memories of my experience last year. As we walked through many of the synagogues, the incredible architecture was obvious, especially with the Spanish synagogue. Since these structures were beautiful, it was strange to think many Jews were embarrassed to enter them because anti-antisemitism had so heavily permeated society. One sight that truly carried a great magnitude was the stored belongings of many Jews. Before leaving to their unknown fate, the Jews stored many of their belongings in their local synagogues for when they would return. Every pile of unclaimed belongings really represented a life cut short. Today, I think the synagogues of Prague symbolize Jewish culture. Both still preserved and astounding to this day.

    I hope you all remember the questions Shalmi poses to you, for it is these questions which you will undoubtedly be left with long after this trip has ended! It is in trying to answer these questions that really don't have an answer that you will continuously learn and grow as a person!

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  4. I found time tonight to catch up on your blog. You have been very busy! The embassy was beautiful and I am sure it was a once in a lifetime experience. That is true with all these trips. Each year there is something that is very special to that group. It sounds like you are learning so much each day. Your posts are getting more serious and thoughtful. New Milford is lucky to have Mrs. Tambuscio to make this trip a reality. Enjoy the trip. Lorraine Montecuollo

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  5. I truly appreciate learning the information about the Star of David. I took a class of freshman to a temple yesterday, but the speaker could not pinpoint its origin. Thank you!

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  6. Nicole's perspective was interesting to me. In seeing the 80,000 names, she read one and thought about that one person. When numbers so large we can somehow lose site of what that number really represents.

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  7. I hope you are having an awesome time! can't to hear about everything!
    -Heidi Muller

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  8. It's awesome to see how you all are finding out a different perspective of the Holocaust from another countries point of view. I am quite jealous actually. I hope everything goes well and the knowledge you gain is eye opening.

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  9. I really wish I could've gone on the Holocaust Study tour. Its so touching and inspiring. Just remembering what such innocent, good people had to go through..There is nothing I can't get through today.

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  10. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. We miss you, Nicole, and look forward to your sharing your experiences with us when you return.

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  11. its insane to think that all those names on the wall of that synagogue are people who were killed in the holocaust. 8,000 people! that's crazy!
    I hope you guys are having a fun time and have a safe trip!

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  12. The trip looks like an awesome experience i hope many more students can share in the experience eventually

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  13. All the names at the Pinkas Synagogue made me stop and think. Each person listed there has there own story. Each story is very unique. I also enjoyed the origin of the Jewish star! I learned something new from you all today. Hope you are having a great experience.

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  14. I remember going to Pinkas Synagogue and feeling overwhelmed by the number of names painted on the wall. I found that memorial to be very effective, because one cannot get away from all of the names. Knowing that someone took the time to hand paint each name truly shows the dedication to preserving this history.

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  15. It's great to see how all of you were affected by the memorial and sight of the Pinkas Synagogue. The names actually presented in front of you is much more of a touching and effective way to represent the innocent lives that were lost. The people are not just numbers and statistics lost in the Synagogue, but are individuals.

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  16. The Pinkas Synagogue overwhelmed me because of how many names were listed.Those are many names that were murdered during the Holocaust. I will never forget the melancholy feeling that I felt when I first entered the Synagogue.

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  17. The blog mentions that Jewish boys began learning to read at the age of three, and because they were always literate, this tended to set them apart from the majority of society. In the into to Otto's diary it states that he attended middle school in Moravian City as did his sister while his brother attended university, studying medicine. This just shows how Otto's family tried very hard to assimilate into German culture. As far as they were concerned, they were German.
    Another interesting part of the book and what I learned from this blog post was that it says that the use of the Star of David as Jewish symbol originated in Prague. It was displayed proudly in the Old-New Synagogue on the flag that the emperor allowed the Jews to hoist however in Otto's very first diary entry, after him and his family traveling for a long time and finally ending up in the apartment building, they immediately rip off their Stars of David. They're not proud of them. By this time, it's become something they try to hide rather than display proudly. I just thought it was an interesting contrast to what the blog says.

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  18. I think that it would have been so cool to have met Eva. Her being the daughter of Otto's sister has to be really neat. I know that Otto's writing style in his diary was neutral and so I think that Eva would have a more personal view of Otto even though she had never meet him. Eva being Lici daughter and Lici being the one there and the one to finish the diary after Otto's capture and death had to give her a more personal view of him. I like Otto's dairy for the fact that it was very much a schedule but at the same time I missed the personal aspect you see in most stories written by people in the Holocaust. He wrote some about the how he wanted to find someone to trust and how it was difficult to find a place to hide but I still long for a more personal experience. I am truly jealous of everyone on the tour and their opportunity to experience his story in a more personal and real way.

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