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Sunday, April 12, 2015
Day 6 - Prague
Our day in Prague was spent exploring the Jewish Quarter located just off the main Market Square because of the function of Jews in the city. As we stood at the corner of the Market Square, Mr. Barmore spoke to us about the role of the Jews in the European Christian community. We learned that the burghers [middle class] who competed with Jews in the marketplace here had asked Maria Theresa to expel them which she did , but within three years those same burghers were asking for the return of the Jews. There were certain things Jews could do which Christians could not: in particular, lend money with interest. So the rulers brought in Jews but they were not protected by Christian law, so the king had to provide them protection as his property and grant privileges. One of the privileges was the ability to build synagogues.
The first synagogue we visited was the Starnova Synagogue, also known as the Old-New Synagogue the oldest functioning synagogue in the world, built in 1270. An example of Gothic architecture, Mr. Barmore pointed out that there had been changes to the structure – adding a section outside the original structure to accommodate women once they were including in prayer services, though they remained separate from the men. Inside the synagogue Mr. Barmore showed us the necessary components of any synagogue, including the bima from which the Torah was read and he told us about the Hebrew inscription on the wall: "Greater is he who says amen than he who reads."
Here, Mr. Barmore also taught 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 star of David became the symbol of Judaism only in the 17th century. 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. It was also in the Old-New Synagogue that Mr. Barmore told us the story of the fabled Golom.
At the Pinkas Synagogue, we saw the memorial to the Jews of Prague and the surrounding towns who the Nazis murdered during the Holocaust. On the walls of the synagogue, painstakingly painted by hand are the names of almost 80,000 Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who were victims of the Nazis. They are organized alphabetically by town (in yellow), followed by the first and last name (in red) and the date of the last transport. Outside the Pinkas Synagogue is the Jewish cemetery with more than 12,000 tombstones.
The original cemetery, when full, could not be expanded, and Jewish graves cannot be moved, so another cemetery layer was put on top. It is important in Jewish culture that the names not be forgotten, so the tombstone of the original grave was removed and placed with the tombstone of the individual on the second layer. Over the centuries, additional layers were added. Because of hygiene concerns, no additional layers could be added after 1787. There are up to twelve layers of graves in the cemetery, which explains the tombstones as they are seen today.
Standing in the Spanish synagogue, Mr. Barmore told us the story of the Hilsner Affair, which, like the more well-known Dreyfus Affair in France, involved a Jew who was tried not once, but twice, for an offense which he did not commit but for which he was sentenced to prison for life, demonstrating the depth of antisemitism which could be found in this area in the 19th century. This affair was brought to the attention of a philosopher and teacher in Prague, Thomas Masaryk, who argued on behalf of Hilsner to no avail. Later, after World War I, Masaryk went to the United States to fight for the creation of a Czech nation. The biggest loser in terms of territory, from WWI was Germany. The biggest winner was the new nation of Czechoslovakia. When Masaryk returned to what would become Czechoslovakia he was hailed as a hero. He demanded a constitution in which the nation embraced the Jew. This nation would be the only liberal state. Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, all become antisemitic, fascist states. Masaryk presided over the nation during the interwar period and this is when many Jews become Czech. They had been assimilated before but this is the only nation with which they identified.
After lunch at a pizza restaurant, we all had a little time to spend on the market square, tasting “fair food” , climbing the Clock Tower, listening to musical acts and watching street artists perform, including a ‘bubble blower”, shopping and just enjoying the beautiful weather and city of Prague. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at the Wine Food Market where we would dine with our very dear friends, Tony and Eva Vavrecka. Eva is the niece of Otto Wolf, whose diary we read in our Holocaust classes and about whom we will be writing much more as our journey continues in a few days to Olomouc and Trsice.