Friday, April 8, 2016

Day 6 - Prague

Our day in Prague was spent exploring the Jewish Quarter located just off the main Market Square  where Jews were allowed to live in certain areas, often called ghettos, close to the area of commerce in the city, which were closed at night from within for their own protection.  Mr. Barmore told us that Jewish existence in Europe therefore was “off-center.”   He said that he could visit any city in Europe and go to the main square.  Within ten minutes he would be able to locate the site of a former Jewish ghetto area in that it would be very close, but not in, the center of the city, the market square, hence ‘off-center’.

Mr. Barmore spoke to us about the role of the Jews in the European Christian community.  We learned that the middle class who competed with Jews in the marketplace here had asked Empress Maria Theresa to expel them, which she did , but within three years those same people 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 included 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 ark where the Torah was kept, facing east towards Jerusalem, and the bima from which the Torah was read. 

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 initially viewed as a derogatory symbol because the king made the Jews of Prague wear the yellow hat whenever they left the ghetto to identify them as they interacted with the
Christian community. 

Although it was originally meant to be disrespectful, it later became a symbol of pride for the Jews, as they chose to take a negative and turn it into something positive that connected their community.  Mr. Barmore said it was similar to the wreath of thorns that Jesus was made to wear to his crucifixion  as a sign of shame, which later became a sign of pride, known as the “crown” of thorns. 

Outside the Old-New Synagogue that Mr. Barmore told us the story of the fabled Golem of Prague.  The Talmud, we were told, has a page which says man can create a living organism and that living thing can do anything but speak.  The Talmud even details how to create such a thing.  Golem means ‘raw’ (built from raw or inanimate materials).  The golem represented a theoretical model by which Jews could examine that which made a human being.  Rabbi Loew, fearing antisemitic attacks on his community, decided to build a golem, circled it seven times reading the page from the Talmud, and then inscribed three letters on his head which in Hebrew mean “Truth”.   Here, Mr. Barmore, applied this concept to today, asking:  Can we build a computer that thinks?  Can a computer become smarter than man?  If we build such a thing, what are the risks?  Can it outlast its original usage?  Back to the story, the golem was not supposed to be used for day to day activities, as he was created for higher purposes, but people forgot and he often did household chores.  One time the golem was given a direction by the rabbi’s wife, to fill the bucket with water from the well and bring it to the house.  When she returned the house was flooded.  Why?  She had not told him to stop. After several other incidents, deciding the golem was too risky to have around and had outlived its usefulness, they took the golem into the attic, removed one of the three letters from the forehead, the remaining two now spelling the word “dead”, circled the golem seven times in the reverse direction while reading the page from the Talmud and the golem turned to dust.  But the legend says that if anyone goes into the attic to find the golem, he will come to life and could seek revenge. 

Next we went to the Maisel Synagogue, which has been closed the last couple of years undergoing renovation.  Maisel Synagogue is 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.
  One of the new exhibitions is a view of the city and in particular the Jewish quarter.  Antonin Langweil (1791-1837) working in the University Library made a paper model of Prague in his day, 1826-1837.  This model was digitized 2006-2009 and now we can examine the Jewish quarter in a non-traditional way.  This synagogue also has artifacts taken from deported Jews as well as a history of Jews in the region.

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.

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.  Mr. Barmore 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. 

After lunch at a pizza restaurant, we all had a little time to spend on the market square,  climbing the Clock Tower 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.

Student Photographic Reflections:

                                              - Saige

                                                         - Dave

                                                         - Bryce


  1. Loving the pictures and student reflection

  2. When i watched the video this morning, I didn't realize at first that they were names on the wall, after wall, after wall. I was horrified. The cemetery with all of the headstones brought me to tears. Learning so much. Keep up the fantastic job you all are doing.

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  5. The pics. were amazing today! I am also loving those videos on Periscope! I am learning so much. Keep it coming!

  6. Thank you for sharing such important information. Each time I read your blog, I learn so much from your words and pictures. Excellent student photo reflections!

  7. Can't believe it's already been a year since I was there! Take im every moment of this trip! Listen to every word from Shalmi because you will never meet someone who can tell you what he can! Prague was my favorite city! Enjoy it!

  8. The blog gets better every year. This component with student pictures and reflections is really intense, personal and a wonderful extra benefit. So inspiring and interesting.

  9. Thank you for sharing. This an incredible educational opportunity! I enjoy reading and learning from your posts.
    Mark Flores

  10. Thank you for sharing your experiences and photos.

  11. Thank you, thank you. Sobering - thoughtful - tearful.

  12. I found it so interesting that the oldest synagogue built in 1270 was comprised of Gothic Architecture. Most people think of evil and dark things when they hear the word "Gothic", but in reality Gothic Architecture was comprised of light-colored stones and big windows that allowed beautiful rays of sunshine to enter the building. This made me think about the negative things ignorant people make think of Jews when they hear a reference to Jewish culture. So many people during the Holocaust saw Jews as being evil and greedy figures in society, when in reality they were just like anyone else in the community-happy, goal-oriented people. I just found it so interesting to think about false perceptions versus the reality of a situation.

    1. This comment is from Savannah Johnson by the way.