Thursday, April 6, 2017
Day 6 - Prague, Czech Republic
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 in the center of the Market Square, Shalmi asked us where we would expect to find the Jewish Quarter and received the expected response: “Off center”.
Because the Jews were central to the commerce of any major city, they were given certain privileges by the king, one of which was to form a community and to build a synagogue. We continued on to our first stop, the Old New Synagogue, built in 1270, and is the oldest functioning synagogue in the world. Standing outside, Shalmi asked, “Why were the Jews so hated? They were such a small percentage of any population.” His answer gave us pause: “You don’t have to have large numbers to have a large presence.” Jews were not liked, but not always hated. They were needed and as such, tolerated. Yet they chose not to assimilate over time to point of disappearing within the larger population group, as had most groups in history. With Jews, most of the time, there was no mixing as in marriage or in getting together over meals, so that there was always a societal ‘wall’ between the groups limiting their interaction to commerce, which led to feelings of ambivalence about the presence of Jews.
The first synagogue we visited was the Starnova Synagogue also known as the Old New Synagogue. The name itself, we were told, tells us it was not the first synagogue in Prague. At some point a synagogue was built. Then another synagogue was built and the first became the old, the second became the new. When a third synagogue was built, the second became the old new synagogue. An example of Gothic architecture, Shalmi 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 Shalmi showed us the necessary components of any synagogue, including the ark, which held the Torah, and the bima from which the Torah was read.
Here, Shalmi also taught us that the use of the 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 for parades. 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. However, 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 Shalmi told us the story of the fabled Golom and Rabbi Loew.
Next we went 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. The synagogue has been remodeled as a museum and visitors can view many artifacts important in Czech Jewish history. There was also a model of the city of Prague, made by Antonin Langwell in the period of 1826-1837. This model was digitized in 2006-2009 and cameras take a flight over the city of Prague.
Our next 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 and represented an attempt by the Jewish community to rival the Catholic churches.
After lunch at a nearby pizza restaurant, we visited the Robert Guttmann Gallery which had a new exhibit which opened today: “Through the Labyrinth of Normalization: The Jewish Community as a mirror for the Majority Society,” a study of the Jewish community under communism. In this exhibit we learned that Soviet propaganda responded to the liberalization occurring in Czechoslovakia during the period of 1967-1968 as a Zionist conspiracy. The Soviet Union labeled anyone with a Jewish ancestry or who associated with Jews as a Zionist. Citizens designated by the government as Zionist, whether or not they considered themselves Jewish, began to encounter problems with the government, the origin of which most were unaware. And the government began to put these citizens under surveillance by the state secret police. We also learned that many of the Jewish cemeteries had been liquidated under the communist regime. After the Jewish cemetery next to the Pinkhas cemetery (that we would see next) was closed in 1787, a Jewish cemetery on Fibichova Street in Prague was established. This cemetery was the main burial place for the Jewish community until the new Jewish cemetery was opened in 1890. In the 1980’s most of the headstones were knocked down, the site covered with earth and a public park, the Mahler Gardens was built on top. And we were dismayed to learn that many Jewish gravestones had been destroyed to make the paving stones of the streets of Prague, on which we had been walking.
Shalmi 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. Shalmi told us that in Auschwitz, before the Czech Jews died in the gas chambers, they sang the Czech national anthem. And after the war, many Czech Jews returned to Czechoslovakia. The nation of Czechoslovakia was also extremely supportive of the new nation of Israel established in 1948. It was Czechoslovakia that provided Israel with weapons and trained pilots during her war for independence. “The Israeli Air Force was established here”, said Shalmi.
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. Upstairs, we paused at the name Otto Wolf, from Trsice.
Outside the Pinkas Synagogue is one of 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. The Jewish cemetery contains more than 12,000 tombstones. The tombstones in the cemetery are haphazardly stacked and pressed up against one another, because there are up to twelve layers for each gravesite, so that up to twelve tombstones share one plot space. 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.
Next we headed to the Market Square where there was a little time to shop for souvenirs before heading back to the hotel where Eva and Tony Vavrecka would be meeting us for a Q&A about Eva’s life and connection to the diary of Otto Wolf and both of their experiences in Czechoslovakia in the communist era, their emigration to the United States, and their life in the Czech Republic following the fall of communism in 1989. Having seen the special exhibit this afternoon, this session was most insightful. After a very informative hour, we next headed to dinner at the Municipal House.