BY RON FEINBERG /WEB EDITOR //
You’ve been to Israel; visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.; even spent a few days in Amsterdam and seen the tiny annex where Anne Frank once hid from Nazis. What now?
If you haven’t visited Eastern Europe, you might as well reach deep into your savings and go ahead and take that special trip you’ve been thinking about for years. And once there, trust me, you’ll want to visit Prague.
The city is old in a warm and quaint sort of way – tree-lined boulevards and cobblestone streets are bordered by intimate cafes and stately mansions alike. And yet, everything is also new and vibrant.
Like much of Eastern Europe, Prague was engulfed by World War II in the 1940s and later completely buried under the dusty gray cloak of Communism. But in 1989, a series of demonstrations in Prague and across Czechoslovakia – The Velvet Revolution – quickly led to the overthrow of the government.
Only a year later, much of the region was toying with democracy and capitalism, opening its borders to investors and tourists. Bringing things to the present, Prague has become a jewel of a city once again, still filled with plenty of old-world charm but also gussied up a bit with new-world panache.
Josefov, the Open-Air Museum
At first glance, the Jewish quarter here, Josefov, looks like much of the rest of the city – nicely aged and filled with tourists. A clock with Hebrew letters atop the Town Hall in the heart of the district, however, offers a hint that you’ve stumbled onto something special.
Josefov, once the center of Jewish life in Europe, is today a museum, memorial and remembrance of ancient traditions and recent tragedies. And it’s definitely worth a visit.
The district, a few square blocks squeezed tightly between the Vltava River and the city’s Old Town Square, dates back to the 13th century, when Jews were ordered to leave their homes and settle in the area. It now includes a town hall, ceremonial hall, museum, six synagogues, a remarkable cemetery and one aging but resilient world-class legend.
Two of the synagogues are especially noteworthy. The Pinkas serves as a Holocaust memorial, its walls inscribed with the names of the 77,297 victims of the Nazis from Bohemia and Moravia. Tourists shuffle through the structure in silence, many taken with the artistic merits of the memorial, most horrified by the sheer numbers that fill the space.
The Old-New Synagogue – one of the oldest shuls in the world still in use – is adorned with intricate stonework as well as aging and ancient bits of Judaica. The writer Franz Kafka, one of Prague’s most notable personalities, celebrated his bar mitzvah here, and the synagogue continues to hold Sabbath and holiday services to this day.
Old-New is also linked to the legend of the golem, a supernatural being conjured up by Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th-century Talmudic scholar and Jewish mystic known as the Maharal. The story goes that he created the monster to save the Jews of the quarter from anti-Semitic attacks, and a rumor persists that the golem remains hidden away in the synagogue’s attic, waiting to be awakened if the need ever rises again to protect the district’s residents.
Loew himself is buried in the quarter’s cemetery, which is one of the most visited and interesting spots in the area. He shares the cemetery with tens of thousands of others, generations literally stacked atop one another: For hundreds of years, between the 15th and 18th centuries, Jews had access to no other burial sites in the region.
Tombstones – some simple, others remarkably ornate, most covered with Hebrew names and text – rest uneasily in all sorts of positions. Many lean precariously, resting against one another; others have fallen and are covered by debris. Interestingly, the chaos comes together in a quietly poetic fashion; a sense of history and calm hovers lightly in the air.
Indeed, it’s a small miracle that the cemetery remains at all; the site, along with the synagogues and other points of interest in Josefov, purportedly still exist because Hitler wanted to create a museum to a people and culture he planned to destroy.
A Past Storied and Tragic
While shuls and other buildings in Prague went untouched during the war, and ritual objects – sefer Torahs, prayer books, kiddush cups and other types of Judaica – were being shipped to the city from across Europe, resident Jews were being rounded up and sent to a nearby village.
Terezin, an hour’s drive northwest of Prague, was initially turned into a ghetto and then quickly morphed into a concentration camp. The place is often remembered for the artists, writers and musicians who were sent there and, most infamously, as the “show” camp opened to the International Red Cross so they and the world could see how “well” the Jews were being treated.
In fact, the Nazis had orchestrated the visit, organizing bogus concerts and soccer matches and filling up shop windows with food and other goods the inmates of Terezin would never enjoy. The truth is that thousands of Jews died at the camp of malnutrition and exposure, their bodies were cremated and the ashes later dumped into a nearby river, and thousands more were sent to die at Aushwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland near Krakow.
Of the 55,000 Jews who lived in Prague in the late 1930s, only about 5,000 remained alive when Russian forces liberated the city in 1945. There are even fewer Jews in Prague today – about 1,500 – but the community has actually grown in recent years.
The Holocaust remains a melancholy presence in the area, drawing tourists – really, pilgrims – to what is left of the once-vibrant Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. But Josefov is also a vivid reminder of a distant past, when Jews lived and worked and prayed here.
Find a quiet spot, and you can almost spot their shadows walking along the cobblestone streets, calling to one another in nearby stores, praying in the shuls. This was their home, after all, and their collective spirit remains part of this place.