STITCH LINES...... Ramblings on life as a quilter, stitcher, traveler, photographer, gardener and lover of books, cats and fine chocolate....

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Prague Day 3 The Jewish Quarter

The Ceremonial Hall
It was a sobering afternoon. We spent it in the Jewish Quarter, a small area squished between Old Town and the river. Because it was low land and close to the river, this area was used to confine the Jewish community in a walled ghetto back in the Middle Ages. For centuries Prague's Jews suffered from oppressive laws. In the 1890's, city authorities decided to raze the ghetto slum because the lack of sanitation made it a health hazard (with one "bathroom" for I forget how many hundred people.) However some buildings were saved. Though the old ghetto is long gone, much of the area's fascinating history is preserved in five synagogues which are now collectively known as the Jewish Museum. This was today's destination.
Jews have lived in Prague for over 1000 years and at one point, Prague had the third highest Jewish population in Europe. (Today's Jewish population is small, but growing.) Notable Czech-born Jews are writer Franz Kafka, composer Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis. Prague's Jewish Museum is the most visited Jewish Museum in the world. Although the Nazis destroyed most of the synagogues and other Jewish buildings across Europe, they chose to leave Prague's Jewish Quarter intact so that once their aim of murdering every Jew was complete, the Prague Jewish Museum would be turned into a macabre "Museum of an extinct race".
We began at the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535. In the late 1950's it was turned into a memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who were murdered by the Nazis. On its walls are inscribed the victim's names, dates and places of birth  and last date that they were known to be alive. This memorial was destroyed during the Communist regime, but after the fall of Communism, the names and dates were painstakingly rewritten on the synagogue walls. This process took four years (1992-1996) - 77,297 names. It is sobering to read them, floor to ceiling, in room after room after room. (Note- it does not include the names of the 183,000 Slovak Jews murdered in the Holocaust.) Among the names listed are the grandparents of Madeleine Albright. Extermination camps are listed on the east wall. (Photos are not allowed inside any of the Jewish Museum buildings.)
In the Jewish Cemetery
In the Jewish Cemetery
But upstairs was the exhibit I was most interested in: the art of the children of Terezin Concentration Camp. Terezin was a "holding camp" for Jews, located 40 miles northwest of Prague - we plan to visit it next Sunday. The drawings were made between 1942-1944 by the children who were being held there. A prisoner by the name of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (who also happened to be an artist) gave art lessons to the children in the camp. She taught them not only basic art principles and how to draw, but also how to express their hopes and dreams, fantasies and fears on paper. The vast majority of these children were deported to Auschwitz and their deaths shortly after these drawings were made. Only 242 of the over 8,000 children under the age of 15 deported from Terezin were alive in 1945. But 4,500 of their drawings survived, buried underground in a suitcase by Dicker-Brandeis. She had told a friend what she was doing (before her transport to Auschwitz) and after the war, the friend journeyed to Terezin and dug up the suitcase. Again, it was a sobering display but one we are so glad we got to see. If you have read the child's book Hanna's Suitcase you may be slightly familiar with the story of Terezin Camp. I read this book several months ago (thanks Joc). More about that later...
Outside the Pinkas Synagogue lies the Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1478. For over 300 years it was the only burial ground permitted to Jews. There are over 12,000 gravestones crammed into the tiny space, but the tombs are layered 10 or more layers deep. It is said there are upwards of 100,000 bodies buried here. The tombs were piled atop each other because of the lack of space, the sheer numbers and the Jewish belief that once buried, a body should not be disturbed. With its many layers, the cemetery became a small plateau, over time the ground settled, floods happened, etc.  and the stones are now understandably crooked. From the late 16th century onwards, tombstones here were decorated with symbols denoting the family name, background, or profession of the deceased. The last burial was in 1787.
Other buildings and synagogues nearby have displays of Jewish religious practices, Jewish medicine, death and burial traditions. One, the Maisel Synagogue, served in WWII as a warehouse for the accumulated treasures of decimated Jewish communities, a collection that Hitler planned to use for his Jewish Museum (mentioned earlier.) The Old-New Synagogue, built around 1270, is the oldest synagogue in Europe, the oldest working synagogue outside of Israel and one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague.
The Old-New Synagogue
It is still in use today for services on the Sabbath and holidays. I found it very interesting to learn that 13th century Jews were not allowed to build, so it was built by Christians. The builders were good at four-ribbed vaulting (for the ceiling) but this wouldn't work for a synagogue as it resulted in a cross, so they used a rather clumsy-looking five ribbed vaulting. You are likely wondering about its name - the Old-New Synagogue. When first built it was never given a proper name and was just called the "New Synagogue". Once another synagogue was built nearby, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue....
The Spanish Synagogue

The last stop on our self-guided tour was the Spanish Synagogue, the most impressive of all, and considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. The walls and vaults are richly decorated in the Moorish style, reminiscent of the Alhambra in Spain. Every square inch that I could see was painted or gilded... This is the upper front facade - note the motif of the Ten Commandments.

Yes it was a sobering afternoon. So much history. So much sadness. But so important to know....


Travel is more than seeing the sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.


Pamela Gordon said...

So interesting and what a fascinating history of the Jewish peoples. I didn't know any of it before. I'm glad you spent time there and shared it here. The graveyard is truly interesting. Thank you! Take care and enjoy your adventures.

Sara - Villa Emilia said...

Thank you for your very beautiful and interesting posts from Prague, dear Linda! <3

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