|The Ceremonial Hall|
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|
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|
|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.