Prague Part 3: Jewish History in Prague

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever
Prague Part 2: Prague…My Favorite European City

Unlike many European cities that were bombed to a pulp during World War II, Prague is nearly intact. It’s a walking, living history book. We booked a three hour tour with Aharon Hribek, who came highly recommended by a friend. We had a lot to cover, and three hours was not enough. So consider that your warning…this will be a very long post.

The first stop was the Altneushcul, or the Old New Synagogue. M and I had already visited the synagogue for Saturday services, but today we got an expert’s guidance.

IMG_5574The synagogue was built in stages. The oldest part, the main sanctuary, dates back to 1270. As the synagogue expanded, adding an upper level and a women’s section, a plaque was added to commemorate each new section.

IMG_5551The inside is relatively small, and not at all ostentatious like some of the other synagogues we saw later, but hauntingly beautiful in its own way.

IMG_5595IMG_5607IMG_5623IMG_5640A artist friend of M’s designed many of the ritual coverings in the main sanctuary, like the navy covering on the bimah and the maroon covering on the Torah ark.

IMG_5644IMG_5653IMG_5659IMG_5663This seat bears the name the Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the revered rabbi known as the Maharal, who served as a rabbi in Prague during the 16th century. Our guide informed us that this may be the place where the Maharal sat, but the wood is not old enough to be the original seat.

IMG_5667A replica of the the Jews’ historic flag hangs from the ceiling. In 1357, Charles IV allowed the Jews of Prague to have their own city flag.

IMG_5671IMG_6309Next, we visited the Pinkas Synagogue, a gothic synagogue built in 1535. In 1955, it was turned into a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia. The first floor contains the names of each victim, and the second floor contains a heart-rending exhibit of drawings made by Jewish children kept in the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp.

IMG_5676IMG_5685IMG_5693IMG_5696IMG_5699IMG_5719IMG_5740After Pinkas, we walked through the old Jewish cemetery, while out guide pointed out some of the more famous and interesting gravestones. Many of the stones are faded and crooked, victims of nature and time. Cemeteries are supposed to be depressing places, but I took some odd comfort in the preservation of history. Each stone, each name is a story that lives on as thousands of people come from all over the world to hear their tales.

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The most famous gravestone in the yard – it belongs to the Maharal

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The oldest identifiable gravestone in the cemetery belongs to Avigdor Kara who died in 1439. UPDATE: A kind reader has informed me that the gravestone in the cemetery is a replica. The original can be found in the Maisel Synagogue entrance hall.

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Hendl Basevi was the wife of a wealthy businessman and mayor of the Jewish Town.

**IMG_5935**IMG_5899**IMG_5843**IMG_5791**IMG_5814**IMG_5831**IMG_5834By the time we finished at the Jewish cemetery, we were running short on time. We made two quick visits to the Klausen Synagogue and the Chevra Kadisha – the small building next to the cemetery where Jews would prepare their dead for burial. Then, M and I checked out the Maisel Synagogue, the elaborate Spanish Synagogue, and the modern Jewish cemetery on our own.

Built in 1694 in early Baroque style, the Klausen Synagogue is the largest in Prague.

IMG_6096IMG_6103IMG_6108IMG_6134The Maisel Synagogue was originally built in 1592 by Mordecai Maisel, the mayor of Prague’s Jewish town. It was burnt down in 1689 and rebuilt several times. Today, it hosts an exhibit on historical Jewish life in Bohemia.

IMG_6267IMG_6290IMG_6283The Spanish Synagogue is a sight to behold. Built in 1868 for the Reform congregation (notice the organ on the second floor which would never appear in an Orthodox synagogue), it was called the Spanish Synagogue because its design was influence by Moorish architecture.

IMG_7091IMG_7098IMG_7107IMG_7109The modern Jewish cemetery is not a typical stop on the tourist route in Prague. Most tourists stick to the historical sites in the center of Old Town. Founded in 1890, the modern cemetery is in use today and a 20 minute subway ride from the center of town. M connected with a friend of a friend who publishes a Jewish newsletter on site and offered to show us around.

IMG_6193IMG_6210IMG_6212IMG_6224IMG_6236Yes, that is the Franz Kafka.

IMG_6242IMG_6251These plaques memorialize several of the musical and visual artists who were held in the Terezin concentration camp and perished in the Holocaust. Terezin was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool to convince the Red Cross that their camps were humane and a cultural nirvana. They exploited the Jewish artists to churn out Nazi propaganda, but many of them secretly depicted the cruel reality of the camps through their art.

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Prague Part 2: Prague… My Favorite European City

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever

If you have not been to Prague, go now. Do not pass go; do not collect $200; go to Prague.

Prague is officially my favorite European city. No, it’s not one of Europe’s massive metropolises. It’s not Paris or London or Rome. But it is beautiful, and its size and low-cost makes it imminently accessible. I fell in love with Prague instantly – as we walked from the train station to our hotel and cursed ourselves for not realizing cobble stone sidewalks and wheeled suitcase do not mix.

Walking through Prague’s Old Town feels like being transported back in time.

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View of Old Town from the Charles Bridge tower

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A beautiful stone street in Mala Strana

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Bubbles in the Old Town Square

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View of Mala Strana and Prague’s many bridges

Our three and a half days in Prague felt insufficient. I could have easily spent more time there. Even in the freezing cold, I loved wandering through the neighborhoods, exploring random nooks and crannies, soaking up the charm, the colors… oh, I’m getting nostalgic.

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The Lennon Wall in Mala Strava

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The Prague astronomical clock in Old Town

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A trolley zooming past on Svatopluk Čech Bridge

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Bubble in the Old Town Square (I love photographing bubbles)

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More bubbles!

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Leafy view overlooking Mala Strava

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A beautiful reflection in Old Town

Prague is also rich in Jewish history, a stunning feat compared to nearby countries who saw historic Jewish communities laid to waste during World War II. The Altneuschul (the Old New Synagogue), for example, is the oldest active synagogue in Europe! In addition to the Jewish tour we lined up, M and I had the chance to attend services at the Altneuschul on Saturday morning, and M read from the Torah during services. It was a special experience to participate in the same traditions that have linked Jewish generations on the very same spot in the very same building since 1270.

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The famous Old New Synagogue

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The old Jewish cemetery in Prague dating back hundreds of centuries

I will post in-depth posts on each of these places, but wanted to share my love of Prague. Even in the freezing cold and dreary rain could not the dampen my  love for this city. So if you are thinking about going to Prague, go now. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Just go.

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Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever

In America, where high speed rail is more of a pipe dream than anything else, I’m used to people gushing over the European rail system. And up until now, I had no complaints. I’ve enjoyed the train from Paris to Brussels, through Holland, and through Spain. But the train ride from Berlin to Prague was a rude awakening.

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The standard comfortable train car has two rows of two seats each on either side of the train with an aisle down the middle. Comfort level may range from how cushy the seats are to how much legroom you have, but at a minimum, you only have one person next to you. The Berlin-Prague train featured mini compartments with SIX seats jammed together, with three seats facing the other three. Leg room was non-existent.

Oh my God. As soon as I saw our seats, my heart sank. I had high hopes for sleeping/doing work on the four and a half hour ride. Instead, we spent the ride smushed together with four strangers, thinking: Are we there yet? Are we there yet? ARE WE THERE YET?

Pictures from Seat 61

I blame myself for not researching the train ride more, though it never even occurred to me that any long-distance European train would be anything other than the standard two-by-two layout. Had I known what we were dealing with, I would have happily paid extra for first class seats and saved ourselves the four-and-a-half hours in train hell.

The moral of this story: Always check what kind of train you are getting.

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Berlin Part 8: Review – Hilton Berlin

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter
Berlin Part 6: Museum Island
Berlin Part 7: View From Above

I picked the Hilton Berlin for two reasons: 1) Location and 2) my Hilton diamond status.

The Positives:

  • Location: Centrally located in Mitte, we were walking distance to most major sites. Berlin is huge, but our location just south of Unter den Linden meant we could easily get to Potsdammer Platz, Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, the Jewish Quarter, the Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie, etc. all under 30 minutes. There is also a subway stop right at the corner.
  • Pretty Hotel: It’s a pretty hotel with nicely appointed rooms and modern interiors.

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  • The lounge/breakfast: As a Diamond member, we had access to the Lounge which provided breakfast, snacks, drinks, and evening appetizers. We also were able to get breakfast in the main dining room (more tourists, but much bigger spread). Most importantly, I had ongoing access to free diet cokes throughout our stay.

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  • Price: Berlin in general is fairly cheap. I booked five nights for 139,000 points in the off-season. That comes out to approximately 28,000 points a night for hotel in the middle of a major European city!
  • Wifi: Wifi worked well in the room (especially compared to our next hotel).

The Negatives:

  • Upgrade: As a diamond member, I have received some substantial upgrades in the past (I’m still dreaming about the suite in Barcelona). I pointed out that there were plenty of suites available in the hotel, but they argued that someone could still book those rooms over the course of our five night stay. They “upgraded” us to a room with a view of the Dom across the street. The room itself was fine, but the upgrade was disappointing.

As you can see, I was pretty happy with our stay at Hilton Berlin.

 

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Berlin Part 7: View From Above

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter
Berlin Part 6: Museum Island

After Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag is one of the most famous buildings in Berlin. It is also a symbol of Berlin as a city: The modern mixing with the old, one foot in the future and one foot into its tumultuous past.

The Reichstag was badly burned in 1933, and left to die on the ash heap of history during Communist control of East Berlin. With the reunification of Berlin, architect Norman Foster designed a gleaming domed rooftop for the home of the German government.

Tours of the dome are free, but require booking in advance online. We planned for an early morning visit, and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of blue sky that morning.

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Berlin Part 6: Museum Island

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter

While M museum hopped, managing to hit all five museums on Museum Island in two days, I wandered and took photos. I joined M for a trip to the top of Dom Berlin and found a great place to nap in the Bode Museum – but that’s about as much as my patience could stand.  Needless to say, M had a great time on the inside, and I had a great time on the outside.

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The Dom Cathedral reflected in a puddle.

***IMG_3576The Dom Cathedral is certainly impressive.

**IMG_3615**IMG_3623**IMG_3636And the views of Berlin are awesome!

**IMG_3722**IMG_3731**IMG_3763**IMG_3764**IMG_3777**IMG_3833**IMG_3883**IMG_3972*IMG_3818***IMG_3964I stepped inside the Bode to meet up with M. The lobby is very beautiful. And the beanbags in the children’s room is extremely comfortable!

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Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget

We’ve gotten our vacation division of labor down to a science. M spends hours in museums. I spend hours doing anything but spend hours in museums. So far, it’s working outs splendidly for us.

That’s how I found myself wandering around Berlin’s Jewish quarter one evening. East of Museum Island on the other side of the Spree River, the neighborhood is a hodgepodge of hip restaurants and shops, important Jewish sites, small galleries and residential housing.

Today, this area is home to two Jewish synagogues, a couple of Jewish restaurants, the remains of the old Jewish cemetery, and the ever-present stumbling stones that remind us of the people who use to walk these streets.

As I walked down Rosenthaler Strauss, I popped into what Berlin calls Berliner Hinterhöfe” or backyards.” This one in particular – Hause Schwarzenberg –  is home to two small museums, one dedicated to Anne Frank and one to Otto Weidt – the owner of a workshop for the blind and deaf who fought to protect his Jewish workers. It is also filled with interesting street art.

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Another “backyard” with awesome architecture.

**IMG_4035I made my way to the old Jewish cemetery. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the area was crowded with thousands of Jewish graves, but in 1943, it was destroyed by the Gestapo. Today, there are few relics and a gravestone memorializing Moses Mendelssohn  (it is not the original).

**IMG_4672**IMG_4681**IMG_4704***IMG_4742***IMG_4713Finally, I made my way to the New Synagogue. Built in 1865, it was largely destroyed during World War II. After the war, the community rebuilt the synagogue to look like the original. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tour the interior because it was closed for renovation.

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Berlin Part 4: Never Forget

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall

It’s impossible to go to Berlin and not contend with the gruesome history of the Third Reich. Berlin makes a valiant effort of telling that story and memorializing its victims. There are many important sites to see to make sure we “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust. Some are major tourists sites; others are less well known and barely noticeable. We didn’t get to all of them, but managed to spend time seeing a couple of important ones.

On our first day in Berlin, we visited the Topography of Terror on the site of the former Gestapo. You can walk along a piece of the Berlin Wall and the remains of the Gestapo’s external basement wall.

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Once inside, the first floor hosts a detailed history of Hitler’s Third Reich, told primarily through photographs and text. Many of the photos are chilling.

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Another important site is the Jewish Museum of Berlin that tells the story of Jewish history in Germany throughout the centuries.

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Not far from Brandenburg Gate, you’ll find the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sobering construction designed by architect Peter Eisenman.

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Finally, we took the S-Bahn to the Grunewald subway stop to tour a little-visited memorial called Gleis 17 (Track 17). From 1941 through 1942, trains deporting Berlin Jews to Nazi concentration camps left from Track 17. Today, the abandoned track is adorned with simple plaques that commemorate the date and the number of Jews deported. It is an oddly beautiful and infuriating memorial.

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These sites were not enjoyable in the typical sense of the word. How can the constant reminder of the murder of six million Jews be “enjoyable”? Most of the time, I felt the anger rising in my blood and my thoughts. So many people who never got a chance, so many stories that will never be told, so many generations obliterated. It is supposed to be infuriating.

 

 

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2017 in Review

2017 was an eventful year that included one wedding, two apartment moves, and a whole lot of travel. 2018 is an election year so that means more work and fewer vacations until November, though we have a trip to Israel on the horizon for my sister-in-law’s wedding. I’ve also introduced M to the world of miles, business class, and airport lounges – which he claims he didn’t know existed. Happy new year! Here’s to an exciting 2018!

2017 in numbers:

0: New state visited. I have still visited 39 out of 50 states.

5: New countries visited – Iceland, Ireland, Holland, Czech Republic, and Austria

3: New credit cards. This is very low for me, but we got five credit cards for M so it balances out.

8: Countries visited, including the U.S. (Iceland, Ireland, Holland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Canada, and the U.S.)

11: States visited, including Washington D.C.

42: Flights – nearly double last year’s.

50: Nights spent in hotels.

41,437: Number of miles flown – more than double last year’s.

306,000: Number of miles redeemed. (Five flights from D.C to New York City or vice versa; one flight from D.C. to Nashville; two economy seats from Dublin to D.C.; two business class seats from D.C. to Berlin; two economy seats from Vienna to D.C.; one economy round-trip ticket from D.C. to Amsterdam.)

548,000: Number of points redeemed at hotels, including one free night due to credit cards. This is way more than I’ve ever done – the perks of having a husband I can get credit cards for. This includes four nights at the Hilton Nordica in Reykjavik (points + cash), one night at the Park Inn Keflavik (points + cash); one night at the DoubleTree in Dublin; one night at the Crowne Plaza near the airport in Dublin; one night at the Renaissance Amsterdam; one night at the Hyatt Regency in Amsterdam;  five nights Hilton Berlin, two nights at the Intercontinental Prague; five nights at the Marriott Vienna.

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Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin is…Complicated

Confession: I am obsessed with the Berlin Wall and Communist era history. I was intent on seeing as much of the Berlin Wall as possible – and M dutifully followed me around.

Berlin has many reminders of the Berlin Wall’s 28 year history. Throughout the city, there are plaques marking where the wall used to stand, as well as bits and pieces of the actual wall. There are a couple of key spots to really appreciate the wall and what it meant for Berlin.

(1) Potsdamer Platz: Today, Potsdamer Platz is a bustling area with modern skyscrapers, cinemas, museums, hotels, and restaurants. In 1989, when the wall came tumbling down though, Potsdamer Platz was a wasteland. For 28 years, it operated as a death strip where Soviet guards would shoot down desperate East Berliners trying to make the escape to freedom. Today, you can touch pieces of the wall, and read about its history while you gaze up at the closest thing Berlin has to a skyline.

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M relaxing at a Starbucks in Potsdamer Platz

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Slabs of the Berlin Wall covered in gum

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A piece of the Berlin Wall covered in graffiti

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A reflection of the old subway sign at Potsdamer Platz – a stop that was completely vacant during the split

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A map of the wall and the remaining pieces

(2) Checkpoint Charlie: Checkpoint Charlie was the entry and exit point between East and West Berlin, used primarily by foreigners. Today, there is a mediocre museum and some replicas that are great for tourist pictures. While the museum is not particularly done well, it tells an important story abut the toll the wall took, the people who risked their lives to flee and help others flee, and the unrelenting hope for freedom. While Checkpoint Charlie was not the largest checkpoint, it became a symbol of the Cold War, serving as the site of a major showdown between America and the Soviet Union in October 1961.

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An outdoor exhibit gives you a sense of what this spot used to look like

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There are plenty of original wall pieces to marvel at

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Pictures of the crossing

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A replica of the original checkpoint for tourists to take pictures

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The original sign that used to stand at Checkpoint Charlie can now be seen inside the museum

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Thousands of Berliners watched as the original checkpoint booth is airlifted out of the spot where it sat for nearly 30 years

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On September 9, 1948, 300,000 Berliners gathered to protest the division of the city

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After WWII, the Soviets set up “special camps,” often repurposing the Nazi’s concentration camps, to house thousands of people who were indiscriminately arrested. Between 1945 and 1950, 43,000 detainees — out of approximately 123,000 — died in the camps. The German Red Cross organized a list of those people and you can now search through the binders at the museum

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From June 24 1948 until May 12 1949, the Soviet Union blocked the Western allies access to West Berlin. In response, the allies organized the Berlin Airlift to bring food, medicine, and other supplies to the people of West Berlin. It was a massive undertaking that required building a brand new airport in only 90 days

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A Cold War-era map of Berlin

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The ground floor of the museum

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This car shows how people used to carve out stowage space to hide East Berliners in the trunks of their cars as they crossed the East-West border

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The many passport pages of John P. Ireland – an American studying in West Berlin who had the genius idea of modifying a Cadillac to hide East Berliners in the trunk. Ireland ferried 10 people to freedom, usually via Czechoslovakia and Hungary where the border checks were less aggressive than East Berlin

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An example of what it was like to hide in a car in an effort escape to West Berlin

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A replica of a hot air balloon constructed by electrician Peter Strelzyk. On September 1, 1979, two families launched themselves into the night sky, landing in West Berlin at 2:40 a.m. They hugged the police officers when they were told “You’re in the West.”

(2) Brandenburg Gate: There aren’t actually pieces of the wall at Brandenburng Gate because the Gate itself served as a dividing line between East and West Berlin. In the early years of the Cold War, Brandenburg Gate was a checkpoint between the two sides. After 1961, the Gate was closed and became a major site of pro-freedom protests on the West Berlin side. It was famously, the site of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin – requiring the Soviet-run GDR to put up curtains on the East Berlin side of the Gate so no one would catch a glimpse of JFK. On November 9, 1989, thousands of Berliners gathered at Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the wall.

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(3) East Side Gallery: East Side Gallery is a 4,317-foot strip of the Berlin Wall located between the Berlin Ostbahnhof and Warschauer Strauss train stops. The gallery contains 105 paintings by artists in 1990 after the fall of the wall. Sadly, today, many of the paintings are covered in graffiti and required heavy restoration. Some were entirely repainted by the original artists.

IMG_4603IMG_4606IMG_4609The artist of this painting actually painted it three times as indicated by the date at the bottom.

IMG_4600.JPGIMG_4616IMG_4620IMG_4628This is my favorite piece of art from East Side Gallery.

IMG_9566IMG_9578IMG_9595This painting, entitled “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” is probably the most famous of the East Side Gallery paintings. Painted by Dmitri Vrubel, it reenacts a famous moment between Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and GDR head Erich Honecker in 1979.

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(4) Topography of Terror: The Topography of Terror stands in the spot of Hitler’s Gestapo, which was razed to the ground after the war. Today, it is a free museum that retells the history of Nazi Germany from its rise to its fall. I’ll talk about the museum later, but outside the museum, you can walk a long a long strip of the Berlin Wall as well as small piece of the basement wall from the Gestapo building.

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There are several other places to see remnants of the Berlin Wall including Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which we did not have time to get to. Seeing the Berlin Wall was on my to-do list for a long time, and I highly recommend at least one of these stops if you’re in Berlin.

 

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