Category Archives: Jewish History

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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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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Holland Part 2: Jewish History In Amsterdam

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam

Apologies in advance for the marathon post, but it seems fitting to group the Jewish sites together. Together, they tell a story of Jewish prosperity and extermination in Holland. It is not a pretty story, but a story that must be told.

M an I visited a number of important Jewish sites throughout our time in Amsterdam. While some are beautiful, most are sobering, a reminder that Amsterdam’s once prosperous Jewish community came to an abrupt halt on May 10, 1940 when Nazi Germany descended on its neighbors to the west.

We started with a  self-tour of the Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) in Amsterdam’s old Jewish center, a stunning historical building that should be on your to-do list.

While many European countries persecuted and evicted the Jews throughout the Middle Ages, Holland’s relative tolerance made it a safe harbor for many Jews, especially Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing devastating pogroms and the infamous Inquisitions.

In 1665, the Jews of Amsterdam built a new synagogue that was, at the time, the largest in the world. Finished in 1675, the synagogue still looks the same as it did more than 300 years ago.

**IMG_9356The building itself is huge, so huge I had trouble capturing its size on my camera.

*IMG_9347The main sanctuary is beautiful, just beautiful.

***IMG_9396***IMG_9409***IMG_9422***IMG_9424***IMG_9435We made our way upstairs to the women’s section (men and women sit separately in Orthodox synagogues.)

***IMG_9486***IMG_9487***IMG_9491***IMG_9512**IMG_9508**IMG_9514***IMG_9522We made our way back outside to tour the grounds and the library of historical treasures. The below picture is a sukkah – the hut-like structure Jews eat in on the holiday of Sukkot.

**IMG_9528A small sampling of the synagogue’s many silver and gold treasures.

**IMG_9578*IMG_9470Here we are touring the synagogue’s candle room. If you are fortunate to attend services in the main sanctuary, you can see all the candelabras lit up. M and I attended night services, but it was held in the much smaller and newer winter sanctuary (the 300-plus year old sanctuary does not have heat).

*IMG_9540Below is an outdoor washing station for the kohanim (priests) to wash their hands during services.

*IMG_9543Below is the mourning room for funeral services.

*IMG_9544*IMG_9545Our last stop was the treasure chambers, where we saw many stunning historical relics, including Torah scrolls, prayer books, and other ritual items.

*IMG_9561*IMG_9569*IMG_9570*IMG_9571After our visit to the Portuguese Synagogue, we made a quick stop at the Jewish Museum across the street, which is constructed out of four old Ashkenazi synagogues. We only had an hour, so we did a quick tear through the exhibits, including a history of the Jews in Amsterdam and an array of Jewish relics.

*IMG_9597The history of Holland’s Jewish community has a tragic end, like so many other Jewish communities throughout Europe. The exhibit walks you through the Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland, and the subsequent annihilation of the Jews.

In the early 1900s, Amsterdam’s Jewish community totaled approximately 60,000. By the start of World War II, it had more than doubled to 140,000 Jews. Six years later, in 1945, only 30,000 traumatized Jews remained.

*IMG_9599IMG_9602We caught a glimpse of the main sanctuary of one of the four original synagogues.

*IMG_9608In the basement of the museum, there  are a handful of intersting artifacts and paintings.

*IMG_9638*IMG_9641*IMG_9642*IMG_9650*IMG_9657*IMG_9661*IMG_9663*IMG_9669Later in the week, we stopped at Hollandsche Schouwburg (the Holland Theatre), the National Holocaust Museum, and the Anne Frank House, possibly the most popular tourist spot in all of Holland.

The Hollandsche Shouwbrug was a Dutch theater that was turned into a Jewish theater after the Nazi occupation in 1941, and then served as a deportation center. Today, it is a small museum and memorial, worth a bit of time if you are interested in Jewish history.

According to the museum:

Built as a theatre in 1892, the Hollandsche Schouwburg became the main playhouses in the district… In September 1941, as one of the many anti-Jewish measures introduced by the occupying forces, its name was changed to ‘Joodsche Schouwburg’ (Jewish theatre). From then on, only Jewish musicians and other performing artists were permitted to perform here – to an exclusively Jewish audience… On 20 July 1942, the occupying forces seized the Hollandsche Shouwburg as an assembly point for deportations. In total, over 46,000 Jews were imprisoned within the theatre’s walls prior to deportation to the transit camps Westerbork or Vught. From there, they were deported to an almost certain death in the concentration camps and extermination camps in Germany or Occupied Poland.

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The names of all the Dutch Jews who were murdered by the Nazis

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An outdoor memorial dedicated to Holland’s Jewish community

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A memorial wall

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A tulip memorial with hand written notes

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A note in Hebrew

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The front page of the newspaper the day Germany invaded Holland

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A photo of Dutch Jewish children with their obligatory stars

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A photo of Dutch Jews being rounded up

The National Holocaust Museum is across the street, and still undergoing finishing touches when we visited. The buildings used to house a nursery and a Christian Culture School. During World War II, some of the adults snuck Jewish children out of the nursery when the tram rolled by obscuring the Nazis’ view across the street. According to a plaque at the museum:

Across the street from the Kweekschool is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, where in 1942 and 1943 more than 46,000 Jews were held captive while awaiting deportation. Jewish children were confined to the Creche next door to the Kweekschool, from which they were sent on to Westerbork transit camp and later deported. In January 1943, Johan van Hulst consented to an illegal plan to bring children from the overcrowded Creche into the Kweekschool daily for an afternoon nap. Gradually, the Jewish employees of the Creche and Director Van Hulst established a bond of trust, and they were able, starting in April 1943, to arrange for many Jewish children to escape through the Kweekschool to safety. Some 600 children from the Creche were saved.

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View of the museum with the tram running by

IMG_1178The first floor had an array of photos and items from children who perished in the Holocaust.

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Edith Rolef (b. 1926) and her twin siblings Ilse  and Gerd Rolef (b. 1929). On May 28, 1943, Gerd was murdered in Sobibor. On February 11, 1943, Edith and Ilse died in Auschwitz.

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Drawings the children sent to their parents in Germany

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The museum’s backyard serves as a kind of memorial

IMG_1210The downstairs space is reserved for special exhibits. During our visit, we were lucky to catch a exhibit celebrating the recently discovered photographs of the husband and wife team, Annemie Wolff-Koller (1906-1994) and Helmuth Wolff (1895-1940).

Helmuth was Jewish, while Annemie was not. The couple fled Munich for the Netherlands in 1933 after the Nazis rose to power. They built a successful photography business until the fateful day on May 10, 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland. Five days later, the couple attempted suicide, assuming the end was near. Helmuth died, but Annemie survived, and continued with her photography throughout her life. During the war, she was active in the Resistance, and took many portraits, many of Jews. Some of these portraits were used for forged ID papers or applications for certificates of non-Jewish descent. Annemie printed the latter photographs with blonder coloring to help substantiate her clients’ case.

These photos were thought to be lost for decades. It turns out, all of Annemie’s negatives were saved and recently found. For the first time, they are available for public viewing.

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A portrait of the couple

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The couple at a photoshoot on the beach

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Examples of the Annemie’s many portraits

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From the description: Ruth’s mother Marta asked Calmeyer’s bureau to certify her daughter as ‘half Jewish.’ She claimed that Ruth had been born from her relationship with an ‘Aryan’ Dutchman who often traveled to Germany, and who submitted a statement to the same effect. It was a lie, but when Ruth had her measurements taken by the German anthropologist Weinert in the Hague, it had been concluded that she had ‘Aryan’ features. Ruth survived. 

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A view of the theater from outside the museum

We also toured the famous Anne Frank House, but photos are not allowed. It is a sobering but fascinating exhibit of life for the Franks during Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. If you are planning on visiting, I highly recommend purchasing tickets well in advance, or you will be stuck waiting in this line that wrapped around the block and then around the next block.

IMG_1284.JPGM used his press pass to get us press tickets so we were able to skip the line and go right in at our appointed time.

All in all, there are plenty of important and interesting Jewish sites in Holland. As I walked through these sites, it was hard not to ask myself “What if?” What if Hitler never came to power? What if Anne Frank had survived instead of dying a mere couple of weeks before liberation? What if the Portuguese Synagogue had been bombed to smithereens like so many other Jewish synagogues?

There are no answers. There are just the stories of all the people and places that came before us. It is a a story of persistence and struggle, life and death, and the undeniable truth that these stories are part of our stories. History is the preamble to our lives.

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