Tag 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 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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