Our day began at the Strahov Monastery, manned by friars who came to Prague in the 12th century from France, after they had returned from the Holy Lands and sold their services as guards, bibliophiles (librarians) and book copiers/scribes. In the two fascinating halls of their library, one for the theological works, and the other for philosophical works, we saw an excellent example of how these church institutions were the depository and guardians of culture in Europe.
This library contains over 45,000 volumes of work dating back to the 10th century. The two halls have been under restoration for the past four years and it is now complete. As a gift from our Prague travel agency owner, Dana Brichtova, we were allowed to enter into those rooms and see them close up. Donning special slipper shoes to protect the hardwood floors, we were guided through the Theological Hall and Philosophical Hall by Kamilla and Shalmi who spoke to us about the books and paintings.
Next, we saw the Czernin Palace, which today houses the Foreign Ministry, and the Loretto Shrine, one of the finest baroque structures.
Continuing into the Castle premises, we saw a whole diversity of architectural styles, beginning at the St. Vitus Cathedral, with its unique gothic and neo-gothic architecture, and magnificent stained glass windows.
We continued walking down the hill from the Strahov Monastery, taking in the spellbinding views of Prague. Arriving at the bottom of the hill, we were met by our bus and were introduced to our guest for the day, Irene Ravel, a Holocaust survivor, who had lived in the city of Kolin and been interned at Theresienstadt. She was going to accompany us to the city of Kolin, which had the second largest Jewish population after Prague. There were about 3,000 Jews in the area in 1939 and they were deported in three large transports. 2200 of them were killed. Of the Jews in Kolin, only 69 survived; Irene and her sister Hana were among them.
After lunch in Kolin, went to the synagogue which had been built in the 15th century. To enter the synagogue we first had to go from the street through a house. Our local guide in Kolin, Dr. Miroslava Jouzova, informed us that the rabbi wanted to have a yeshiva (school) but the only land that was available to build on in the ghetto was in front of the synagogue so that’s where the school was built, making it an unusual structure.
Dr. Jouzova spoke to us about the Jews of Kolin and the synagogue. She said that the Jews had been extremely assimilated in the community which was a feeling echoed by Irene. On the second floor of the synagogue was an exhibition which shared the stories of some of the families of Kolin during the Holocaust including Irene’s family. The exhibition had been created by the Jewish community because of the importance it felt in conserving memory of its former Jewish residents.
We walked to the Jewish cemetery which, we were told, was older than the cemetery we had visited in Prague and had been used as a burial site from the 13th
to the 19th
century. There were 26,000 gravestones in the cemetery, but many more people were buried here. Dr. Jouzova said that children, when they died, were buried without headstones, for economic reasons, because they were very costly and families could not afford them.
Only the wealthy families were able to mark the graves of their children. Dr. Jouzova also said that unlike, the Prague cemetery, people here were not buried in layers but in individual plots because there was more available land. Much of the cemetery was in disrepair with vines totally covering many of the headstones. A congregation in Chicago had begun the process of cleaning up the cemetery several years ago and large sections of the cemetery are cleared, but there remains a significant number of headstones still needing attention. Most of the headstones are illegible due to weather erosion. The Prague Jewish Community now owns the cemetery and is trying to raise funds to restore and clean it. The Jewish community owns and is responsible for the synagogue.
As we walked back to the bus, Kamilla showed us some ‘stumbling stones’ which were brass plaques in the street around the town which had also been in Berlin and Prague. These are small plaques which were placed before homes of Jewish residents during the Holocaust. On them are listed the names of the family members who had lived there, their dates of birth, and their fate at the hands of the Nazis. Like the Bavarian Quarter memorial, these stones are inobtrusive memorials which one might stumble across and commemorate the lives of Holocaust victims.
On the bus ride back into Prague, Irene took questions from our group about her life experiences, both before and during the Holocaust. We said goodbye to Irene in Prague and headed for a funicular which would take us up to our restaurant, Nebozezik, overlooking the city of Prague. At dinner we met Dr. Joan Silber, a donor to our program who has subsidized the memorial which will be dedicated this year in Trsice through the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. Following a fantastic meal with even more spectacular vistas of Prague, we headed back to our hotel.
Before our journaling, Shalmi told us about the power struggle in this area between the church and the state, the sacred and the temporal. He told the story of the first schism in Catholicism between the Catholics and the Hussites, during the time of the Holy Roman Empire in which a defenestration ultimately led to the beginning of the Thirty Years War which was, until World War I the most important war in European history.
From France to Poland, from Italy to Sweden, the whole of Europe engaged in this war between Catholics and Protestants. In this area, the people say there was a genocide against Protestants; when Protestants would not convert, many converted to Judaism rather than be Catholics. All the steeples in Prague that had Gothic or Renaissance architecture, was taken away and made it Baroque. Baroque was the architecture of the church. Many steeples are Baroque but the building is Gothic. The impact on the Czechs was they stayed away from religion and today, despite all the churches, this is the most secular country in Europe.