This morning we headed out to explore the Jewish Quarter located just off the main Market Square not far from our hotel. Mr. Barmore said that if he was taken to any city in Europe that he had never been in before, he would be able to find the Jewish Quarter – it would always be close to the main Market Square but “off center,”
Because the Jews were central to the commerce of any major city, they were given certain privileges by the king, one of which was to form a community and to build synagogue. Our first stop was the Old New Synagogue, built in 1270, and is the oldest functioning synagogue in the world. Standing outside, Mr. Barmore asked, “Why were the Jews so hated? They were such a small percentage of any population.” His answer gave us pause: “You don’t have to have large numbers to have a large presence.” Jews were not liked, but not always hated. They were needed and as such, tolerated. Yet they chose not to assimilate over time to the point of disappearing within the larger population group, as had most groups in history. With Jews, most of the time, there was no mixing as in marriage or in getting together over meals, so that there was always a societal ‘wall’ between the groups limiting their interaction to commerce, which led to feelings of ambivalence about the presence of Jews.
Eventually, in the 19th century, modern antisemitism developed in the face of nationalism. Jews were asked, “Can you be part of the nation?” Jews answered “Yes, of course.” Then they were asked, “Will you consider your neighbor in Prague closer than your cousin in Warsaw? Will you be more loyal to the nation than to Jews in other lands?” Many said yes; many said no. Jews are both insiders and outsiders at the same time. It was easier for Jews in the Middle Ages when they were different because everybody was different: nobility, serfs, Jews, etc. —there was no society. But with modernity, are we all the same? Jews, too? Mr. Barmore reminded us that Jews for many years had been living in their own inner world [the ‘open account with God’]. Jews in the diaspora always believed that wherever they were living, it was a temporary state. They believed they needed to behave, praise God living in accordance with God’s law as stated in the Torah, and that in time, God would be appeased and would return them to Zion. “But,” said Mr. Barmore, “What does it mean to behave?”
Judaism is not really a religion we were told.. It’s about keeping the law as it is expressed in the Torah. This law was written 2,500 years ago.. So how is it relevant today?.. Mr. Barmore compared the Torah to the U.S. Constitution, written 231 years ago.. To adapt the principles of the Constitution to a changing society, there were amendments added and then there is also a Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution and the amendments. The Torah was written 2,500 years ago and to update it there were scholars who wrote the Talmud. After the Talmud was closed in the 5th century, there are rabbis, learned in both the Torah and Talmud who can guide Jews in how to live.
The first synagogue we visited was the Starnova Synagogue also known as the Old New Synagogue. The name itself, we were told, tells us it was not the first synagogue in Prague. At some point a synagogue was built. Then another synagogue was built and the first became the old, the second became the new. When a third synagogue was built, the second became the old newsynagogue. An example of Gothic architecture, Mr. Barmore pointed out that there had been changes to the structure – adding a section outside the original structure to accommodate women once they were included in prayer services, though they remained separate from the men. Inside the synagogue Mr.. Barmore showed us the necessary components of any synagogue, including the ark, which held the Torah, and the bima from which the Torah was read.
Mr. Barmore pointed out a flag hanging in the synagogue on which was a Star of David with a hat inside. People would ride on horseback in public celebrations, proudly carrying a flag that identified their family or group. The king awarded the Jewish community a flag in appreciation for their services so they could also participate in the celebrations. But they had no flag. The ancient symbol of Judaism was the menorah, but the Jewish community in Prague chose the Star of David as their new general identification symbol. Previously, the Star of David was only seen on graves to identify members of the Cohen family, a prominent family in the congregation. The Star of David became the symbol of Judaism only in the 17th century. The flag also displays the yellow hat, which was a derogatory symbol because the king made the Jews of Prague wear the yellow hat whenever they left the ghetto. Although it was originally meant to be disrespectful–it was the color yellow because that was a symbolic color of the plague–it later becomes a symbol of pride for the Jews, as they chose to take a negative and turn it into something positive that connected the community.
It was also in the Old-New Synagogue that Mr. Barmore told us the story of the fabled Golom and Rabbi Loew.
Next we went to the Maisel Synagogue, a place of significance during the Holocaust, because after the Jews of Prague are sent to Theresienstadt, the Jewish Museum asked the Nazis if they could collect personal and communal artifacts of the Jewish community. During the war, the Maisel Synagogue was a warehouse where Jewish curators catalogued and stored religious artifacts from synagogues, as well as personal religious items. The Nazis even allowed five special exhibitions of the artifacts during the war. Once their task was completed, the Nazis sent the curators of the museum to Auschwitz on the last transport, and only one of them survived. The synagogue has been remodeled as a museum and visitors can view many artifacts important in Czech Jewish history. Mr. Barmore also told us that though families and synagogues had sent their property to the museum curators to be secure until they could come back and much of it is upstairs in the attack in long rows, and carefully catalogued as to its provenance, the museum does not consider the property the personal property of Jewish families. He told us the story of a man who survived the Holocaust and finding out the museum still had his family’s belongings, came to the museum. He was shown his family’s property including letters that had been sent between himself and his father. He was ready to take his property with him and the museum said he could not. They would be happy to make him copies of the letters and take photos of the items, but they no longer belonged to him.
In the Maisel synagogue there was also a model of the city of Prague, made by Antonin Langwell in the period of 1826-1837. This model was digitized in 2006-2009 and cameras take a flight over the city of Prague.
At the Pinkas Synagogue, we saw the memorial to the Jews of Prague and the surrounding towns who the Nazis murdered during the Holocaust. On the walls of the synagogue, painstakingly painted by hand are the names of almost 80,000 Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who were victims of the Nazis. They are organized alphabetically by town (in yellow), followed by the first and last name (in red) and the date of the last transport.
Outside the Pinkas Synagogue is the Jewish cemetery with more than 12,000 tombstones. The original cemetery, when full, could not be expanded, and Jewish graves cannot be moved, so another cemetery layer was put on top. It is important in Jewish culture that the names not be forgotten, so the tombstone of the original grave was removed and placed with the tombstone of the individual on the second layer. Over the centuries, additional layers were added. Because of hygiene concerns, no additional layers could be added after 1787. There are up to fourteen layers of graves in the cemetery, which explains the tombstones as they are seen today.
Our next synagogue in the Jewish quarter was the Spanish synagogue. This was an ornate synagogue in the Moorish style. Many Jews were apparently embarrassed by its opulence. Mr. Barmore said some Jews felt it was less a place to pray than a place to be seen. He pointed out the massive organ which might equally be found in a large cathedral and represented an attempt by the Jewish community to rival the Catholic churches.
Mr. Barmore also told us about Thomas Masaryk, who, after WWI, would go to the United States to fight for the creation of a Czech nation. The biggest loser in terms of territory, from WWI was Germany. The biggest winner was the new nation of Czechoslovakia..
When Masaryk returned to what would become Czechoslovakia he was hailed as a hero. He demanded a constitution in which the nation embraced the Jew. This nation would be the only liberal state. Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, all become antisemitic, fascist states. Masaryk became Czechoslovakia’s first president and presided over the nation during the interwar period and this is when many Jews become Czech. They had been assimilated before but this is the only nation with which they identified. He also told us that as many Czech Jews were taken to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, they walked, singing the Czech national anthem. This year, 2018, the Czech Republic is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the nation. After the war, many Czech Jews returned to Czechoslovakia. The nation of Czechoslovakia was also extremely supportive of the new nation of Israel established in 1948.
After lunch at a nearby pizza restaurant, we headed to the Market Square where there was a little time to shop for souvenirs before heading back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at the Wine Food Market.
We had a lovely dinner with our dear friends Eva and Tony Vavrecka! Eva is the niece of Otto Wolf, the diary we all read in preparation for the trip as part of a collection in Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. Tomorrow after our long day in Terezin, Eva and Tony will be speaking to our students. Eva will talk about her family Holocaust story and Tony will speak about growing up under communism.
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