Our day in Prague was spent exploring the Jewish Quarter located just off the main Market Square because of the function of Jews in the city. “Jews have been here before kings”, Mr. Barmore [hereinafter Shalmi] said. “Jews are an integral part of European Christian civilization.”
As we stood in the center of the Market Square, Shalmi told us that if he were dropped into the center of any major European city, he would be able to find where the Jewish community had lived, the Jewish Quarter, within 10 minutes. Jews were central to any economy and therefore present in daily market activity in the central square, but would live somewhat outside the center. “Off center” was how Shalmi described it.
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. According to Judaism, there needs to be a minion or 10 Jewish men, in order to pray. So Jews were allowed to come in small groups by the king. Shalmi asked, “But, 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 needed and as such, tolerated. Jews were not liked, but not always hated. In Berlin they were about 5%, but they were very visible. 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 with the Christian society 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 developed modern antisemitism 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 were 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? Shalmi reminded us that Jews for many years had been living in their own inner world [the ‘open account with God’].
Shalmi explained to us this open account. Jews were the first to be monotheistic. In the Jewish perception of their history, they had been dispersed, not by the Romans, but by God. They believed God punished them by expelling them from their homeland because of their behavior, as a punishment. What they had done, they were not sure, but they knew they must have incurred God’s anger. Therefore, the Jews were in a diaspora; not in their country. Until when? When God changed his mind. And when would God change his mind? When he believed that his people were behaving and living according to his law, which is the Torah. So existence in the Diaspora was seen as temporary, even after 2,000 years. God could call them back at any time through the Messiah. Whereas Christians believed the Messiah had already come in the form of Jesus Christ, Jews did not believe he was Messiah. Jews believed they needed to behave, living according to God’s law as stated in the Torah, and that in time, God would return them to Zion. And to be able to live in accordance with God’s law, Jews needed to be able to read the Torah, so Jews were always literate.
Another thing Shalmi wanted for us to understand was how the lessons of the Torah had evolved over time. To help us he compared it to the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution states the principles by which we are governed, but when it needs to be changed and updated, there are amendments. The Torah was God’s law but when it needed to be applied to more current situations rabbis would interpret the Torah for the present day. This was the Talmud.
Shalmi told us that since Jews were not allowed to own land, they needed to make their living around trade, while waiting for God to return them to their homeland. Hence, Jews were living a dual life. Every day they would go to market and deal with gentiles. Then in the evening they would return home to continue practicing their religion. The differences of the Jews from the rest of society brought suspicion, confusion, and sometimes, accusations, such as that of Ritual Murder which charged Jews with kidnapping Christian children around Passover and using their blood in the making of matzoh. The fact that blood is sacrilegious for Jews, Shalmi told us, points to fallacy of the claim.
The first synagogue we visited was the Starnova Synagogue also known as the Old New Synagogue, built in 1270 and which is the oldest functioning synagogue in the world. 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 new synagogue. An example of Gothic architecture, Shalmi 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 Shalmi showed us the necessary components of any synagogue, including the ark, which held the Torah, and the bima from which the Torah was read. We learned that the Jewish world was divided among Ashkenazi Jews [Ashkenazi means “German” in Hebrew] and Oriental Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. The two groups had different practices including how the congregation would be seated. For Ashkenazi Jews they would sit before the bima, whereas Oriental Jews would sit around the bima. That meant that the synagogue in which we were sitting was one established by Oriental Jews.
Here, Shalmi also taught us that the use of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol originated in Prague. Displayed proudly in The Old-New Synagogue is the flag that the emperor allowed the Jews to hoist for parades. The symbol on the flag is the Star of David, or Jewish star which was the family symbol of the Cohen family, a prominent family in the congregation when the Jews made the flag. However, 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 Shalmi told us the story of the fabled Golom and Rabbi Loew. Readers of our blog will have to look that one up—- it’s too long to write, but well worth learning about, including its symbolism. Upon leaving the synagogue we climbed up the stairs to the next street from which we could view the ladder leading to the attic which is where the Golom is reputedly located – but anyone who tries to look, which be struck dead.
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. Shalmi 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 individual Jewish families, but rather the Czech Jewish community of today. 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.
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 and had been built in the 1860’s around the same time as the Old Neue Synagogue in Berlin that we had visited.. Many Jews were apparently embarrassed by its opulence. Shalmi 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.
Shalmi spoke to us about Joseph II, son of Empress Maria Theresa who ruled with her. Austria-Hungary had lost a war to Prussia (to Frederick the Great). After his mother died, Joseph II became sole emperor of the Hapsburg empire. A nation which loses a war often asks what it did to lose the war. For Joseph II, the answer was that Prussia was an enlightened modern nation while they were still feudal, so Joseph he decided to reform the state and around the 1790’s he brought about reforms which centralized the government and ended the feudal system. The privileges which had existed under the feudal system were taken away, not just from Jews, but all residents.
One of the reforms was that everyone had to study German, geography, math and become educated by going to school. The Hapsburg Empire dominated many people unlike Germany which was more ethnically homogenous. These different ethnic groups must all not study German, and that triggered nationalism among these people, such as the Hungarians and the Czechs. The only people that more or less accepted the reforms were the Jews because Jews now had the freedom to go to university and were no longer limited in their professions and could move out of the ghetto, or their restricted living quarters. The Jews knew about education; they were literate and now they went into medical schools and law schools because they were free professions. Again, this increased Jewish visibility—early on 60% of doctors were Jewish; 60% of attorneys were Jewish.
This was the one-sided love affair that Shalmi had spoken of in Berlin. Jews embraced the German language. But the problem with Jews speaking German was there was an accent; they still were different. The Jewish community opted to be German but was rejected. So the community then opted to be Czech but they were also rejected. The only place where one would not know who you were or where you came from, Shalmi told us, was in music, art, and literature because each of those could give you an identity. “I’m a violnist”, “I’m a writer” were professions which confer upon you a cultural identity.
Here, Shalmi told us the story of the Hilsner Affair, which, like the more well-known Dreyfus Affair in France, involved a Jew who was tried not once, but twice, for an offense which he did not commit but for which he was sentenced to prison for life, demonstrating the depth of antisemitism which could be found in this area in the 19th century. This affair was brought to the attention of a philosopher and teacher in Prague, Thomas Masaryk, who argued on behalf of Hilsner but to no avail. At the time, Prague was a very antisemitic city and Masaryk’s university students boycotted his lectures. Later, after World War I, Masaryk went 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. Masaryk, in America, was called back to be president of the new country. He wanted a statement in the constitution that ‘we embrace our Jewish brothers’ but that was not accepted. Masaryk responded that he would not return. Eventually he agreed to return and under his leadership Czechoslovakia became a Jewish haven. He also told us that as many Czech Jews were taken to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, they walked, singing the Czech national anthem.
In one generation, Czech Jews felt at home here; Czech Jews were not Zionists. Many Jewish survivors returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, we were told. It was only when there was the threat of communism, that they felt they needed to leave.
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.
A wonderful dinner with our dear friends, Eva and Tony Vavrecka at the Wine and Food Market! The students will get a chance to meet with Eva and Tony tomorrow evening.