Prague's Jewish Quarter: An Emotional and Educational Journey

 

When I enter the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, I’m not prepared for what I see. On the walls are painted the names of nearly 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews; victims of Shoah concentration camp during Nazi occupation.

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Founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas, one of the Jewish community’s wealthy members, it now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The synagogue was converted into this moving monument between 1955 and 1960 by painters Václav Boštík and Jiří John. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the memorial was closed for more than 20 years. It was fully renovated and opened again in 1995.

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As emotional as the site of all those names is, on the second floor are children’s drawings from Terezin concentration camp where the Jewish children were imprisoned during WWII. The drawings tell of the persecution of Jews in the Czech lands between 1939 and 1945. It’s hard to look at the pictures knowing most of the children were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Březinka extermination camp. The paintings illustrate the transports to Terezin and everyday life in the ghetto as well as dreams of returning home.

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Pinkas Synagogue is part of Prague’s Jewish Museum that was founded in 1906. Three other synagogues (Maisel, Klausen and Spanish), the Old Jewish Cemetery, Ceremonial Hall and Robert Gultmann Gallery are also part of the museum. One of the oldest and continuously existing Jewish museums in the world, its mission is “to document the history, traditions and customs of the Jewish population in Bohemia and preserve valuable artifacts from the Prague synagogues that were destroyed during the liquidation of the Prague ghetto.”

Old Jewish Cemetery
Just outside Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish burial grounds in the world. The oldest tombstone dates from 1439; the last funeral took place in 1787.

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Tombstones are only inches apart because the cemetery is actually 10 layers. When there wasn’t any more room for new burials, a layer of soil was placed on top of existing graves. The tombstones from the under layers were erected on the top layer where the newly departed were buried. There are 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery.

Maisel Synagogue was built by the rich mayor of the Jewish Town in 1592. Although the original Renaissance building was a victim of fire in 1689, a new neo-Gothic synagogue was built in its place from 1893-1905.

Today it houses a collection of Jewish silver, textiles, prints and books. Most of the collection was brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of the people they planned to annihilate.

The Klausen synagogue is the largest in Prague. Originating in the 16th century, the current structure was built on the site in 1694 in the early Baroque style. The exhibition continues in the Ceremonial Hall and includes exhibitions about the Hebrew Bible. The displays also focus on the synagogue and its significance to the community.

In the gallery are exhibits relating to the daily life of a Jewish family including customs associated with birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage and divorce. It also provides a glimpse into a Jewish household and kitchen.

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The Spanish Synagogue is the newest of the Prague synagogues. It was built in the Spanish Moorish style in 1868. The most ornate of the city’s synagogues, its exhibition deals with the history of the Jews in the Bohemian lands from the reforms of Joseph II in the 1780s to the period after WWII. On the upper floor is a permanent exhibit of more than 200 of the most valuable silver artifacts from the museum's collections including Torah ornaments – shields, pointers, finials and crowns.

Old-New Synagogue

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Although not part of the museum, Old-New Synagogue is a must-see. The oldest working synagogue in Europe and one of Prague’s earliest Gothic buildings dating to 1270, it is like time travel to walk its small circumference and see its treasures on display.

s-Jewish-17Worship here has continued for 700 years, interrupted only between 1941 and 1945 because of the Nazi occupation.

A visit to the Jewish Quarter is emotional and educational. The tour was a Viking River Cruises optional excursion and one I can certainly recommend.

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Such places have a much deeper impact, even, than the actual lives lost. It is an example of what Alisdair Maclean called 'cultural erosion'. Places, activities, landmarks all lost to future generations from the memories of those gone. 

I remember discovering a small forgotten Jewish cemetery at Tokay, Hungary on the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers. Many locals had no knowledge of it a mere 300 metres (across the river) from the main street. 

I also visited the Old Jewish Cemetery during my first road trip to Prague shortly after the Soviets departed.  I stayed with a local family in their spare room where I learned some of their customs and foods.  Many of the historical sites were still not available for viewing at that time, but fortunately Marilyn provided some exquisite photos and historical context.

George G

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