Today we went on a tour of the Jewish Ghetto of Prague. Learning about the way this sect of Czechs lived their lives was a valuable insight to the Jewish culture and their importance within Czech culture. To start, take a look at the architecture of the Maisel Synagogue below!
Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, opened in 1535. There are no services led there in the modern day. Instead, it functions as a museum and all known victims of the Holocaust are written on its walls. During World War II, 2/3 of the Jewish people in the Czech Republic were murdered in concentration camps.
The photos above show two entire rooms covered in names of the deceased. The close-up picture of one section shows the names were first organized by town of residence in yellow, and then by family name (surname) in red, and then by the individual’s name written in black.
During the communist regime, the Pinkas Synagogue was closed for “technical reasons.” During this time, all of the names on the walls were painted over. The photo above shows a section that was left as-is after the Communist regime. This section was left as a reminder of the oppression of the people, and the desecrated names were rewritten elsewhere.
When all the names had to be repainted, the decision was made to write them even bigger. In all, there are 77,297 names of Czech Jews alone.
The most impactful story I heard today was that of a teacher sent to Terezín, a Czech internment camp. During her time in Terezín, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis chose to teach art to children living in the camp. She would assign topics like, “Where do you imagine your family goes when they leave Terezín?” Although the real-life answer was usually Auschwitz, the children were given the chance to escape from their reality. When Dicker-Brandeis learned of her own upcoming transportation to Auschwitz, she collected all the drawings she could and hid them in a wooden chest in Terezín. These were not discovered until after the war. Of the 500 original drawings, many of them are now on display at the Pinkas Synagogue.
Our last stop today was the Jewish Cemetery (Starý Židovský Hřbitov, in Czech). The Jewish community, over many years, simply ran out of space to bury their dead. While 12,000 tombstones are viewable aboveground, the 12 hidden layers buried below house another 90,000 tombstones. Many of these date back to the 1500s or earlier.
This was probably my favorite tour we have had so far during the Czech culture course. While almost everything I know about Jewish culture from school revolved around how they were murdered, what I learned today was mostly how they lived their lives.
I’ll end with a quote from Franz Kafka, a Jewish author born in Prague:
Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.