Friday, November 06, 2009


For several years, now, I've been wanting to schedule an encounter with at least one of the Nazi concentration camps on my way to Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian rights work certainly isn't the first time that the Holocaust has driven me to engage on an issue, but it's the first time I've traveled abroad to do so. It has often felt...'disjointed' isn't quite what I want, here, but I can't come up with anything travel so much in support of Palestinian rights, without ever paying my respects 'face-to-face', so to speak, to the people whose stories drew me into this work in the first place. In the past, though, the added cost and time involved just weren't workable, and I never managed to do this. This year, I got lucky: Czech Airlines changed my flight and I wound up with a 15-hour layover in Prague, an important center of European Jewish life, and located just 40 miles southeast of Terezin (German "Theresienstadt") concentration camp.
I won't get too deeply into Prague's Jewish history, mostly because I knew nothing at all about it before this trip, and know little more now. In a nutshell, the Jewish community in Prague dates back to at least 970 CE; it thrived for a while, and was then persecuted with varying intensity from 1096 through 1563. A two century "golden age" followed from 1564-1744, at which time Prague boasted the world's largest Jewish population. The Jews were then thrown out of Prague (again) in 1745 by yet another new despot, but returned in 1780 to a far better and steadily improving situation that generally persisted through the 1920's. In the late 1930's, of course, the Nazis overran the city, and that was that.
During the Nazi occupation, Jewish historians/archivists negotiated with the Germans to collect Jewish artifacts from across the region to create a museum of the extinct Jewish peope (that's what the Nazis agreed to, though presumably the Jews responsible had other hopes). The work began and a great deal was done, though it was happily interrupted before completion by Germany's surrender. After the Holocaust, two Czech Christian denominations (the Bohemian Brethren and the Czechoslovakian Church) used many of the smaller, empty synagogues as prayer rooms. Where this was done, the Christian congregations took care of the Jewish cemeteries, and apparently even read a special prayer dedicated to those occasions. The extraordinary, multi-site Jewish Museum begun under the Nazis is fully staffed and open to the public; it holds one of the world's largest collections of Judaica and related items
Around 10,000 of the area's 120,000 Jews did survive the Holocaust, and the city still hosts the oldest functioning synagogue in all of Europe, the Old-New Synagogue, which (except for 1941-1944) has been in continuous congregational use since 1270 CE. Prague's present-day Jewish community of several thousand holds weekday services there (Jewish visitors are welcome, though I unfortunately missed out this time). On Shabbat, services are held at the much larger and visually mind-blowing Jerusalem Synagogue, which opened on Simhat Torah, 1906. The official pamphlet I picked up says the synagogue is "an interesting example of Art Nouveau stylisation of the morphology of the Moorish style." I won't even try to describe it here, but I will be posting all the pictures from my trip on the web when I return, so keep an eye out if you're interested.
To sum up: There were non-Jewish Czechs and there were Jewish Czechs. Too often, the former saw little human worth in the latter, but they finally got their act together in the late 1800s and kept it that way into the 1930s. Then there were Nazis, non-Jewish Czechs, and Jewish Czechs; the Nazis were happy to preserve the Jews' history and culture, but only on the assumption that they would all be safely dead at the time. In the end, though, the Prague Jews are still alive, and the non-Jewish Czechs are helping to preserve their history and culture, anyway. The lesson? If you want to be better than a Nazi, then you'll need to help preserve your victims' history and culture while they're still alive to see it.


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