Monday, 17 August 2015

Visiting the Jewish Museum in Prague


Prague, Czech Republic
Czech Republic's Jewish population was almost entirely gone by the end of World War II, and those that remained continued to suffer under Communist rule. Today, only around 5,000 Jews live in Prague, yet great reminders of their flourishing past remain. During the war, the gestapo gathered Jewish artefacts from synagogues around the country and brought them to the Maisel Synagogue, where it is alleged that Hitler was creating a "museum of an extinct race". This along with several other synagogues in the quarter comprise the Jewish Museum in Prague, where Jewish culture is celebrated and the somber facts of WWII are remembered. 
A striking visual representation of Jews from the Czech Lands that were killed in the Second World War is on show in the Pinkas Synagogue. Many of the walls are covered floor to ceiling with names of the deceased alongside their birth and death dates. To imagine each of those names as living people persecuted by the Nazis is horrific and truly mind boggling. 
An exhibition of children's artwork from Terezín was also displayed. The town, which is about 60km from Prague, was converted into a concentration camp where 150,000 Jews were sent. Over half of them were transported to extermination camps, and many died from disease and malnourishment in the awful living conditions. Only 17,247 Jews from Terezín survived at the end of the war. 
The Pinkas Synagogue was built around 1535 next to the Old Jewish Cemetery. The jumbled headstones only show a fraction of those buried underneath - it is forbidden to remove graves or headstones so new layers of soil would be added on top of the cemetery when more space was needed. There may be up to twelve layers of graves stacked under the earth. Nearly as cramped as the remains were the living who tried to see the site. A narrow walkway snaked through and the trail of tourists had to keep moving lest we hold up the line. 
Two famous Prague inhabitants buried here are Mordechai Meisel and Rabbi Loew. Meisel was a popular philanthropist who provided homes to the needy and built the Jewish Town Hall and the synagogue which now bears his name. 
Inside the Maisel Synagogue (built 1592) is a statue of Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, who was a rabbi, philosopher and mystic. 
Though not nearly as old as many of the other pieces on display, this series of golems caught my eye. My interest in golems was sparked by the novel the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, where I first learned of the Golem of Prague. In the legend, Rabbi Loew brings a creature made of river clay to life to protect the inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto. It's at once terribly sad that they would need such a protector, and heartbreakingly touching that their rabbi would go to great lengths to provide them with one. I think that like a children's movie about a sensitive robot, the golem would slowly develop human feelings and instead of a brainless monster would grow into a loveable 'gentle giant'. 
Our last section of the museum was the Spanish Synagogue - an opulent showcase of architecture and art.
I was reminded at once of the Alhambra in Grenada, where Moorish patterns are carved into the stone as well as painted onto the walls. This is one reason as to the synagogue's name: influences from Spain. 
Of all the Czech synagogues I had seen that day, the Spanish Synagogue was by far my favourite for the amazing interior as well as information on Czech Jewish artists, writers and musicians. 
As I'm sure is the intention of the Jewish Museum in Prague, I learnt a great deal about Jewish history in the Czech capital. Immensely saddened by each new revelation, all I could do was be grateful that Hitler's atrocious vision was never realised.