Friday, June 4, 2010

The Jewish Quarter of Prague

Our visit to Prague began with a tour of the Jewish quarter. Patty, an artist friend of ours, also happened to be in Prague during the same time period and joined us for the day. Our guide Aharon Hribek met us at our hotel and we headed for the tram. Aharon gave us a much appreciated lesson in using the trams of Prague to navigate the city. As we rode the tram he pointed out some areas to explore. At 25 Kqrmelitska there is an entrance to some beautiful gardens of which few people know. He also suggested that we take the funicular in the nearby park to the second level and walk to the Castle.

We took the tram from our hotel to Cechuv Most, the bridge directly across from the Jewish quarter. There he told us that the original buildings of the Jewish quarter were razed in the early 1900s. The area was very susceptible to flooding which contributed to the spread of disease and the area was rebuilt to eliminate this problem. The predominant style is Art Nouveau and it is quite striking to see an entire street in a similar design.

As we looked back at the bridge from which we had come we noted a giant metronome in constant movement. Aharon told us that once a statue of Stalin stood on that site. When they took it down after the fall of communism, the metronome was created to take its place.

Aharon told us that the synagogues were originally organized by guild. There were 11,000 Jews in the early 1700s so many synagogues were required to meet their needs. Today Czechs have the highest percentage of atheists despite their many churches and synagogues that date to an earlier time. There are about 1700 people who define themselves as Jewish. Of these about 400 are active and 100 are somewhat observant.

He pointed out two buildings from the 1500s that fell outside the ghetto to give us an idea of what the buildings would have looked like. When the area was rebuilt, it was filled in to avoid flooding. The older buildings are at a lower level as a result, the main floor is more than 10 feet lower than current street level. He also pointed out an unusual cubist building of which there are about 15 found only in Prague.

We purchased a ticket to the entire Jewish museum which consists of many synagogues, the cemetery and related buildings. Unfortunately they do not allow photographs of the interiors.

We began our synagogue visit with the Spanish synagogue which dated to 1868. The Ten Commandments on the outside are numbered with Roman numerals rather than Hebrew lettering, an effort perhaps to state to the neighbors that we are not so different from you. Within the synagogue the commandments are in Hebrew text. The style of the synagogue is Moorish, similar to some of those that we saw in Budapest and Cracow. Aharon provided some historical context by telling us that in 1848 the Jews of Prague were emancipated. They no longer had to live in the ghetto. Restrictions on professions, education and owning land fell away under the rule of Joseph II. The grand synagogue grew out of the new-found confidence of the Jewish community in light of these changes.

These changes were part of a larger effort to wrest power from the church. Joseph II felt that too much power resided in the hands of the religious realm. He abolished the Jesuit order which controlled the education system and secularized it, requiring education to occur in German.

The interior of the Spanish synagogue was ornate and modeled in its intricacy after the Alhambra. Windows were in a horseshoe arch. You can get some idea of the type of building from photos of the Doheny and Rumbach synagogues in Budapest, but I found this building to be even more striking.

Within the synagogue was an extensive collection of silver ornaments for the Torah and other religious items. The collection is significant and includes items from throughout the country for an unusual reason. When deportations began to death camps in 1942, much Jewish property was abandoned. Jewish scholars sought to preserve this property by creating a museum in Prague. The original Jewish Museum dated back to 1906 and this effort sought to build on that effort. The Nazis agreed to the idea of the museum, but they of course would administer it and determine its direction. Their concept was quite different than that of the scholars. They sought to create a Museum of an Extinct Race, one which would justify genocide. It is for this reason that the synagogues and cemeteries of Prague survived even as many of the Jewish residents did not. Many of the original employees of the museum were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.

We next visited the Old New Synagogue. One theory on the name is that there was once an Old synagogue so this was known as the New synagogue. When the Old synagogue was torn down to make room for the Spanish Synagogue this was renamed the Old New Synagogue as there were many synagogues in town to distinguish between. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the world that is in use dating back to 1260. On the other side of the street is the High Synagogue which dates to the 1570s. The street between them is the original ghetto street which is more like a sidewalk than what we would consider a street today.

Also across the street from the Old New Synagogue is the Jewish Town Hall which bears an unusual feature. Its tower contains two clocks. One is a conventional clock, but the other is numbered with Hebrew letters and runs backwards as Hebrew is read from right to left.

The Old New Synagogue has a Gothic interior which has been expanded over time. One has to step down into it for two reasons, the streets were raised due to flooding and the Jews were required to build it lower than the lowest church. Windows are very narrow as it is likely that originally there were only shutters rather than glass. Narrow windows protected the contents of the synagogue from weather while still allowing for light. Originally the synagogue was probably only for men as the women were not educated. As literacy in women increased, they added a womens’ section with small openings into the synagogue so they could hear the service. There are many elements that carry numerical significance. Twelve windows signify the twelve tribes and possibly five ribs in the vaulted ceiling signify the five books of Moses. The synagogue itself was built by monks as they were the experienced architects of the day. The original baroque chandeliers originally held candles. Unlike most of the buildings in the area, the synagogue was not made of wood and was somewhat protected from the ravages of fire that affected the area with some frequency.

Our next stop was the Pinchas Synagogue, dedicated to Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz in 1535. It is a late Gothic, early Renaissance building and is now a memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Its walls are entirely covered by the names of those who were murdered, first the town in yellow, then the family name in red and finally the first names, dates of birth and dates of deportation in black. The names were originally recorded after the war. Then in 1968 the synagogue was closed for “renovations” and the walls whitewashed, a reflection of the communist regime’s insensitivity towards the Jews. The synagogue was closed for 20 years. After Vaclav Havel came to power in 1989 he made it a priority to re-inscribe the names.

Upstairs we found an exhibition of the children’s art from Terezin where they were taught by a teacher who subsequently died in the deportations. Each artwork told us the date of deportation and death of the child, with only a few survivors. It felt especially poignant seeing the paintings of their memories of life pre-war and their observations of what they had witnessed, especially knowing that many were murdered just a short time later.

Outside of the Pinchas synagogue we found the old Jewish cemetery which was used from 1420 until 1787. The cemetery is unusual in that tombs are built on top of other tombs so that there are 12 layers at its deepest point, but at least 5 or 6 layers in general. While only 12,000 tombstones show there are about 50,000-100,000 people buried there. When they buried someone they laid the body on top and covered it with dirt so that the cemetery was built up in layers. There are tombstones that show from totally different periods of time. We asked Aharon the date on a nearby tombstone and he translated it as 1590. Nearby stood one from 1710. The different architectural styles of the time were reflected in the tombstones as well. The tombstones stood at various angles like crooked teeth.

One of our subsequent stops was at the Ceremonial Hall which was the Burial Society. Some very unusual paintings tell the story of an ill person who subsequently dies and is buried. They show the process of cleaning the body, preparing a shroud and the role of the Burial Society in burying the body. The paintings dated to the 1780s, shortly after the cemetery was closed. Tombstones shown in the cemetery painting can be identified today.

Our next stop was the Klausen Synagogue which originally was the site of three small buildings. The word “Klaus” actually means small building. The buildings were a synagogue, a mikveh and a yeshivah. In 1689 the buildings burned down and were replaced with the Klausen Synagogue which is in the Baroque style. Balconies were added to the synagogue for the women at a later time.

Finally we closed our visit with the Maisel Synagogue which was originally built in 1592 as a Renaissance building. It was attached to other buildings so frequently affected by fire. As a result it was rebuilt many times in different styles so can best be termed eclectic. Aharon noted that there are examples of each style of architecture among the synagogues. This points to a thoughtful effort to preserve synagogues based on their different periods even as many buildings were destroyed in the early 1900s.

We came away from our visit with a much better sense of the history of the Jewish community that once inhabited this area and the story told by the surviving synagogues.

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