Czech Jewry – destruction and a (sort of) revival

I’ve been reluctant to blog from vacation. First, I don’t have a computer so I need to rent the hotel’s (and as I type this, am coping with its Czech kezboard — see, that “z” was where the “y” should be! Apologies in advance for future z-y confusion). And, most of what we have been doing has been pretty much Typical Tourist. So, while I am as happy as anyone to bore my friends with photos of Ilana-in-front-of-the-Van-Gogh-Museum or Sam-by-the-astronomical-clock, I am reluctant to impose the verbal equivalent of that on you, dear blog readers.

But yesterday… two very different yet connected experiences that feel worth sharing.

Our third and last day in Prague, we took a public bus about an hour north of the city to Terezin, the site used by the Nazis as a transit camp en route to death camps such as Auschwitz. About 140,000 Jews arrived in Terezin over a four-year period — a quarter died of hunger, illness etc. in the camp — then 87,000 were transported east to death camps, and of those, only 4,000 survived.

Terezin was not what we think of as a typical death camp. It was more of a hybrid ghetto-camp. The site was a Bohemian fortress built in the late 1700s, which had a village inside it. The villagers were forced out by the Nazis, who used it as a gathering place for Jews deported not just from Czechoslavakia but from Austria, Germany and as far afield as the Netherlands. (Reform Rabbi Leo Baeck of Berlin was among those imprisoned there.) While in Terezin, Jews lived in cramped dormitories — we saw one re-created room with about 57 beds in triple-decker bunks, in a space about three times the size of our living room. But they also maintained a living society, with artists, writers, classes for the children, music lessons. (You may have seen books or exhibits of children’s art from Terezin, and the children’s opera Brundibar was written there.)

Terezin was host to one particularlz cynical moment in Holocaus history when the Nazis invited the International Red Cross to visit and see that Jews were not being persecuted by the Reich. They cleaned up the camp, built sports fields and gardens, and forced inmates to play the part of happy villagers: The Terezin museum shows a documentarz with footage from a propaganda film made by the Nazis with images of happy Jews cheering a soccer match, shopping and chatting, watering beautiful gardens.

The Red Cross bought it hook, line and sinker.

That deception is what struck me most at the camp, and I felt momentarily angrier at the Red Cross officials who gave the Nazis a clean bill of health than at the Nazis themselves. How hard would it have been to insist on seeing a dormitory that was not on the official tour? How hard would it have been to demand to speak with inmates outside the presence of a securitz guard? I thought of all the political and humanitarian fact-finding missions that go on today — from delegations to the Gaza strip, to UN inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities — and wished they all could be shown the Terezin movie before beginning their work.

The other thing that struck me was that Terezin today is an inhabited town. Yes, there is a very good museum in some of the buildings, and memorials, and a Jewish cemetery, but there are dozens of buildings that now seem to house average Czechs. Overall it was quiet when we were there — kind of a ghost town feeling in the middle of a hot, still day — but we could still see satellite dishes on buildings, a kid riding a bike here and there, a dog sleeping on a stoop, a little market selling meat and cheese and canned goods.

A Terezin street today

How could you live in a town like that? I’m sure the residents have reasons — maybe their families lived there in its pre=camp days, or maybe under Communism they had to take whatever housing was assigned — but still. How would you go about daily life knowing that your bedroom was a dormitory for people on the path to death? That your kitchen housed people dying of dysentery, tuberculosis, starvation? That the sidewalk in front of your house was where people were lined up to be shipped to death camps? That it was all enclosed with barbed wire?

That was the afternoon. In the evening, we went to services at the Spanish synagogue in Prague’s Jewish quarter. Neither Spanish nor Sephardic, the Spanish synagogue is an elaborately-Moorish-style building erected in the late 1800s by Prague¨s then-prosperous Reform congregation to replace a centuries-old Gothic synagogue. Festooned with painted arches and geometrical shapes on a background of deep burgundy, it must have been the pride of the community when it was built. Then, in the Nazi occupation, it became a warehouse for Jewish ritual items looted from homes and synagogues throughout the Reich, gathered together with the idea of creating a “Museum of an Extinct Race.” Under the Soviets, it sat neglected and deteriorating. Then, over the past 20 years, it was restored as part of the Jewish museum in Prague.

Inside the elaborately painted "Spanish" synagogue of Prague

The synagogue today is used by a small local community of Conservative Jews, which apparently includes a fair number of Jews from abroad residing in Prague. When we attended it was a motley crew — a good sized crowd of about 50, but nearly all tourists. As far as I could tell, there were fewer than five “locals” attending — an impressively articulate woman who led the service, and two Prague residents who were originally from Russia.

Prague’s Jewish community was of course decimated during World War 2, Prague is a generally secular society these days, and Reform/Conservative Judaism don’t have as much weight among remaining European Jews as they do in America. So the small size of the congregation was understandable. And even with the small local turnout, it was a moving event — Jews from around the world, chanting Shabbat prayers together — very much alive, thank you! — in the building that was intended to be a museum of their extinction. I felt the congregants who built the synagogue would have been proud. It made me wish I lived in a place like Prague and could be part of leading a rebirth of the Jewish world there in an ongoing way.

This is all part of one strange aspect of vacationing in Europe: It feels like we are following a Trail of Dead Jews. In Amsterdam, we visited the Anne Frank House and two old synagogues that have been turned into museums. In Prague, we saw Terezin and a museum complex of several old synagogues and a centuries-old Jewish cemetery in the Jewish quarter.  So all these cities have their Jewish monuments and museums. But other than the sznagogue-museums, Prague’s Jewish quarter today is occupied by Gucci and Salvatore Ferrignano storefronts. In Amsterdam, you can¨t even see the quarter — it was razed for redevelopment and is now occupied by massive-scale plazas, public buildings, and a flea market. And no Jews.

Museums and memorials, but no Jews.

(P.S. Honestly, we have done things beside follow the Trail of Dead Jews! All the usual museums etc. plus some really interesting water-related tours with Sam’s counterparts in the Netherlands. And of course we still have the bike portion of our trip ahead of us, starting tomorrow. But I’ll write about all that later.)

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2 Responses to “Czech Jewry – destruction and a (sort of) revival”

  1. Judy Levin Says:

    Hi Ilana,
    Thanks so much for sharing your insights! It made me want to be at the synagogue with upu!

  2. Madeleine Adkins Says:

    Yes, thank you, Ilana for the vicarious tour!

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