Essay: Museum of the extinct race
Europe's lost Jews are a lot like the Mayan Indians: gone, but still interesting.
I didn't want to go to Theresienstadt, I told my wife. We would have only a few days in Prague and, for once, I wanted to walk the streets and see the museums without that seemingly inevitable dose of Jewish death that every visit to Europe seems to mandate. To my amazement, she agreed. We'd obviously see the Jewish Quarter, with its famous cemetery, the Alt-Neu Shul and more, but we could let Theresienstadt pass this time.
Yet, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Mine started unraveling on Tisha Be'av. For years, we've been hearing the Book of Lamentations in our local synagogue. This year, though, we finally decided to join our friends who've been reading Eicha at the Sherover Promenade, overlooking the Old City and the Temple Mount. If you live in Jerusalem, why sit in a small synagogue when you can be outside, gazing at the very site that you're mourning?
There were hundreds of people on the promenade, and the view of the Temple Mount was as stunning as always. But at the same time, you also couldn't help but notice the new, rebuilt city of Jerusalem, as well. The hotels, the YMCA tower - all the famous landmarks of modern Jerusalem - were fully in view, lit so brightly that it was impossible not to dwell on them, too. And I wondered - is this the way to commemorate Tisha Be'av? If we're mourning the loss of Jerusalem, does it really make sense to sit where you can't help but see that while the Temple is gone, Jerusalem has been rebuilt?
Somehow, the Temple Mount and the rebuilt city in one shared view didn't seem to fit the tenor of the evening. Next Tisha Be'av, I decided, I'll skip the promenade, and just head back to shul.
WHEN TISHA Be'av ended, we flew to Prague. We "did" the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, Old Town. Then we began to explore the Jewish Quarter, or, more accurately, the quarter which had been the Jewish ghetto before it was destroyed. Shul after shul, filled with tourists, but empty of worshipers. The cemetery, also filled with hundreds of people filing by the tombstones. But did they know anything about the Maharal's world, other than whatever they'd gleamed about the golem from Let's Go Prague? Jewish life - erased but still a curiosity - had become a "must do" tourist venue, a vestige of the past worth half a day of audio-guides and a few dozen photographs.
You couldn't feel any real sense of loss among the tourists, no anguish. The Jews were like the Mayan Indians, it seemed. Gone, but still interesting. Life goes on. I couldn't help but recall the refrains of Bialik's poem "In the City of Slaughter," when he bemoans the fact that despite the horror of what transpired in Kishinev, life continued apace, as if there were nothing that needed to be remembered: "The matter ends, and nothing more. And all is as it was before."
After the cemetery, it was time for Mincha. We'd been told that there was a minyan in the High Shul, so we found the entrance, at which a gigantic blond-haired, blue-eyed "bouncer" asked us why we wanted to enter, examined our ID and grilled us before allowing us in to pray. There was something so unsettling about having to virtually beg this Aryan fellow for permission to pray (though, yes, I understood that it was for our own safety) that even before we got into the shul, I knew what we had to do: We were going to go to Theresienstadt.
I'd never known that Mincha could be depressing. There were perhaps 15 men and two women, all but four or five of them clearly tourists. Without the tourists, there would have been no minyan. The glory days of the High Shul were long gone. The parochet, the cloth cover on the ark, was gorgeous - a collage of old prayer shawls, atop of which there was a Hebrew phrase, calligraphed as if it were a biblical verse: "And the sacred vestments shall return to their place." Yes, I thought, looking at the cut up tallitot that now made up the parochet, the vestments have indeed returned to their place. But only the vestments, not the people. And in pieces, as a wall hanging.
THE NEXT day, we headed for Theresienstadt. Terezin, an army encampment long before the Nazis turned it into the transit camp (destination usually Auschwitz), is a functioning city once again. Little did Bialik know.
In today's Terezin, hungry tourists can eat in the "Memorial Restaurant." The building which SS officers used as a high-brow bordello, to which they whisked the Jewish women who'd caught their fancy, is still a functioning pension, with a picture of a bed and silverware outside. Outside the gate of the Small Fortress, there was a canteen for the SS officers. Today, it is still a canteen. We watched the people there, laughing and drinking beer, Arbeit Macht Frei clearly in their view.
I asked our guide how people in the town felt about living in a place that just decades ago had been the site of such unmitigated horror. "They're mostly just annoyed that so many tourists come by," she said.
There was a small synagogue in Theresienstadt. It's now abandoned, except for tourists, just like those synagogues in Prague. There are two murals on the walls, one with the phrase from the liturgy that reads: "We beg You, turn back from Your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that You have chosen." The other reads: "May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion." The irony, given what probably happened to the people who so lovingly painted them, was unspeakable.
We spotted a small guest book, so we went to sign our names. Previous visitors had written messages, and we leafed through a few pages. A group from Canada had visited a few weeks earlier, and had written, "We are a group of 17 Jews from [Canada], proof of the Jews' victory over Hitler."
I was so stunned that I had to read it again. A Jewish quarter in Prague that's virtually the "Museum of an Extinct Race" that Hitler is said to have planned to create there. A city called Terezin with its former SS brothel still housing guests, its Memorial Restaurant, it citizens annoyed by the tourists. Empty synagogues throughout Prague and in Terezin. What Jewish victory over Hitler?!
IT WAS too much to bear. It wasn't just the horrible suffering that had unfolded there. It wasn't the crematoria. It was the fact that the flowers still bloom, that smiling Terezin mothers push their babies in strollers by what were the barracks in which thousands died of typhoid, and people still drink beer in what was the SS canteen.
Bialik was prophetic. It would be almost impossible, he understood, to preserve the searing pain of Jewish loss. Life would just go on. Europe has endured the devastation, but it can't sustain the sense of loss. America hasn't (yet?) weathered the destruction.
There's only once place, I realized, where we've learned the almost impossible balance, where there was devastation, but where there is also rebirth, and where, despite the renaissance, the anguish over what we lost remains. There's one place where what Bialik sought has been realized. It's the place we call home.
Next year, I already know, I'm heading back to the promenade to read Lamentations.
The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His next book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish State Can Win a War That May Never End, will be published by Wiley in March.