Like a slowly erupting volcano, Prague gradually came to life after the Czech
national hockey team made history and defeated Russia last month, becoming the
unlikely world champion.
At first, shouts could be heard in living rooms,
pubs and cafes across the Czech capital. Joyful hugs and the clinks of beer mugs
meeting in midair were heard and seen everywhere. Within an hour, the volcano
had erupted. Prague’s Vaclavske Square, in the heart of the city, was awash with
tens of thousands of revelers in a state of unabashed euphoria.
young and old slapped each other on the backs, exchanged high fives, sang,
danced and gathered at traffic junctions where they did Mexican waves. Car after
car rolled by with its occupants waving the national flag and honking
“This isn’t just about a hockey,” a young man said in a pub.
“Russia occupied us for many years. This is also about history.”
Czech patriotism can be characterized as a nonmilitaristic, quiet pride, which
occasionally finds an outlet through sporting victories and arms itself with
humor and beer as a means of coping with a complex history.
This was not
the first time such scenes unfolded in central Prague. One year after hundreds
of thousands of Soviet troops, backed by a fleet of tanks, invaded
Czechoslovakia in 1968 to stem liberal reforms carried out by the government and
enforce the Warsaw Treaty at the barrel of a gun, the Czechoslovak hockey team
defeated the Soviet team in the world championships, resulting in spontaneous
street celebrations in the very same Vaclavske Square.
Then, like now,
the celebrations mixed political patriotism with a genuine sporting celebration,
but unlike then, most of today’s revelers have never seen a foreign tank or
soldier in their midst.
Prague’s history is also intertwined with that of
central Europe. A walk through Prague Castle reveals some breathtaking Gothic
St. Vitus Cathedral is described by an audio guide as the
“symbol of historical Czech statehood, a spiritual center and the burial spot of
kings and saints.”
Inside the cathedral, built a millennium ago when
Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, stained glass windows fill the
enormous hall with colored light.
Wandering around the cathedral, one is
transported centuries back in time.
Although unrelated in obvious way to
knights and saints, Prague Castle also houses Europe’s largest collection of
toys from the 19th and 20th centuries. The toys provide a fascinating glimpse
into the childhoods of past generations.
Staromestske Square, Prague’s
tourist hub, which began life 1,000 years ago as a market, is also a must see.
At the turn of every hour, hundreds of tourists gather around the Astronomical
Clock Tower, built in the 15th century, to watch the 12 Christian apostles pop
out of the clock.
THE HISTORY of Prague’s Jewish community bears the ugly
scars of European anti- Semitism, but also contains the story of a major
European center for Jewish culture and thinkers.
The nearby Charles
Bridge, gracefully stretching across the Vltava River, features the statues of
30 Christian saints, and also has a statue of a crucified Jesus bearing golden
Hebrew letters which spell out a passage from Isaiah.
The monument, which
is disturbing, was the result of an anti-Semitic libel in 1696 against a local
Jewish man named Eliesh Bakufan, who, according to historians, was falsely
accused of insulting Christianity and forced to pay for the golden Hebrew
inscription that was added to the statue.
In the Jewish quarter, several
tours are available of what was once a major European Jewish ghetto. Haunting
reminders of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the liquidation
approximately 80,000 of the country’s Jews are never far from
Although a number of old structures remain, the majority of the
Jewish quarter dates back no further than the late 19th century, when the Prague
municipality decided to tear down the old ghetto, citing poor sanitation and
overcrowded conditions, and replace it with a new district.
Jews lived in
this quarter of Prague since the 10th century, though they were exiled three
times – twice in the 16th century and again in the 17th century. The third exile
ended, according to our tour guide, when the residents of Prague demanded that
the monarchy allow the Jews to return.
Among the synagogues that remain
standing are the Maisol synagogue, built in 1592, and the stunning Spanish
synagogue, which today is home to a Reform community. The Spanish synagogue
contains an exhibit which tells the story of how 10,000 Jewish children from
Prague were deported to the Terezin concentration camp, and from there to death
Drawings of the children made in Terezin are on display in the
synagogue, as are notebooks showing written Hebrew lessons.
Pinkas synagogue contains a heartrending memorial to the Holocaust –
names of murdered Czech Jews written in small red and black letters on
walls. The names stretch across the walls and the list appears
The 700-year-old Old-New Synagogue is the oldest working
synagogue in Europe. According to tradition, it was built using Second
stones which were brought from Jerusalem. The third temple can only be
if stones from the Old New synagogue are used in the construction,
The large Jewish cemetery is the burial spot of Rabbi Lev ben
Bezalel (1525-1609), also known as the Maharal, one of the most
thinkers of his time. According to legend, the Maharal also built the
golem – a
supernatural creature designed to fight off anti-Semitic violence.
legend has become an indispensable part of Prague’s tourist industry,
dolls and T-shirts on sale everywhere