Life among the dead

Illustrator and filmmaker Mark Podwal gives the inside account of the creation of his movie about the Jewish cemetery in Prague.

prauge shul 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
prauge shul 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a teenager, I was fascinated by the Golem. Twenty years later, I would illustrate Elie Wiesel's The Golem: The Story of A Legend. The drawings for that book eventually led me to Prague for an exhibition of my paintings and drawings at its Jewish Museum. With curator Arno Parik, I had the rare opportunity to see the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, the Golem's traditional resting place. Ordinarily, getting up to the attic isn't easy. One has to climb the iron clamps fixed to the outside of the synagogue's eastern wall. However, the 700-year-old synagogue was undergoing a restoration that surrounded it with scaffolding that made the climb less arduous and far safer. Like the famous Prague journalist Egon Erwin Kisch who climbed up to the attic in 1910, I was impressed with what I saw. Kisch wrote, "This is truly a place to create and bury the Golem… If the clay figure is buried there, it will remain until Doomsday. If one tried to exhume it, the synagogue might collapse." Mysteriously, the photographs I took of the attic disappeared. For years, I had wanted to work on a film based on the exploits of the Golem. I even once mentioned the idea to Steven Spielberg - who wasn't interested. Yet from my first visit to Prague, it was apparent that the Jewish Quarter was not just a backdrop for Golem tales. The more time I spent in Prague, the more entranced I became with its Old Jewish Cemetery - where 100,000 members of Prague's once-vibrant Jewish community rest. The cemetery, dating from 1439, has captured the imagination of myriad artists and writers. Maurice Sendak drew its tombstones in his children's book Dear Millie. John Updike, in Bech at Bay, described the burial place as "tombstones jumbled together like giant cards in a deck being shuffled…" Curator Arno Parik thinks of the cemetery as "the Westminster Abby of the Jewish People." Rather than continuing to develop a feature film on the Golem, I decided instead to tell the story of the Old Jewish Cemetery, in what became House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. At that point, two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Allan Miller (From Mao to Mozart) enthusiastically agreed to collaborate on a documentary. Fortuitously, Miller even had a film crew available on location as a result having directed November's Children: Revolution in Prague. Natasha Dudinski, a student in that documentary and now a filmmaker living in Jerusalem, returned to Prague as our researcher and associate producer. Initially, we weren't quite sure how to film the cemetery's story. One screenwriter proposed placing actors onscreen in dramatizations and assured us he could write the screenplay without ever visiting Prague. I regarded that as the wrong approach. Soon on location, we realized the story would best be told by the curators, historians, rabbis, guides and conservationists, all devoted to the preservation of this unforgettable place. Claire Bloom's elegant narration provided historical context. Prague's fairy-tale character of gothic, renaissance and baroque architectural treasures offered marvelous settings. A series of late 18th-century paintings exquisitely portrayed the customs of the Prague Burial Society, the first of its kind. In addition, the cemetery's rich symbolic iconography, from a winged griffin to female figures on the tombstones of young unmarried women, added charming visuals. Underscoring the images, the musical background includes a Yiddish song by Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics along with liturgical hymns and prayers by the Western Wind and the Prague choral group Mishpacha. CROWDED WITH 12 layers of graves, one on top of the other, the cemetery's wrenching chaotic landscape evokes the cramped conditions of the former ghetto. The fascinating site is visited by more than half a million tourists each year, as well as world leaders and other dignitaries. In 1994, a photo of president Bill Clinton wearing a yarmulke in the cemetery was published in The New York Times. The cemetery is a source for countless legends, especially those of Rabbi Loew, the Maharal, whose 400th yahrtzeit will be commemorated in Prague this September, with a conference of international scholars. Though most famous as the creator of the Golem, the oldest documented legend about Rabbi Loew involves the cemetery. It is told that Rabbi Loew's tombstone moved itself to make room for his grandson Samuel's grave. Legend says that the vast wealth of the ghetto's great benefactor, Mordechai Maisl, was attributed to the spell of two dwarves. Another legend holds that a Catholic priest, a convert from Judaism, is buried alongside the Jewish woman he loved in his youth; each night a skeleton ferries him across the river so he can play penitential psalms on the organ of Saint Vitus Cathedral. Down the street from the cemetery is the Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), Europe's oldest surviving synagogue. While legend says it was built by angels, history attributes its construction to masons working nearby on St. Agnes Convent. Some say the synagogue's name derives from the legend that its stones were from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, stones loaned on condition that they be returned when the Temple is restored in Messianic times. The synagogue, which has more stories than stones, is the subject of my latest children's book, Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Legend and history intertwine from when an angel, disguised as a beggar, led the first Jews in Prague to a hill and told them to dig. There they uncovered the synagogue the angels had built. Today, though time has erased almost everything nearby, the Old-New Synagogue still welcomes all who come to pray. Each year, its stones echo the prayer "Next Year in Jerusalem" and wait to return to the Holy City. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, a place of haunting beauty and mystery, has endured pogroms, floods and fires, assimilation and an urban clearing project that destroyed most of the ancient Jewish Quarter it once served. It even survived the Nazi occupation and 40 years of Communist oppression. Our film reveals that the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is not only a memorial to the past, but a testament to the perseverance of an indomitable people. While House of Life is playing on US television beginning April 6; hopefully it will air on Israeli television in the future. In the meantime, it is available on-line at Mark Podwal, executive producer and writer of House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, is the author and illustrator of numerous books, including Doctored Drawings and Jerusalem Sky. His drawings have been published in The New York Times for almost four decades and his work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum.