Souvenir from Prague

The city, chosen by Hitler to showcase an extinct race, unlocks emotions and highlights the fact that a Jew is a Jew regardless of affiliation or background.

'Hevra kadisha' building, Prague 521 (photo credit: laura ben-david)
'Hevra kadisha' building, Prague 521
(photo credit: laura ben-david)
It took us 15 years to make one spontaneous decision to fly off for the weekend to Prague. My husband and I chose Prague over Greece because it wasn’t going to rain there. We clearly paid little attention to the temperature predictions, choosing a record-breaking cold spell as the ideal time for our weekend getaway. Freezing temperatures aside, we gave ourselves a 48- hour crash course on what to do in Prague, and took off.
Among the highlights that people recommended we see were the Old Town, the Prague Castle, the Jewish Quarter and a day trip to Theresienstadt concentration camp. After much contemplation we opted not to include Theresienstadt in our itinerary. As guilty as it made me feel, we were “on vacation” and wanted to do “fun” Prague. Besides, it would have had to be on our last day and we didn’t want our trip to end on that sad note. Thinking we could put the Holocaust out of our minds, we embarked on our Prague adventure beginning with a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter led by a gentile tour guide.
We entered the Maisel Synagogue, the first stop on our tour. Right near the Old Town Square, the synagogue is a beautiful baroque building that was built in the 16th century.
Inside I was somewhat taken aback to discover that the pews and other standard synagogue furnishings had been removed, replaced with glass cases and shelves filled with various synagogue- related artifacts from Prague. Renata, our tour guide, proceeded to explain the uses of the various Jewish ritual objects, describing the Jewish life cycle. No matter that we are Orthodox Jews who could dance circles around her descriptions; she was determined to share her knowledge of each Jewish artifact.
Always one to enjoy a museum, especially a Jewish one, I shifted gears and began reading the descriptions beside many of the items, imagining the original owners in a time long gone. In the gift shop I noticed the book Fireflies in the Dark that showcases art by the children of Theresienstadt. I could not even look at the book without crying so I put it down and moved on.
We then went to the Pinkus Synagogue, which also turned out to be a kind of museum.
Except that there were no shelves or glass cases in this museum; only names. The names of every one of the 80,000 Jewish victims from Bohemia and Moravia were painstakingly inscribed by hand, covering every wall of the synagogue, including their dates of birth and death, if known. I found my eyes drawn to years of birth, unbidden, seeking out the names of murdered children so they could be remembered, hoping not to find them, and shedding a tear for each child that I did – and there were so many.
At this point, barely an hour into our tour, it was quite clear that however incredible our trip to Prague would be, it would certainly be bittersweet. I understood that everything Jewish in Prague – in all old European Jewish communities, for that matter – has undertones, even remnants, of the Holocaust. We did not need to go to Theresienstadt to feel this. It was embodied in most everything Jewish we encountered. If nothing else, then by the fact that there was so much that was Jewish, and yet so few Jews.
We explored the Moorish-designed Spanish Synagogue, ironically built by Ashkenazi Jews, which houses an amazing collection of objects from the Jewish life cycles, from brit mila to burial, all on display. Renata insisted on “teaching” us everything she knew about Jewish life. It was absurd; like a schoolteacher trying to teach Romeo and Juliet to Shakespeare.
“We’re the real deal,” I thought, politely holding my tongue and allowing her to give the requisite explanations. At one point, as I saw a group of clearly non-Jewish tourists gaping at the displays, I wanted to shout, “Hey, we’re right here! You don’t need to look behind the glass; look at us! We’re living all this! It is our life!”
ON FRIDAY night we bundled up against the frigid weather and went back to the Jewish Quarter for services at one of the few active synagogues. Though the century-old, simple but elegant sanctuary was sparsely filled with people, there was every type of Jew imaginable, from the most assimilated to the most devout. They were all sitting together, side by side, singing the same familiar liturgical tunes I knew from my childhood. Unbidden, I felt tears escape my eyes yet again. In this unfamiliar city, thousands of miles away from any place I or my family ever lived or would even consider living, I felt strangely at home. More than that, looking around at the incredible mix of Jews assembled, I felt that we all belonged together. We were all members of the same club, assembled at a remote chapter. It was an awesome realization, the consciousness of which seemed to open the door to my emotions which had been unlocked and ajar from the moment we set foot in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague.
I knew that Hitler’s intent had been to create a museum in Prague dedicated to an extinct race. Therefore, rather than pillage and destroy Prague as he did to 153 other cities of Bohemia and Moravia, he carefully preserved it as a collection spot and future museum for the thousands upon thousands of treasures that were stolen from the destroyed Jewish people. In fact, when I saw those treasures exhibited as part of the Precious Legacy Exhibit in a New York museum years ago, the seeds were planted in my heart for this eventual trip. Though the losses of the Jewish people in the Holocaust were unspeakably heart-wrenching, Hitler’s ultimate goal was thankfully not realized and the Jewish people are alive and well.
Ironically, though, the Jewish Quarter of Prague did indeed become a Jewish museum.
I couldn’t keep my mind from racing as we sang the prayers in that lovely old synagogue – with the very congregation that prays in the famous “Old-New Shul,” the oldest synagogue still in use in all of Europe, though we prayed next door due to the building’s inadequate heating and the bitter cold. I thought of how oppressed the Jews of Prague and all of Europe once were, the sheer devastation and loss, and now seeing Jews of every background, united in prayer, in the very place that was slated by Hitler to be a remembrance museum to an “extinct race.”
Then I thought of modern day Jews living in places such as the US and Israel. How lucky are they – are we – to be living with such freedom; freedom to choose how we want to express our Jewishness – or not to. So free, in fact, that we’ve forgotten that people who choose differently than we do are Jews just the same. They are simply surrounded by the trappings of their choices. You see, Hitler had one thing right. A Jew is a Jew, no matter how much they may express their Jewishness or how desperately they may try to run from it.
Being in Prague taught me a lesson. Too much freedom can sometimes be its own prison. When we make choices, we naturally exclude that which we did not choose. We can become trapped in our own version of what’s right and what’s wrong. We see this in all areas – religious and secular, Right and Left. In Prague, the playing field is leveled. More than six decades after 80,000 Jews from the region were murdered for being Jewish, the sparse Jewish population remaining there has minimal freedoms about how or where they practice their Judaism. A typical minyan of Jews there generally has one common denominator: they are all Jews. No matter how they dress, if they are Ashkenazi or Sephardi, hassidic or secular or any other possible permutation of Jewishness. They are Jews, and that is enough.
A trip to Prague manages to imbue this feeling into all who visit. If we brought home just one souvenir from Prague, it should be knowing – and believing – that all Jews are just Jews.
If we can all live by this rule, we will never let another synagogue turn into a museum. 
The writer is a blogger and author of the book Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has spoken about Israel and aliya all over the United States and Israel.
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Twitter: @laurabendavd