Hockey, Holocaust memories and golem dolls

A visit to Prague inevitably involves stepping back in time.

prague 311 (photo credit: yaakov lappin)
prague 311
(photo credit: yaakov lappin)
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.
Czechs 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 incessantly.
“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.”
Indeed, 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 architecture.
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 sight.
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 camps.
Drawings of the children made in Terezin are on display in the synagogue, as are notebooks showing written Hebrew lessons.
Nearby, the Pinkas synagogue contains a heartrending memorial to the Holocaust – 80,000 names of murdered Czech Jews written in small red and black letters on the walls. The names stretch across the walls and the list appears endless.
The 700-year-old Old-New Synagogue is the oldest working synagogue in Europe. According to tradition, it was built using Second Temple stones which were brought from Jerusalem. The third temple can only be rebuilt if stones from the Old New synagogue are used in the construction, tradition holds.
The large Jewish cemetery is the burial spot of Rabbi Lev ben Bezalel (1525-1609), also known as the Maharal, one of the most important Jewish thinkers of his time. According to legend, the Maharal also built the golem – a supernatural creature designed to fight off anti-Semitic violence.
The legend has become an indispensable part of Prague’s tourist industry, with golem dolls and T-shirts on sale everywhere