Eastern Europe Part 6: The Czech Republic

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Eastern Europe

 Part  6: Prague – A Welcome Reprieve from Stalin Gothic

 

September 19, 2008

Dateline:  Prague, Czech Republic

 Latitude at Prague 50.05 degrees North, Longitude degrees 14.25 East

Today we took a motor coach the 220 miles from Vienna to Prague, leaving the ship and the Danube to travel on land. We are traveling on the Autobahn or Motorway, which is a high speed freeway with no speed limit for private cars, of which there are many, but not so many as to choke the roads. The autobahn idea is said to have originated with Hitler, one of his few (and maybe the only) that was actually a good one.  In Communist times traffic was even lighter since no one could import cars from any Western country and the only choice for those who could afford it in this part of the USSR was the East German made Trabant, for which there was a long waiting period. Our guide, Mariann, told us of her family’s wait of several years for their family

A Surviving Trabant

A Surviving Trabant

vehicle, a Trabant 601. (The local joke was that for every 600 orders, there is one delivery). Her entire family traveled to Budapest to pick it up,  but were dismayed to find the only color left was turquoise. They should have been equally dismayed to learn that although it had a steel frame, the body was made of wood pulp pressboard. I guess they figured that since travel was so highly restricted outside the Soviet Bloc, that pressboard would do just fine. A local expression concerning the Trabant was the slogan “Nothing stops a Trabant – not even the brakes.”

Of course now the Czech Republic is part of the EU and they don’t have the same problems as when they were under the Communists, but they have discovered  new problems stemming from this new found freedom and new found mobility. For example, they have had several instances of people who live in a city on the border between two EU Countries, who can actually get away with working in one country to which they commute and collecting unemployment in another where they live. Big Brother never would have let this happen.

The Moravian Countryside

The Moravian Countryside

Our trip took us north through the vineyards of northern Austria and southern Czech Republic, and area called Moravia. We traveled through gently rolling hills gradually gaining in elevation, crossing the border at the Czech town of Mikulov and the local currency changes again from the Euro to the Czech crown with an exchange rate of 16 Crowns  to 1 Dollar. We learned that most of the school children around here get out of school for a week during grape harvest to pick the grapes, mostly white varieties. The first press of grapes is called the Versturm and a wine commonly consumed on New Year’s Eve is the result. However, in the Czech Republic, the big story from a beverage perspective is beer (pivo in the Czech language), the most well-known being Pilsner Urquell, which our beer drinkers at out lunch stop at Brno (pronounced “Bruno”) proclaimed to be good. Discriminating beer drinkers say it must be draft beer, no cans, which is the only way it is exported, so unless you come here, you won’t get the good stuff. The word “pilsner” has become a generic term to describe this type of beer, but this was first made in a Czech town called Pilsen in 1842.  And speaking of beer, the Czechs say the American Budweiser, actually swiped the name, since they have had Budvar long before the American brew came about. Theirs is named for a Czech town called something unpronounceable in Czech, but which translates into German as Budweis. The world record holder for speed drinking beer is also reputedly Czech with a record of 1 liter in 3.44 seconds. The do make other spirits such as Slivivice (plum Brandy), Borovicka (juniper flavored “spirit”) and Becherovka (a bitter herbal drink) not recommended to try at home unless you are short on lighter fluid and need to fire up the Weber Grill.

Since we had a long trip, our guide took the opportunity to tell us a little bit about Czech history and how it came to be the Czech Republic (or Ceska” as the locals call it.) The country has 10.3 million people and  is roughly the size of South Carolina. There are 3 main regions, (1) Moravia (famous for their wine and the Moravian Church to the south, bordering Austria, (2) Silesia (famous for coal) to the north, bordering Poland and (3) Bohemia which I assume is famous for unusual people who don’t usually go with the flow in the western and central part of the country. Its major river is the Elbe which runs into Germany and on to to the North Sea. One of the Elbe’s major tributaries is the Vlatava (pronounced Val-tah-va with the accent on “tah”) which runs through Prague, although the Germans call it the Moldau. Czech history very much parallels that of Hungary and Slovakia – the usual assortment of Romans, Celts, Slavs and Magyars. Prague more or less peaked during medieval times in the 14th Century, supposedly rivaling Paris in culture and sophistication.

The first rulers in the “kingdom” sense of the word were a family called the Premyslids, who did some serious fighting among themselves, the most notorious being the murder in 935 A.D. of King Wenceslas by the sword wielding henchmen  of his brother Boleslav, who had ordered the “hit”. There was a feast in progress and Wenceslas was on his way to Mass, when he was set upon by said henchmen. Apparently a monk was in on the deed since he locked the door to keep Wenceslas from getting into the sanctuary where he would have been safe. He was later canonized and became Bohemia’s patron saint. He also became the featured subject of a Christmas Carol, “Good King Wenceslas”, although interestingly enough, apparently no one in the Czech Republic ever sang this one. It is said that a Czech princess was sent to England to marry a nobleman and told the story to the English Court, where it was converted into a Christmas carol.

After the murder, Boleslav became King and his wife, one Bozena Biagota  became queen and their children were in line for the throne.  One poor kid, born about the time Boleslav had his brother Wenceslas murdered at the feast, was burdened, perhaps out of remorse on his father’s part, with the moniker Strachvas, which means Dreadful Feast, There was a lot more skullduggery in this same family (too dysfunctional even for Dr. Phil to straighten out) including a daughter-in-law princess who ordered a hit on her own mother-in-law, the queen, who was found strangled with her own scarf.

Old Prague as Seen from the Vltava River

Old Prague as Seen from the Vltava River

Then in the 1500’s the Protestant Reformation came to town, which got started here with the martyrdom of Jan Hus. He was born in 1370 and became the rector of one of the first universities in Europe. He was a prominent religious thinker and philosopher and would-be reformer. His major reform ideas seemed pretty tame, but he was also outspoken about the corruption and opulence of the Catholic Church and the Church apparently took a dim view of that. He mainly was trying to get the church to conduct mass in the local language rather than in Latin so the average Joe could actually understand what was being said to and about God, Jesus, Mary and all the saints and the Church took a dim view of that too. He met with a papal council to defend himself and to make this seemingly reasonable request, but it ended with his being condemned to death. It was not just any death – he was burned at the stake in 1415, a special method for dealing for heretics. His martyrdom became a rallying point for the Protestants and the Catholic Church lost ground from there in a series of battles termed the Hussite Wars between the Catholic faithful and the followers of Jan Hus. Over the years Jan Hus evolved into a symbol for dissidents.  A statue was erected in his honor on the Old Town Square in 1915 and became the site for dissident activity during the Communist era.

The Premyslids were succeeded by the Luxemburgs, but after a series of weak kings, the country came under the control of the Habsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1526, and with them came the Renaissance. The Habsburgs managed to hang on for 400 years until WW1, when Czechoslovakia gained a short-lived independence, courtesy of the Nazis in 1938, with the Munich Agreement. But of course after the war was lost, the Communists took over and life continued to be grim. Alexander Dubcek was elected as First Secretary in 1968 and adopted several liberal programs which were termed the Prague Spring, but in August of that same year, troops were sent in to keep reforms in check and over 100 protesters were killed. Even though the Velvet Revolution took place in 1989 and the Communists are no more, the Czechs still like to take to the streets occasionally to protest whatever doesn’t suit them.

The Stare Mesto - Prague

The Square in the Stare Mesto – Prague

One of the best things about Prague is that it suffered no damage in WWI or WWII and thus most of the old historical buildings are still standing and in good shape which makes for great sight-seeing. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel in the Old Town Quarter called the Stare Mesto (pronounced “starry” mesto). The buildings here seem to be all pastel shades – ice cream colors – strawyberry, French vanilla, raspberry, and mint. Many of the structures may have a beautiful color underneath, but still bear the grim of centuries, particularly the cathedrals and bridges. We set out on foot from the hotel and easily found the Old Town Square called the Staromestske Namesti which is bounded by fabulous buildings on all sides. This part of Prague became a municipality in 1338. We saw the Kinsky Palace with an elaborate rococo façade, purchased in 1768 by the Kinsky family and it was several centuries  old when they bought it. There was also the Church of St. Nicholas,  built

The Church of Our Lady of Tyn

The Church of Our Lady

between 1703 and 1761, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, which was started in 1365,  a medieval town palace and a potpourri of colorful styles and architectures – tall and ornate, reminiscent of those in the old part of Amsterdam, but much more elaborate Romanesque, Neo-Classical and Gothic structures dating from the 15th to the 19th Centuries. Perhaps the most famous (although not in his lifetime) citizen of this square was Franz Kafka, whose father had a shop here and who studied here around the turn of the century. One of the major features of the square is the Old Town Hall which was established in 1338. It was cobbled together from a series of attached houses which did had to be restored after the Nazis heavily damaged in putting down an uprising in 1945. The most prominent features are the tower which was built in 1364 and its wonderful astronomical clock, rebuilt in 1490 by Jan Ruze. Legend has it that the town councilors were quite anxious that no other towns have such a wonderful clock that they blinded Mr. Ruze so he could never build a knock-off clock. On the stroke of noon, there is a procession of the 12 Apostles, led by St. Peter. This is triggered by the figure of Death who pulls on a rope and inverts an hourglass. The rope opens a window and the apostles start their parade. At the end of the parade, a cock crows, the clock chimes and the remaining figures go into action – a Turk who shakes his head from side to side, the figure of Vanity who looks into a mirror, and the figure of Greed. There are also 3 different clocks in one – one with Arabic Numerals ( a 24 hour day based on when the sun sets) , one with Roman Numerals  (time as we know it) and the third with Babylonian time – separated in 12 segments which vary in length depending on the seasons. It also shows the movement of 12 signs of the zodiac. And an additional note on the clock – this is the best place in town for a tourist to have his pocket picked.

The Charles Bridge Across the Vltava

The Charles Bridge Across the Vltava

From the clock we walked to the Charles Bridge (the Karluv Most) and crossed it to the Little Quarter or the Mala Strana. It was built in 1357, commissioned by Charles IV, and until 1741 it was the only bridge across the Vlatava. Today it is pedestrian only, but it was designed to accommodate 4 carriages abreast. The bridge itself is a work of art and historical treasure. There are ornate Gothic towers on either end and it is lined with sculptures of saints, including that of St. Vitus, the bridge’s patron saint. The statues there today are mostly copies with the originals kept in a museum.  Some of the saints are well known (St. Francis, St. Augustine, St. John the Bapitist, and some not so well known outside of the Czech Republic including St. John Nepomuk who was canonized in 1729 and became the patron saint of secrets and drowned people. He was arrested in 1393 for having displeased the King., and he was tortured to death and thrown off the bridge. His statue was erected on the bridge in 1693 on the spot where he was thrown in, and the others were added over the next two centuries. Along those same gruesome lines, Napoleon had the heads of his enemies chopped off and mounted on pikes and displayed on the bridge and they were left there until they completely rotted off. You have to hand it to Napoleon– he sure knew how to send a strong message.

Pegnuin Art on the Vlatava

Pegnuin Art on the Vlatava

We had drinks outdoors on the river by one of the locks right next to a line-up of lighted electric penguins which was part of an art exhibit, but I think the art was mostly lost on us. In the first place it was getting chilly – so chilly we went inside and in the second place – they were plastic penguins with lights inside. Need I say more? We went inside the restaurant, the Sovovy Mlyny Restaurant (no clue on the pronunciation. It sounded like they were clearing their throats when the name was repeated to us) and had some wine. We enjoyed a leisurely meal and walked back to the hotel, which was a treat in itself. The city at night is like a fair- land with very dramatic shadows and ethereal light.

September 20, 2008

Dateline:  Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Today we had a tour of the famous and massive with a capital “M”, Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad to the locals), the largest castle complex in Europe. It sits up on a promontory above the Mala Strana (the Little Quarter) across the river from the Stare Mesto in its own section of town called the Hradcany, built in 1320 just outside the castle walls. The castle was started in the 9th Century and has been added to over the years, plus it has been rebuilt several times after various and sundry fires and invasions damaged it. Today the castle walls enclose eight palaces, three churches, two gardens, a convent, two monasteries, and several towers as well as what is left of the housing for the hundreds of people who worked for royalty. Today it houses the offices of the Czech President, but this only takes up a fraction of the real estate.

St. Vitus' Cathedral

St. Vitus’ Cathedral

We only had a half day tour so we hit the highlights, but there was much more left not visited. Our first stop was St .Vitus’ Cathedral.  Work began on this cathedral as it looks today in 1344 under the orders of the King at the time, John of Luxembourg. However, the original church goes back much further to the time of King Wenceslas (this is the church he was trying to get into when he was attacked and killed)   Finishing it took several centuries  due to a number of fires and a long string of local wars up through the big ones of the 20th Century. In fact as late as the 20th Century, they were still adding on, almost doubling it in size. It is a massive gothic structure, replete with a rose window, gargoyles and flying buttresses. Inside is the tomb of the martyred King Wenceslas and the crown jewels. In fact everyone who was anyone from a royalty perspective in the olden days is buried here, as is St. John Nepomuk (who apparently was retrieved from the river).  Also the Kings of Bohemia were crowned here. There are beautiful stained glass windows and tons of gold everywhere, particularly in the St. Wenceslas Chapel where the opulence is so dazzling, you would need sunglasses if it were not so dark in there. Even the frescoes on the walls are decorated with polished gemstones.

St. Vitus was said to be martyred which normally means  tortured and killed, but there are many stories of his surviving various tortures, e.g. he was supposedly thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil and emerged unscathed, he was thrown to the lions and they licked his face and so forth. He is believed to have lived in the 4th century AD, the son of a Sicilian member of the Roman Senate who converted to Christianity as a 12-year-old. He is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, meaning he is one of 14 saints whom it is believed can intercede for an individual through

St George's Basilica

St George’s Basilica

prayer. He is the patron saint of dancers, young people, dogs and the City of Prague and it is believed that he can help out with a wide variety of ailments or a neurological nature (including the disease called chorea sancti viti which is Latin for St. Vitus’ Dance or in medical terms, dyskinesia). We also visited St. George’s Basilica in a brief walk-by, which is the oldest church within the grounds of Prague Castle dating back to 920 A.D.  It is one of the most colorful structures in the complex and the site of many notables such as royalty and saints, inlcuding the illustrious, if little known, Saint Ludmilla.

 

A View of the city from Prague Castle

A View of the city from Prague Castle

While at Prague Castle we also saw Vladislav Hall of the Royal Palace (Kralovsky Palac) dating from the 11th Century. The hall is enormous with  a vaulted ceiling, resembling a public market hall. It was actually used for indoor jousting matches and a Riders Staircase allowed jousters to mount up and ride into it for the day’s festivities. There was an interesting bit of melodrama here (probably more than one), but this one caught my fancy. In 1618 more than 100 Protestants nobles marched into the palace to protest the ascension to the throne of a religiously intolerant Habsburg (and Catholic) king, represented by two Governors. The enraged Protestants ended up tossing the Governors and their secretary (a male in those days of course) out a window of the palace. They fell about 50 feet, but were saved from the hard cobblestones by a largish dung heap upon which they landed. This consequently triggered the Thirty Years war between the two religious factions, which on the surface would seem to be a pretty weird thing to go to war over, although in the course of history I suppose they have been started for lesser offenses.  Catholics took this landing on a dung heap and being saved from certain death as a sign that the angels intervened and proved God was on their side and so we assumed that angels, like God, must work in mysterious ways.

Residences of Prague Castle

Residences of Prague Castle

This event was called the Defenestration of1618, and since I did not have this word in my personal vocabulary, I had to look it up. It actually means throwing someone out a window (from the Latin “de” which is “out” or “out of” and “fenestra” which is window (the dung heap must be a optional feature).  I was surprised to learn this defenestration business has been a fairly common practice throughout history, even going back to Biblical times when Jezebel was thrown out a window by her servants as related in “Kings 2”. Of course unless you have at least a two story building to “do the deed”, it may not achieve the desired effect. And even then, there may be an unanticipated dung heap to foil your plot.

The Torture Devices of the Dalibor Tower

The Torture Devices of the Dalibor Tower

We also visited the 15th Century Dalibor Tower, which served as a prison. It is named after its first prisoner who was, according to legend, a young knight sentenced to death for harboring outlawed serfs (They even had illegal worker problems way back then). He was lowered on a rope and placed into a dungeon which was a pit in the floor. Supposedly he somehow acquired a violin and played so beautifully that people brought him food and drink (also lowered on a rope) to hear him play, which totally subverted the justice intended since he was supposed to starve to death. He did not however live happily ever after, since the King ordered him to be beheaded and that was the end of that.  Whether this legend is true or not, it is apparent that the tower was the site of some truly nasty business because many of the torture implements – the rack, the Iron Maiden, the Spanish Boot and a big meat-hook like thing  – are all on display and appear to be well used.

The Former House of Franz Kafka

The Former House of Franz Kafka

We also visited Golden Street which is a street from medieval times (the 1500’s) lined with tiny, but colorfully painted houses (or quarters may be more appropriate) where castle employees lived. They were actually attached to the interior castle wall, which served as the back wall of the house. The street officially derives its name from the many goldsmiths who worked and lived here. The unofficial story is that the street got its name from an open sewer frequently used as urinal which used to run down one side of the street. It became a slum in the 19th century and the writer Franz Kafka, lived at Number 22 on this street, but it  was restored to its medieval state in the 1950’s. In addition to the goldsmiths who dealt with gold found in nature and mined (and pillaged from enemies) the king also employed alchemists whose mission was to find the secret formula for turning various minerals into gold, although needless to say, the pillaging proved to be a much more fruitful an endeavor.

Old Town Rooftops as Seen from Prague Castle

Old Town Rooftops as Seen from Prague Castle

We left the castle and walked to the Mala Strana (Little Quarter) below the town searching for a Church called the Church of Our Lady Victorious which was built in 1613 to see the famous Infant of Prague, now in the care of the Carmelite Order of Nuns. The infant is a wax effigy that was believed to originally be a gift from the Queen of Spain to honor her daughter who was marrying a Czech nobleman. and it was again given as a wedding gift to another bride, who  in 1628 gave it to the Carmelites. (So this re-gifting business is not peculiar to our generation by any means) The Church was destroyed by invading Swedes and /or the Saxons,  and the Infant was discovered in the rubble and restored. Many miracles have been attributed to the restoration of the Infant to His place in the church. An interesting note on churches: the old town of Prague has hundreds of them, as did Vienna and Budapest for that matter, and most of them  earn money for restoration and maintenance by holding concerts in their sanctuaries, which is far more lucrative than passing the collection plate.

After visiting the church, we walked back across the Charles Bridge to the Stare Mesto and had a late lunch at an excellent pizzeria, even though Gary has been on quest for pig knuckle since seeing one in Budapest. There are hundreds of “gitchee” stores – a Texas term for shops that cater to tourists, with many selling really cleverly crafted marionettes. My personal favorite was one dancing to “La Marcarena” – a little dated, but nevertheless amusing. There were also a number of vintage touring cars that are for hire to take people on city tours of the Old Quarter for $75. for ¾ of an hour.  We kept to our foot tour and resolved to save the $75.for wine.

Most of the good stuff here in Prague is the old stuff, but we did see the Metronome in Letna Park. It is a huge work of modern art built in 1991 with an arm that does move back and forth like a metronome. It sits on a prominent hill above the river across the river from the Jejwish Quarter where a huge statue of Stalin used to stand before someone blew it up in 1962. (Apparently the Communists were cool with this since they didn’t like Stalin any more either by that time) Word is the locals don’t like the Metronome any more than they liked the statue so it may not last much longer. We tourists pronounced it interesting, weird, but interesting.

The Old City Gate and the Charles Bridge as seen from the River

The Old City Gate and the Charles Bridge as seen from the River

We walked around the town taking in the sights for a bit, discovering just how much would have to be saved for a future visit. Just before sunset we took a river cruise on the Vlatava River and enjoyed the scenery with a glass of wine. This time we had a Czech toast which was “Na Zdravi (Pronounced (noz drah vee with the accent on “drah”) After the sunset cruise, we joined our other tour group travelers for dinner at a restaurant in  Prague’s Municipal House. The Municipal House was built in 1905 in the Art Nouveau style and was intended to be an exhibition hall. It was built on the site of an old palace dating back to 1383, but it was abandoned for centuries and eventually demolished to build the Municipal House. Amid so much old stuff the Municipal House looks almost like new. It was beautiful in a JW Marriott sort of way, but we’ve seen so much really fabulous, really old stuff, we barely took note.  We walked slowly back to our hotel enjoying the sights and sounds of the Old Quarter and called it a day.

September 21, 2008

Dateline: Prague, Czechoslovakia

The Jewish Quarter - Progue

The Jewish Quarter – Progue

Today we toured the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) which proved to be one of the most fascinating areas of the city. The Jews here spoke three languages, Hebrew, Czech and German. Jews have lived in this area since the Middle Ages and suffered for centuries under oppressive laws. Their neighborhoods were walled in to separate them from the rest of the city and in the 1600’s they were forced to wear yellow circles and they were frequently the target of hatred and false accusations by many who professed to be Christians, but didn’t much walk the talk. Using Jews as scapegoats was an age-old tradition for centuries,

The Streets of the Jewish Quarter

The Streets of the Jewish Quarter

long before Hitler ever drew breath.  In Prague Jews were accused of starting fires, poisoning wells and anything else that their “Christian” neighbors decided to saddle them with. Each King of Bohemia decided what privileges Jews should have. For example, one king decided they could not possess gold. King Charles decreed that only the oldest son in a Jewish household could marry. Other sons would have to leave the country in order to do so. Another King decreed that Hebrew names should be changed and Jews should be given Germanic or Bohemian names. Many took the names of the towns they were from and thus today, many common Jewish names go back to those towns such as Horowitz and Rosenburg.

Fortunately this anti-Semitic attitude was adjusted somewhat by Jospeh II who ordered many of the discriminatory laws invalid, and thus the ghetto became known as Josefov. In 1850 it was officially made part of Prague, but in the 1890’s much of the area was a slum and was razed due to disease and sanitation issues, and thus the buildings there today have mostly a Victorian or Art Nouveau  look and feel. However, a number of the old structures were saved and much of the culture of the old days along with it. The Jewish quarter is quite small and we covered it all on foot accompanied by a local guide with an accent that was so similar to Steve Martin doing the Wild and Crazy Guys skit on Saturday night live, we had to chuckle a bit.  Our first stop was the oldest synagogue in Europe, a simple gabled brick structure built around 1270, surviving fires, pogroms and slum clearance over the centuries. There are a number of interesting artifacts here and is also an Ark to hold the ancient sacred scrolls of the Torah. The torah is always kept on scrolls and rolled out so that no human hands touch its sacred pages. Pointers are used to keep one’s place while reading it.

The most distinguished rabbi to preside here was Rabbi Low in the 16th Century, who in addition to being a scholar and philosopher, was believed to be endowed with magical powers – giving rise to the legend of the Golem. The rabbi was said to have created a figure out of clay and brought it to life by placing a magic stone tablet in its mouth. The original intent for the Golem is that it would protect Jews from harm, particularly from the bizarre practice of blood libel, whereby a Christian could accuse a Jew of killing a Christian child to make matzoh balls out of the child’s blood, and the Christian would be rewarded when the government would seize the assets of the accused and half would be given to the accuser. Some stories even say that accusers would go so far as to frame the Jew by putting a dead Christian child in his house.  One version says that the Golem went berserk and the rabbi had to remove the tablet and store him up in the rafters of the synagogue. Other versions portray him as a benign Frankenstein sort of figure, while others portray him more like the boogey man that parents tend to threaten their children with in order to make them behave. There were no Golem sightings on this tour, but plenty of dark alleys and hidey-holes where he just might be lurking.

Our next stop was the Spanish Synagogue, so named because of its Moorish architecture, reminiscent, in style at least, to Spain’s Alhambra. It was built in the 19th Century, but the ground itself goes back to the 11th Century when a school stood there.  This synagogue houses an excellent Jewish History museum where we had some free time to look at exhibits including those documenting the fate of thousands of Prague’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. In 1938, part of Czechoslovakia was called the Sudetenland (Land of the South) by the Nazis and it was basically given to them with the signing of the Munich Pact – perhaps the most notorious example of appeasement in history. The year 1938 was also the time of Kristalnacht when 269 synagogues were burned by the Nazis – a certain sign of bad things to come. In 1939 deportations began to a camp called Terezin that was portrayed as a model facility and proof to the world that Nazis were not mistreating Jews. Unfortunately it was all propaganda and Jews were sent by the thousands from there on to death camps in Poland with 80,000 Czech Jews lost in the Holocaust. Miraculously 245,000 survived, including 600 children sent to England on trains by a wealthy businessman and many more sheltered by Czech citizens.

The Pinkas Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery

The Pinkas Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery

We visited the Maisel Synagogue, named for a mayor and built in 1590 which currently houses a Jewish historical museum covering up to the 18th Century. We then visited the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1479 and the second oldest in Prague. It was the first synagogue we visited which was offering disposable yarmulkes to cover the gentlemen’s heads if they are so inclined. It picks up historically where the Maisel left off.  It is now a memorial with over 77,000 names of Czech Jews are inscribed on the wall, organized in groups under the names of  the 153 cities and towns they came from. Like the Vietnam Memorial, it really

has a visual and emotional impact when you put individual names to the numbers. They also have artwork and toys of some of the many children sent to Terezin, which makes this an even more heart-wrenching experience. During the Nazi occupation, this synagogue like many others, was used to store property confiscated from Jews sent to Terezin. Consequently the structures and the possessions were left intact, and it was a museum bonanza, although it was a monumental effort to sort catalog everything

The Old Jewish Cemetery

The Old Jewish Cemetery

Upon exiting the Pinkas Synagogue, we found ourselves inside the stone walls of the Old Jewish Cemetery, literally crammed with 12,000 ancient headstones where an estimated 100,000 people have been buried over the centuries. For over 300 years it was the only burial ground permitted to Jews and thus people had to be buried in layers, sometimes 12 deep. The oldest tomb is dated 1439 with the last burial completed in 1787. The tombstones are leaning at every imaginable angle, competing for real estate with the roots of trees just as ancient. Many of the gravestones are carved with symbols denoting background,

The Prayer Wall in the Old Jewish Cemetery

The Prayer Wall in the Old Jewish Cemetery

family name or profession of the deceased (e.g. a pair of scissors for a tailor or a pair of blessing hands for a rabbi). There is also a wall, similar to, but much smaller than the Western Wall in Jerusalem where the faithful go to pray and leave prayers written on scraps of paper stuffed into the wall’s crevices.

We had free time to walk around the Josefov to see at least the outside of  the many churches and synagogues, as well as the old Jewish Town Hall that will have to remain unvisited for the time being.  The Jews got permission to add a tower to it in 1570 after helping to defend the Charles Bridge against invading

 

The Josefov Synagogue

The Josefov Synagogue

Swedes. It has a clock whose hands do not turn clockwise since it has Hebrew figures and Hebrew reads from right to left.

We had lunch in Old Town (still no pig knuckles for Gary here in Prague) and explored the New Town, the quarter called the Nove Mesto in the afternoon, but even the New Quarter isn’t new by our standards. The chief attraction is the very long Wenceslas Square with a statue of the martyred saint by the same name standing in front of the huge National Museum, which will also have to be saved for another time.

We had dinner on our own on this, our last night in Prague and chose a restaurant in the Old Town called the Restaurace U Supa, with Gary still on a quest for his pig’s knuckle. He had to make do with a pork dish of some sort, but we all had a very good meal, despite learning somewhat late in the meal that Supa, means Vulture in Czech. Fortunately, we did learn that we were not eating road kill, and that many of the old buildings had names based on their names from the olden days. Since most people couldn’t read, houses had names and that became their street address. Our waiter showed us several others on the street, including the House of the Duck . Thus reassured, we enjoyed our meal and our walk back to the hotel. Tomorrow we venture back into the Western World with an early train to Regensburg, Germany and on to Munich. After that, we will explore the former East Germany where this Great Adventure will conclude.