The layers of Prague’s Jewish history

I have been visiting Prague and Jewish Prague since 1993 and have seen the changes to the city gradually transform it from a Sleeping Beauty to a European metropolis…still nothing quite prepared me for the visit this time. Throughout the years I have sought out a tiny Czech pastry shop called “Valentin” on a small street just past the hubbub of the Charles Bridge. Original Czech pastries are bite-size and delightful so one can eat five of them at a sitting. I searched in vain for Valentin –it has been replaced by a tourist shop. The facades which once were crumbling in their Communist era neglect are now spectacularly renovated. I went on an Art Nouveau tour and was wowed from one beauty to the next. The Municipal House is a wonder of Art Nouveau splendor inside and out. Having a three-layered chocolate-orange cake and Viennese coffee in the opulent Kavárna Restaurant in the Municipal House was almost an overload of the senses. Prices have reached general European standards and so has the service. Prague has come of age.

And what of Jewish Prague? When I first visited in 1993 the old Jewish Quarter felt like a ghost town. It felt as if the Nazis’ plan for Jewish Prague—to keep it as a museum to an extinct people—had been achieved. Over the years when I would visit the quarter I would take a photo and realize later—hey—those men have kippas on! You can attend a service and have a real kosher meal (not just “Jewish style”) in a few restaurants. I was there when they first began re-writing the names of the 77, 297 Czech Jews murdered in the Shoah on the walls of the Pinkas synagogue. This trip I saw the completed work. The entire synagogue walls, from top to bottom are covered with names. My guide tells me the names were originally memorialized on the walls in the 1950s but the synagogue then closed due to neglect and the names were lost. She showed me a little original patch of names. It is as if the decades of forgetting have been painted over, replaced by remembering.

The money I paid for a ticket to visit the synagogues, many of them now museums, I am told goes to the Jewish community of Prague so one pays it gladly. As with many European cities it is difficult to say just how many people are in “the community.” There are about 1830 members officially and probably about 3000 unofficially. There is the “open Prague Jewish community” Bejt Praha as well as a small liberal community, Bejt Simcha which has about 150 members. Rabbi Tomáš Kučera, who was one of the first graduates from the Abraham Geiger College rabbinical school in Potsdam, is a visiting rabbi to this community. There are Jewish newspapers, two kindergartens and a school, a Jewish sports club, services for the elderly and for survivors. Check out the Czech Jewish Museum web site and be impressed! (http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/alinks.htm) This is far from the “ghost town” feeling of two decades ago.

I enter the 13th century Old New Synagogue to feel its wonder—this is the oldest operating synagogue in the world. An elderly woman offers to tell us her story. She is a 90 year-old Czech survivor. Her mother-tongue is German. She was saved by a German officer who insisted she stay on his work unit instead of joining her family to be deported. She was the only member of her family to survive and she said it took her decades before she wanted to live again. But now, she says, her work is to tell people about her story and the story of the Jews of Prague, then and now. One day she is in Terezin, the next day here, in the Altneu Shul.

Perhaps the biggest transformation was the presence of Franz Kafka. The early 20th century surrealistic writer was virtually a non-presence in 1993. Now, there is a Franz Kafka Society, a Kafka Museum, a statue, a café, his birth house and it is hard to leave Prague without buying a Kafka souvenir. “Why this change?” I asked my hosts. Well—he wrote in German, he was Jewish, his dire messages didn’t fit Communism… Whatever the change has been, I was pleased to see that at the new Jewish cemetery there is a huge sign pointing toward his grave. Kafka is back in Prague.

Like the names in the Pinkas synagogue, the patch of the old, the erased, covered with the new…the layers of Prague’s Jewish history are there to be found just under the surface of this new, revitalized, glossy city. Frank Ghery’s “Dancing House” perhaps best symbolizes this dynamic tension between old and new. I am happy to feel and see the new Prague, Jewish and general. I miss my café Valentin but therefore I can eat a good kosher meal at King Solomon’s where I read on the window that Michelle Obama stopped here on her way through (Jewish) Prague!

Carolyn