26 August 2015


Romantic Prague: Baroque Palaces in the Little Town, the broad Vltava, fairy-tale spires, palace gardens, accordionists playing sentimental melodies in the restaurants.

One of the most popular locations for visitors is Jewish Prague in the Old Town, which comprises mainly its ancient cemetery and its six synagogues (Pinkas, Klausen, Spanish, Maisel, High and Old-New (above)), the ghetto having been cleared around 1900 in the wake of Jewish emancipation. Emancipation allowed a major Jewish contribution to German and Czech culture - Mahler, Freud, Husserl, Kafka and Čapek to name but a few. Now gaggles of tourists follow their leader, umbrella aloft, stopping at salient points to be hectored like idiot children.

Four of the synagogues are run by the museum service and illustrate the history of Czech Jewry. In the Pinkas the walls are densely covered with the names of every known Holocaust victim. The Spanish has interesting case displays about emancipation under Joseph II, the Jewish enlightenment, the Jewish contribution to the arts and sciences, the Nazi destruction, Communist persecution and revival post-'89. The displays in the Maisel are more scholarly. The Klausen has a good collection of ritual objects explaining Jewish life. The old cemetery is a higgeldy-piggeldy pile of ancient tombstones, including those of venerable figures like Judah Loew ben Bezalel (associated with the Golem in literary myth). I saw a visitor place a pebble on his grave in the Jewish tradition, then cross herself.

It's right that the victims of Nazism should be rescued from anonymity but the huge quantity of names numb, and what shocked me more was a large box of discarded phylacteries, their straps tightly wound by neat and tidy killers. They reminded you that most of Jewish Prague is in the past tense, a tourist attraction about the dead. Hitler wanted the items looted from synagogues in the east to form a museum of an extinct race. Well, this is it. Because Nazism was defeated and democracy restored, we forget how successful Hitler was. The deep-rooted Jewish cultures of Vilna, Warsaw and Prague were wiped out and most of eastern Europe is now Jew-free. In 1930 there were 357,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia, in 1946, 55,000. Now there are fewer than 8,000.

For that reason I didn't include the Old-New synagogue in my museum tour; it's under the control of the Prague Jewish community and I joined their Sabbath morning prayers instead. The service is orthodox and traditional, entirely in Hebrew with no guidance for participants, no sermon and very brief announcements.  If you're not familiar with the liturgy you won't have much idea what's going on, but there's a good cantor and parts of the service are moving. Typical of traditional synagogues, it's chaotic and informal, with a mixture of intense prayer and men chatting. Women are out of sight in an upstairs gallery and can't see much. This and the other active communities are the real Jewish Prague, not the Prague of dead Jews.