Prague

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At the top of the hill, next to a summer garden, is a giant pendulum. Its red giant hand swings with the power and sound of giant grinding gears behind it. It swings once a second, from East to West, a real life analogy to the country itself. Czech Republic, alternates between east and west, Germanic and Slav, Capitalist and Socialist and accepting of cultures and religion and yet embracing of secularism. It is a country of beautiful architecture,  stone cathedrals bordered by expansive gardens. Prague is a maze of old red roofs and spires perforated by modern glass buildings and in the middle is a tall TV tower with giant bronze children climbing up and down it. Like Hungary and unlike Vienna, it has no qualms with nude statues looking down from facades and balconies. Jews lived in Prague for a thousand years, one of the only towns in Bavaria and Moravia where they were not expelled out into the country side. They created their own guilds, built synagogues and as in the rest of Europe, in 1860’s they began to be educated. As elsewhere around Europe, these European nomads suddenly showed that when allowed freedom, they are capable of truly creating. They rose and they assimilated into arts, science and politics. In someways, just as today, many forgot that they were Jewish as they became Czechoslovakian. They wrote and composed masterpieces, soaking in the Czech culture and giving back everything they had. As this flowering of two nations reached its zenith, the Nazi’s took over when Czechoslovakia became the first country to be invaded in 1938 and within moments, they found out that they were not Czech. As crisis took over, Czechs stopped considering Jews to be considering them Czech and they became prisoners within the only country they had ever known. Soon after, they were taken from their homes and become prisoners within the Terzin Ghetto to later be shipped to  Aushwitz. 
    Upon end of war, of the 120,000 estimated Jews, only a few thousand remained. Majority of the survivors moved to Israel, and the Soviet Czechoslovakia and newly independent Israel built a relationship based on socialism. After helping Israel to create an army, Communist government felt betrayed by a democratic Israel.  Communist government felt they trained the wrong men and state sponsored anti-semitism emerged. Just as Japanese and German nationals in United States found themselves singled out during times of war, so did the Jews realized that no matter how long they lived in Czechoslovakia, keeping a culture that is not Czech means to be ostracized and to be labeled a traitor. Many Jews were forced out of jobs and many were sent off to labor camps never to return. Jews had to decide: emigrate to Israel or hide once again. Many left and many stayed and those that stayed changed their names, stopped practicing their culture and lost themselves inside of a new political structure. 
    But Velvet revolution came in the 80’s and a sense of Czech identity return with the fall of state sanctioned anti-semitism. Today, Jews still live inside a mostly secular society trying to navigate the modern life without a faith and compass, but they are no longer judged for having a dual past, a Czech and Jewish history. It is now a problem with religion, not ethnicity as many Jewish and Christian Czechs  are uncomfortable saying the word god. 
   But maybe it is because Jewish culture is not offered to them outside the commercialized version of Judaism in the old Jewish quarter. Besides Chabad, where can they go? There are small youth centers but there is no Hakoah like there is in Vienna, there is no JCC they have in Cracow, they need it but they don’t have it. All they have is the spectacle in Josefov, where tourists flock to find out how a race called the Jews; the extinct Czech Jews that no longer exist. 

    But little do they know that the language is there, religion is there, that there are others, just like them; lost tribes living among strangers. It is my hope they soon discover who they are, who they used to be. One day, Jewish Czech men and women can unabashedly look at their millenia old history and see themselves whole, Jewish and Czech without shame or a feeling of loosing their Czech identity. And just as Jews will be able to come to terms with their Jewish past, so will Czech Republic. They are incomplete without Jewish culture, that they cannot say have Czech republic and ignore Jewish Czechs like Freud, Kafka, Mahler and Fischer. To ignore Czech Jews is to ignore their own rich history. Prague in 1708 was one quarter Jewish and Jews had been a part of Czechs for one thousand years. They cannot ignore their history and still accept what they gave to the world even after those Jews left such as Madeline Albright, or Joseph Lewi. And just as Czechs are incomplete without Jews, so is Israel incomplete without Czechs.

This article is written with contribution through conversation with the Chabad Rabbi of Prague and Jakob Hazue of The Jewish Museum.

For more information please go to 
http://www.kosherprague.com/prague-jewish-community.html
http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/aindex.php

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