Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jewish Prague

Meisel Synagogue, Prague

This summer I've been away a lot - with people other than my husband.  I was in Paris twice - once with my friend Elaine and once with my niece, Sarah - you can read about that trip in the link provided.  I was even in England once.  All this traveling is one of the perks of living in Europe.  But I was missing my husband, and he me!   Peter and I decided it's about time we did something together.  I saw our son Jon and niece Sarah off at the Frankfurt airport and the next day Peter and I took off with Toffee, our little Havanese dog, for a week in the Czech Republic.  Since we have the dog along, we have to do a lot of our sightseeing separately.  Dogs are not a welcome sight in manicured parks or museums, although it's no problem taking them into department stores or restaurants!  

While in Prague, in one of my periods of sightseeing alone, I went on a guided tour of the historic Jewish area.  They call this the "Jewish Museum of Prague".  It is the largest museum of this sort in Europe.  I was the only one on the tour who wasn’t Jewish.  That alone made for an interesting afternoon.  For me, it was as interesting seeing the tour through the eyes of Jewish tourists.  In the beginning, people were introducing themselves to each other – a French couple, two American couples and me.  One of them mentioned that she had been on a cruise, and I asked her about that.  “We went down the Rhine,” she said. 

“How was it?”  I asked. 

“A bit too German for my taste,” she answered.

I was then interrupted by our tour guide, who asked where I lived.

“Germany,” I answered.  Immediately the woman who had been on the cruise walked away from me, as far away as she could be and still hear the guide.  I wondered if this was because of my admission as to where I live.  I thought it would be wise to add a bit about where I live, since everyone in the group had heard our embarrassing encounter.  Why is Germany still such a painful subject?  Why can’t it be neutral to live in this country that has also contributed so much to the world?  For goodness' sake, the war has been over for almost seventy years.   

“I live in Germany, but I’m not German.  My husband is German, and he is not anti-Semitic.”

The cruise husband nodded and said, “Yes, there are lots of really nice, good Germans.”

Susanna, the guide, asked where I live in Germany.


“That’s a nice city.”

As soon as we moved on a little, the cruise lady way ahead of me, I hurried up to her and said,

“I’m not offended if you had a problem with the Germans on the cruise.”

She seemed surprised that I had come to her, and at first was at a loss for words.

“Well, that wasn’t really what I meant to say,” she said. 

“What was the problem then?”

“We experienced some anti-Semitism.”

"I'm so sorry to hear that," I said. 

Her husband told me that he had worked for the past thirty years with a German colleague who was a wonderful person.  However, they talked about every subject in the world except for one – the war.

“That’s a pity,” I said.

Later it occurred to me that there are two partners in a conversation.  If there is an elephant in the room, one of them could mention it.  Perhaps the German felt too much shame to bring it up.  In that case, the Jewish man would have been stronger, and the two of them could have had healing conversations.

I wonder how many non-Jews take part in these tours.  I felt a bit exposed, being the only gentile.  The cruise couple treated me naturally for the most part after our awkward beginning, and the others even told me tidbits about Jewish culture I didn’t know.  I found it very interesting, and it illuminated for me some of the things that went on in Nazi Germany.

One of the things I learned was that for hundreds of years, the Jews were forced to live in the area now called “Josefstadt.”   There was a fence around the ghetto and a gate with a lock.  The citizens were locked in during the night.  In the daytime, they were free to move throughout the city, but had to wear something yellow as a badge that they were Jewish – a yellow circle patch on their clothes, a bracelet, collar, or hat.  Yellow was the symbol for something seen as despicable.  These yellow stars of David worn by Jews in Nazi Germany were only an adaptation Hitler and the Nazis made on an already established practice. 

I found out that in the outside world, Jews could only be involved in finance, particularly lending for a profit.  They had to pay huge taxes on their gains, but some still became wealthy in their practice.  Mordecai Meisel, who used his money to build a synagogue named after him, was one of those who used his wealth to give back to the many impoverished Jews in Prague.  Jews did have other professions inside their ghetto, though.  There were even Jewish beer brewers.

The hero for the Jewish community was the emperor Joseph, the eldest son of the Hapsburg Maria Theresa.  I learned that she was rabidly anti-Semitic, that she learned this attitude from her father.  Her daughter, Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XV of France, whose ghost I encountered in Paris many times, was anti-Semitic.  But her brother Joseph was not, and did everything he could to make Jews equal.  Except for one thing – they were required to register, and somehow this affected their marriage rights.  The guide said only one child in a family had the right to marry.  In any case, the Jews loved him so much, they named their ghetto after him. 

In the Pinkas synagogue, I saw the names of Franz Kafka’s sisters listed - killed by the Nazis. 

Franz Kafka
Our guide showed us caricatures to show the popular Czech attitude towards Jews.  One of the ways they derided Jews was to portray them as insects.  This reminded me of Kafka, whose protagonist in the story “Metamorphosis” becomes a bug.  I asked the guide whether she thought there was any connection here.

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “He was a secular Jew who came from a privileged family.”

An Israeli woman who later joined the tour disagreed.  “I have nothing to do with the history of Prague, but as I walk through this city, I have a very heavy heart,” she said.  “I think Kafka could have felt what his ancestors felt.  Why should he not have identified with them?”

I agree.  I have a heavy heart for the Germans and the Jews.  I am sad to think of a city that was so great as this, now living mostly from its past.  It is magnificent, laden with one stunning palace after another.  There are so many palaces, people can’t afford to live in them and they have become embassies, government ministries and corporate headquarters.  There are wonderful examples of architecture from every period from the middle ages on.  There are still street signs in German, hinting to a past that had nothing to do with Nazis.  These were Germans who worked alongside Jews, who formed the intelligentsia of this city.  For hundreds of years, German was the official language here.  Now there is nothing left.  The Germans didn’t enjoy sharing power.  Eventually the Czech nationals took it away from the German-speaking Hapsburgs.  Then World War II ended all traces of German culture.  And now it’s all gone, all but beautiful buildings and a few streets hinting to the curious about a past that is no more.

If only people would accept each other.  Our cities and our lives would be all the richer for it.

No comments: