Unlike many European cities that were bombed to a pulp during World War II, Prague is nearly intact. It’s a walking, living history book. We booked a three hour tour with Aharon Hribek, who came highly recommended by a friend. We had a lot to cover, and three hours was not enough. So consider that your warning…this will be a very long post.
The first stop was the Altneushcul, or the Old New Synagogue. M and I had already visited the synagogue for Saturday services, but today we got an expert’s guidance.
The synagogue was built in stages. The oldest part, the main sanctuary, dates back to 1270. As the synagogue expanded, adding an upper level and a women’s section, a plaque was added to commemorate each new section.
The inside is relatively small, and not at all ostentatious like some of the other synagogues we saw later, but hauntingly beautiful in its own way.
A artist friend of M’s designed many of the ritual coverings in the main sanctuary, like the navy covering on the bimah and the maroon covering on the Torah ark.
This seat bears the name the Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the revered rabbi known as the Maharal, who served as a rabbi in Prague during the 16th century. Our guide informed us that this may be the place where the Maharal sat, but the wood is not old enough to be the original seat.
A replica of the the Jews’ historic flag hangs from the ceiling. In 1357, Charles IV allowed the Jews of Prague to have their own city flag.
Next, we visited the Pinkas Synagogue, a gothic synagogue built in 1535. In 1955, it was turned into a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia. The first floor contains the names of each victim, and the second floor contains a heart-rending exhibit of drawings made by Jewish children kept in the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp.
After Pinkas, we walked through the old Jewish cemetery, while out guide pointed out some of the more famous and interesting gravestones. Many of the stones are faded and crooked, victims of nature and time. Cemeteries are supposed to be depressing places, but I took some odd comfort in the preservation of history. Each stone, each name is a story that lives on as thousands of people come from all over the world to hear their tales.
By the time we finished at the Jewish cemetery, we were running short on time. We made two quick visits to the Klausen Synagogue and the Chevra Kadisha – the small building next to the cemetery where Jews would prepare their dead for burial. Then, M and I checked out the Maisel Synagogue, the elaborate Spanish Synagogue, and the modern Jewish cemetery on our own.
Built in 1694 in early Baroque style, the Klausen Synagogue is the largest in Prague.
The Maisel Synagogue was originally built in 1592 by Mordecai Maisel, the mayor of Prague’s Jewish town. It was burnt down in 1689 and rebuilt several times. Today, it hosts an exhibit on historical Jewish life in Bohemia.
The Spanish Synagogue is a sight to behold. Built in 1868 for the Reform congregation (notice the organ on the second floor which would never appear in an Orthodox synagogue), it was called the Spanish Synagogue because its design was influence by Moorish architecture.
The modern Jewish cemetery is not a typical stop on the tourist route in Prague. Most tourists stick to the historical sites in the center of Old Town. Founded in 1890, the modern cemetery is in use today and a 20 minute subway ride from the center of town. M connected with a friend of a friend who publishes a Jewish newsletter on site and offered to show us around.
Yes, that is the Franz Kafka.
These plaques memorialize several of the musical and visual artists who were held in the Terezin concentration camp and perished in the Holocaust. Terezin was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool to convince the Red Cross that their camps were humane and a cultural nirvana. They exploited the Jewish artists to churn out Nazi propaganda, but many of them secretly depicted the cruel reality of the camps through their art.