After another breakfast of coco puffs on Sunday, we made our way to the Jewish Museum of Prague. I assumed this would be one large building with the few artifacts that survived the war. Instead our tickets gave us access to five synagogues and a cemetery. None of the synagogues are practicing and instead each one has been turned into a different monument to Jewish life. Sadly there were no pictures allowed in the museum, but there is an extensive virtual tour on the website if you want to see some of these things.
The Maisel Synagogue had a collection of religious artifacts from the 16th and 17th century. It explained in great detail about Jewish practices and holidays.
The Klausen synagogue also focused on the historical Jewish experience, but detailed daily Jewish life and the more mundane or normal practices. In one part of the museum they had a traditional Shabbos table and the like.
The Ceremonial Hall, a building adjacent to the cemetery, focuses on Jewish burial practices, as well as the history of Jews in the Czech republic. In one room they had the recovered Jewish headstones that had been broken by the Nazis. It was common practice during WWII, not only to desecrate Jewish burial sites, but to take the broken headstones and use them to pave the roads in the concentration camps. This was an additional measure of dehumanization, since it is enormously disrespectful to walk over the graves of the deceased.
The Spanish Synagogue was built in the sephardic style, so more what we imagine a mosque to look like. The exhibit inside focused on the history of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews in the Czech Republic as well as the silver that they produced. The exhibit also detailed the life of artists, musicians, and writers who were sent to Terezin (the red cross show camp) and forced to produce their craft for Nazi propaganda. For example the Jewish composers were forced to write Nazi marches. In secret these artists also created work about their experiences living in the camp, and then buried or hid their work. Many of these people were later deported to other camps where they died. Their music, however survived and is devastatingly beautiful. Today it is performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the Terezin Music Foundation.
Pinkas Synagogue is the oldest, built in 1535, and perhaps the most powerful. The synagogue is completely empty, the seats, the bimah, everything is gone. Instead from floor to ceiling in the four rooms of the synagogue, in hand painted black and red lettering is the name of every Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust. Softly over the speaker system there is a woman’s voice reading the names, the dates they died, and where they died. Its a visual experience that took me by surprise. I stood staring at the names and once again I was overwhelmed about how the Holocaust obliterated individuality. Here were maybe a thousand people with the same last name, who are lost to history. They are only remembered by these little letters. They all lead lives, had people they loved, and things that mattered to them, and thats something we will never know. It disturbs me. I was standing in front of the names and the friend I was traveling with, who is not Jewish, turned to me and said “I wonder who we would have been.” She was wondering out loud if she would have been in the resistance, a bystander, or worse complicit to the Nazis work. I murmured “I wouldn’t have had a choice, I would have been killed.”
I said it without thinking and she looked bewildered, but the more I thought about it it was true. Id like to think of myself as a strong woman with the moral integrity to stand up to injustice in society. Thats a imagined reality, but theres no way to predict how I would react in such an extreme situation.
I do know my mother is Jewish, my father is catholic, I have a physical disability, and I am not in great health. Had I lived in Eastern Europe during the war, most likely, I would have been arrested, deported to a camp, where I would have died. Then my entire life, all of my memories, experiences, accomplishments, failures, hopes, dreams, and my existence would be limited to ten little black letters on the walls of a synagogue.