Archive for May 7th, 2012

Museum of an Extinct Race

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Today was our first day in the Czech Republic without Monika, or as I put it “the day the training wheels came off.” However, most of the waiters and other service professionals here in the Big City speak at least some English and/or German so we haven’t had any serious difficulties.

There are as many people in this hotel as in some entire towns we visited with Monika. Breakfast was not of maximal quality but had a fabulous selection, including chocolate granola.

The first order of business today was to do laundry, and rather than run several cycles through the tiny sink and festoon the room with wet undies, we took the subway to one of Prague’s few laundromats, located in an American-style shopping mall in the city center. Unfortunately, there was only one working dryer. So rather than wait an hour and a half for our turn at it, we took our wet wash back to the hotel and festooned the room with wet undies.

By comparison with the charming little medieval and Renaissance towns where we’ve spent the last week, Prague is dirty, noisy, crowded, and dangerous. But it shares with Vienna a capital-of-empire vibe, a plethora of shops and restaurants, and endless stunning architecture none of which you have ever seen before (except perhaps in a movie, pretending to be someplace else).

Lunch was at Cafe Savoy, which taunted us with a menu in which the dishes were titled in French but described in Czech. However, we had a delicious (albeit somewhat expensive) lunch in exquisite surroundings.

After lunch we decided to hit the Jewish Museum, a loose-knit collection of sites in the former Jewish quarter. Most of the Jews were kicked out and the buildings torn down at the turn of the 20th century, but a handful of synagogues and an old cemetery remain. Even these survive to the present day only because the Nazis decided to keep them as a “museum of an extinct race.”

Our first stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls are covered with the names, dates, and towns of residence of 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed by the Nazis. Eighty thousand names — three large rooms with every wall covered in quite small writing. Twenty thousand names more than the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington DC. Most of them came from Prague. Most of them died in 1941 and 1942. Only 10,000 Jews returned to Prague after the war.

The Pinkas Synagogue was turned into a Holocaust memorial in the 1950s. After the Prague Spring in 1968, the Communists erased the names. Following the fall of communism, the eighty thousand names were again hand-written on the walls. It took four years.

Kate and I have suffered some tragedies recently — two close friends passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. If two deaths hurt this much… how could anyone possibly inflict this unimaginable level of pain?

Exhibits in other parts of the distributed Jewish Museum hint at how it happened. The Jews were never more than tolerated in Prague, their rights to live and work and marry always restricted and often curtailed. The Old Jewish Cemetery is crammed with stones, which hints at the bodies buried ten and twelve deep because the Jews were not permitted to bury their dead elsewhere. Documents on display in the beautiful Spanish Synagogue record how the Nazis required Jews to turn in their gramophones and skis, each properly packed and with a copy of Form C. The noose was tightened and tightened and tightened, and the illusion was maintained right up until the last minute that the Jews would be allowed to return home.

Looking at the many artifacts of Jewish life and religious practice on display, I realized that the prohibition against graven images means that most Jewish objects are decorated with Hebrew text and very little else. To the non-Jew, everything in Jew Town was opaque and mysterious, densely covered with unreadable, perhaps even mystical, symbols. This may be part of why they hated and feared their Jewish neighbors.

In the bathroom mirror of the restaurant where we had dinner I saw a face very much like some of the photographs of Czech Jews we’d seen in the museum (Sigmund Freud was one).

Two of my grandparents were born in the US, and the other two came here from Russia well before WWII. I don’t know of any relatives who died in the Holocaust, and I’m not a very observant Jew. But I think all of us, Jew and Gentile, black and white, gay and straight, need to remember that human beings did this to other human beings, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Finding dinner was a bit of a goat-rope. First we went to a restaurant right near the museum that sounded great, but it was not yet 6:00 and the menu only included some uninspiring sandwiches and salads. The next place we tried, a bit of a hike away, was smoky and unappealing. To get to the third place we walked all the way back to the first one and past it (though it was now after 6:00, we didn’t want to go back in), but the third place was not only a smoking zone, it looked closed. Fortunately our fourth choice, a Burmese/Thai/Indian place called Orange Moon, was right across the street, open, nonsmoking, and smelled good. Service was quick and friendly, prices reasonable, but, alas, the two Burmese dishes we ordered were merely okay.

Took a tram back to the hotel. Shortly before boarding, Kate’s knee went out on her (it has done this before) so she limped back to the room. I hope it’ll be better after a good night’s rest.

Most of the laundry is mostly dry. I hope it, too, will be better after a good night’s rest.