Prague, Site of Zionist Congress, is Rich in Jewish History, Lore

There is no capital in present-day Europe so fitted for a Jewish Congress as Prague. Situated in the centre of Europe, the capital of a young State that has been very kindly treated by the world crisis, Prague is at the same time the city with the oldest Jewish tradition. It thus represents the modern European Present, and the age-old Jewish Past.

I came to Prague from the north, by motor-car from Germany. One crosses a linguistic frontier as if it were a political boundary, though there is no official sign of it. Under the old Austrian Empire the frontier was not so clearly defined, the Germans were not quite so German, and the Czechs not quite so Czech as now. But it is not just the result of the new State. It is a historic process that is going on all over the world, aiming to develop and stress the national consciousness. It is called “Nationalism” and people fight for it. But it certainly is one of the greatest facts of our time.

GERMAN CULTURE DOMINATES

Thus we find that Prague in the mass is Czech, surprising as it may sound. Yet Germanism still plays a big part in the city. There are German universities and schools, theatres and newspapers. But when you go through the city you do not see the German Prague. And the Czechs are hard to get at because I do not know their language—which seems to me the most difficult in the world. I adopt my usual practice in such circumstances. I listen for people who speak German, and look out for—Jews. For this is one of the paradoxes of Prague, that the Jews are the main pillars of German culture. Their language is German, they write and read German papers, they attend the German theatre. The Czech State sometimes takes this deep-seated loyalty to German culture very much amiss, and would welcome it if the Jews would agree to become Czech.

They have a vast share in the history and development of Prague, comparable only to the Catholic influence, so that Catholicism and Judaism represent the twin clamps that embrace Prague. Except for Amsterdam, there is no town in Europe in which the historic influence of the Jews has been so strong and fertile as in Prague.

THE JEWISH TRADITION

In Prague—owing to the fact that {SPAN}###{/SPAN} Jewry goes back for more than a thousand years—Judaism is above all a religious appearance. Its religious architecture brings it into the city’s treasury of sights, into the very forefront, in fact. The stranger who comes to Prague admires the Baroque palaces of the nobility, the Wallenstein Palace, and the Castle that overtops the whole city—but above all he is impressed by Prague as a city of churches. He will be taken to the St. Vitus Cathedral, the Tyn Church, and the Nicholas Church, but he will also be shown the “Old-New” Synagogue, several of the 17th Century synagogues. and, chief of all, the ancient Jewish Cemetery. It is this that makes Prague unique among the cities of the world—Jewish institutions and Jewish structures among the sights of the town that constitute its fame.

I visited again the chief centre of Prague Jewry. As I entered the ancient cemetery, the porter asked me “Do you speak German?” I had to smile for Prague Jews speak nothing else.

In what lies the magic of this, the oldest burial-ground in all Europe? It is not only the romantic atmosphere of thirteen centuries, dreamy and mysterious in the very heart of the noisy town. It is not only the almost indescribable beauty of its confused and unordered ruins, which overwhelm you with the full force of the past and of eternity. These are all artistic experiences such as you will find nowhere else in the whole world. But the Jew experiences another sensation in this sacred spot. He senses his eternal tradition, from the beginnings of our European culture, and with the sure hope of eternity. He passes by these gravestones, reads the Hebrew inscriptions, and sees generations of Jewish people pass among them, men of the highest spiritual rank, men who were an example for their own generation and for posterity.

He passes down the irregular narrow paths of the cemetery, and in doing so down the equally irregular narrow hard paths of Jewish history. Everything is steeped in the green of summer, and utterly silent, except for the voice of my guide and the distant sound of traffic. The finest tombstones belong to the Baroque period, for Prague is altogether a Baroque town, even though many of its finest buildings are Gothic. The most beautiful tombstones are those of Hendl Bathschewa, the first Prague Jewess ennobled by the Emperor, and of the High Rabbi Loew. Round his grave was woven the legend of the Golem and the tales of the profound and elevated wisdom of this Rabbi that illuminated the whole of that century. I pass on to the tombs of the Rabbi’s thirty disciples, who surround him in death as they did in life.

The “Old-New” Synagogue is a jewel of Gothic religious architecture. The foundations are of Roman origin, on these are built the Gothic walls and the magnificent nave. Thus the architecture of this small, ancient place of worship is entirely Christian, but the spirit is Jewish, not only because of the Ark and Almemor, but because of its memories and the silent prayers that re-echo from its walls. Almost in the centre of the Synagogue stands the old banner that the Emperor Ferdinand III presented to the Jews of Prague, who in the Thirty Years’ War defended the Karlsbruecke against the Swedes. The Shield of David and a Swedish helm embellish this flag, and this rare combination is symbolic of the character of the admixture of peoples, cultures and religions that dominates the city.

Such is Prague, the oldest Jewish town in Europe. One is astounded to discover that the Jews were settled here before the Czechs, and one thinks of the manifold events of the thirteen centuries through which the Jews have lived here, keeping troth with themselves and with this town, to whose fame they have so largely contributed. A town of admixtures, of great historic changes and of religious traditions, such as find expression in Catholicism and Judaism, it stands in the very centre of Europe’s agitated Present.

Here, this year, the Zionist Congress is meeting, in an historic hour, filled for Jewry with more pain and sorrow than for centuries past.

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