Behind the Headlines Prague Preserves the ‘golden Age’ of Jewry Despite Scarcity of Jews

The ancient city of Prague is a study in contrasts: baroque splendor and contemporary grayness; intellectual awareness and social regimentation; unparalleled Jewish cultural treasures and the paucity of Jews. A mere 1,500 are enrolled as members of the Jewish community, one-quarter of the entire Czech Jewish population.

No locale in all of Europe has more to offer the Jewish visitor than the “golden” city of Prague. A feast for the eyes and the heart, the historical Jewish treasures of this Eastern European capital are inversely proportional to the number of Jews it presently contains.

Communal headquarters are at 18 Maislova Street in the Old Town in the center of an incredible array of ancient synagogues the fabulous Jewish State Museum, and the old Jewish Cemetery dating back to the early 15th century. All of these magnificent sites concentrated between the Town Hall and the majestic Moldau River attest to a shining past. But the present is quite different.

JEWISH PRESENCE IS MORE SYMBOLIC THAN REAL

Though Jews have inhabited Prague for 1,000 years, and according to Jewish officials here, were present before the arrival of Christians in the 10th century with St. Wencelsav, today the presence of Jewry is almost more of a symbol than an actuality. The Czech government has been most solicitous in preserving the splendid Jewish past in an enormous museum, not only for the Czech nation, but for visitors from all parts of the globe.

In 1938 there were more than 300,000 Jews. Only five percent of them survived World War II. Dr. Desider Galsky, the president of the Council of Jewish Communities, estimates that there may be as many as 5,000 Jews in Prague and about 15,000 in the country, but that the majority refuse to be identified as Jews.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA AND ISRAEL

Galsky, an affable and efficient leader, stated that Czechoslovakia was one of the first countries, together with the Soviet Union, to vote in the United Nations in support of the Jewish State in 1948, that only the Czechs sent weapons to the Haganah in 1948, and that soldiers for the resistance organizations were trained near Prague.

He claimed that should there be peace in the Middle East, Czechoslovakia would support Israel, as it does not presently. Indeed, there are frequent diatribes in the local press condemning Israel, but Galsky insisted that the average Prague citizen is not anti-Semitic and disliked the Palestinian students in the city rather than any of its Jewish residents. A popular current theatrical production is a revival of the play “Jakobowsky and the Colonel,” by the eminent Jewish novelist and playwright, Prague-born Franz Werfel.

“We are in the same position as all the other religious groups, all the different churches; if you are a Jew, it’s your own business, simply a private matter, ” Galsky said. “No identity card, passport, census form or any other application bears any reference to religion.” With regard to the government, he pointed out, there are liberal and flexible forces who are more sympathetic toward his community than conservative members.

He deals quite effectively with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and with the Division of Church Affairs. It is noteworthy that priests and rabbis are paid by the state, and that the Council of Jewish Communities, including the cities of Prague, Pilsen, Ostrava, Brno and Usti, derives a substantial part of its budget from the government. Another large benefactor is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

PRAGUE WILL SOON HAVE A RABBI

The Prague community has no rabbi, but Galsky announced that a young man named Daniel Mayer, who is now completing his studies at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest, will soon become the rabbi of the Jerusalemska Street Synagogue. (Twenty years ago there were two rabbis in town.) The other synagogue used for services by Prague Jews is the early Gothic, Old-New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in the world, dating back to the 14th century.

Galsky is very proud of the kosher restaurant in his building, which feeds not only hundreds of Jews every day, but many other Czechs besides. His Council also helps Jews who cannot live on low government pensions, and supplies them with additional funds to enable them to survive fairly comfortably.

Galsky said he looked forward to being permitted to visit Israel next year as part of the 40th anniversary of the deportation of Czech Jews. Heretofore, only Czechs who had children or grandchildren in Israel were granted visas. He eagerly welcomed the increasing numbers of Jewish groups visiting this historic city, arranging kosher meals for participants and special services in the legendary Old-New Synagogue.

POPULARITY OF THE JEWISH STATE MUSEUM

Otakar Petrik, director of the famous Jewish State Museum, and a non-Jew, advised that his museum is the most popular in all of Czechoslovakia, with more than 750,000 visitors annually. Most are not Jewish, half are young people, and his large staff of historians, artistic experts, librarians and Hebraists are busily engaged in maintaining and restoring the more than 145,000 artifacts of Jewish religious and cultural life stored in the museum since World War II.

An exhibit of more than 400 objects from the museum collection entitled “The Precious Legacy” opened at the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, D.C. on November 9 and will travel to other cities throughout the United States, concluding in a showing at the Jewish Museum in New York City beginning next April 15.

A HEART-WRENCHING EXPERIENCE

No visit to this superb city is complete without an hour’s journey to Terezin, the largest concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. More than 140,000 prisoners, most of them Jewish, and not only from Czechoslovakia, but from other parts of Europe as well, passed through it enroute to Auschwitz and other camps. Twenty percent died of malnutrition, disease and execution. The camp was liberated on May 8, 1945, by the Soviet army, thus saving the lives of some 30,000 in the camp at that time.

It is a heart-wrenching experience to view the cells, the sick-rooms, the places of execution, the mass graves, the crematoria, and finally, the simple yet eloquent monument erected by the Jewish community.

In the Prague Jewish State Museum and in the Klausen Synagogue next to the old Jewish Cemetery are exhibits of drawings by some of the 15,000 Jewish children who were incarcerated in Terezin. All of the 4,000 drawings express the ineffable longing and the poignant memories of these tragic youngsters, trapped by a malevolent fate in this place of horror.

The imprint of this somber, yet extraordinarily beautiful city is a profound one. For the American Jew, living in a free and liberal society, an on-the-site examination of the glorious and tragic past of Czech Jewry, and its current tiny remnant determined to survive, can be a most illuminating experience.

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