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EUROPEAN JEWISH HERITAGE TOUR Spring 2000 (6)
Approaching Nürnberg, which had been Nazi headquarters, Rabbi Schild talked in detail about Hitler's rise to power and continued on with a history of Czechoslovakia. This man is amazing with his vast knowledge, keen memory and ability to communicate in an understandable and captivating manner.
Two of our group, Manny and Susan, now husband and wife, lived through the horrors of the Holocaust. As we approached Pilsen, Czech Republic, we stopped the bus near Stribro to drink a vodka toast to Susan, who had been liberated here. She told us of her journey through hell and how she survived. Later Manny shared his unbelievable journey with us and as we absorbed the reality of what they endured and how they survived, we were proud to be in the company of these two courageous people who, with determination and cunning, had outwitted the Nazis.
Prague is the capital and major industrial city in the country that leads Eastern Europe in industrial growth. Is it any wonder that as our bus arrived in the city the sight of new construction and beautifully renovated buildings greeted us?
We would be in Prague five nights at the Hotel Intercontinental Praha, Namesti Curiovych 43, Josefov. All the major sights of this wondrous city are within walking distance of the hotel and as in all great cities, you just want to walk until you drop.
Don't be fooled by the old 1970's exterior. The interior has been beautifully renovated. Gleaming marble and stylish design greet you in the large reception area and lounges. The service is top notch, as one would expect in a hotel of this class. A super buffet breakfast is served in the attractive first floor cafe.
The guest rooms are lavish with top quality furnishings. The tops of the tables and desk are marble as well the lovely marble floor in the well-appointed bathroom, complete with bidet. Bathrobes and terrycloth slippers are supplied. After long days of enjoying this city, it was a pleasure to come home to this comfort. Although we didn't find time to take advantage of the facilities, the new atrium fitness center is excellent with an indoor pool, sauna, gym and bar.
The historic center of the city of Prague sits on the banks of the Vltava River. On the west bank is Hradcany Hill, dominated by the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. The castle is comprised of a series of palaces, which nowadays are home to government offices and the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic.
The large cathedral is very impressive with its striking interior design, artistic stonework, high archways and vaulted ceiling. Glistening bronze statuary sits high on the pillars and a stunning three-ton silver sculpture is the piece de resistance. Prague's proximity to the mines made silver a natural medium for this outstanding work.
A short stroll south from high on Hradcany is Mala Strana (little quarter), its ancient character firmly in place with cobblestone streets lined with baroque palaces and hidden courtyards. The famous Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) connects Mala Strana to Stare Mesto on the east bank. This pedestrian bridge, with towers at either end, is lined with statues. Artists, artisans and performers line the sides of the bridge selling their offerings while tourists gawk at the statues and the magnificent river views and, if not careful, have their belongings stolen.
We had a delightful lunch at Pizzeria Rugantino, Desni 4, in Stare Mesto. The place was hopping but we were lucky to be able to share a large table with another couple. The high ceilings create a spacious environment, colorfully decorated with huge murals of cartoon characters on the walls. The staff, like the place, is bright and cheerful. We shared a gorgeous caprese salad with Buffalo mozzarella and a delicious pizza with spicy tomato sauce, mozzarella and excellent quark, a cheese similar to ricotta. The tasty crust was baked to perfection. What is pizza without beer and what better beer than here in the Czech Republic!
What remains of the old Jewish Quarter, known as Josefov, is located in Stare Mesto bounded by Patriska, Kaprova and Listopadu. The Jewish Museum has one of the most extensive collections of Judaic art in the world, primarily from Bohemia and Moravia. The collection presents an integrated picture of the life and history of the Jews in this region. The mayor of the Jewish town, Mordechai Maisel, built the Maisel Synagogue in 1590-1592. It was damaged by fire in 1689. The final rebuilding was done 1893-1905. The Jewish Museum currently uses the synagogue as an exhibition space and depository.
After Word War II, the Pinkas Synagogue was turned into a memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by the Nazis. The walls are inscribed with the names of the victims, their dates of birth, towns of origin and dates of transport to their final destinations. The 80,000 names are written in continuing lines in alphabetical order and are a powerful memorial. The upper section of the synagogue houses a permanent exhibition called Children's Drawings From Terezin 1942-1944. There were over 10,000 children under the age of 15 among the Terezin prisoners. Of the 8,000 deported to the east only 242 survived. There are over 4,000 original drawings in the collection that have a tremendous emotional impact as they provide testimony to the horrors that befell these children.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is an incredible sight. The second oldest in Europe, it was established in the 15th century. Burials took place from 1439 to 1787. Today there are 12,000 tombstones jammed together, leaning one on another, everyone at a different angle and size, the whole creating a graphic, surreal and mystical vision. The number of people buried here is much greater than the number of tombstones. There are many burial layers with estimates ranging from 7 to 12. The most prominent person interred here is the great religious scholar and teacher, Rabbi Lewa Ben Bezalel, known as Rabbi Low.
The Klausen Synagogue is located at the exit of the old cemetery. A permanent exhibition called Jewish Customs and Traditions is housed in the nave highlighting the significance of the synagogue and Jewish festivals. The gallery contains exhibits of customs of everyday life of a Jewish family.
The Ceremonial Hall houses the mortuary of the Old Jewish Cemetery and there is also a permanent exhibition of Jewish Customs and Traditions devoted to illness, medicine, death and Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia and Moravia and the activities of the Prague Burial Society.
The Educational and Cultural Center provides visitors with a detailed interpretation of Judaism and the history of the Jews with the focus on Bohemia and Moravia.
The Spanish Synagogue is located a few blocks away on Dusni. It was built in 1868 on the site of the oldest Prague Jewish House of Prayer (the Old School) in a Moorish style. The synagogue interior is square with a cupola above the central area. The gallery is built on an iron structure. Arabic and stylish Oriental motifs adorn much of the interior. The Jewish Museum in Prague reopened this rich, colorful synagogue after twenty years on its 130th anniversary.
After a full day of touring, this evening was to be a very special treat. We had front row seats at the State Opera for a vigorous and powerful performance of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. Just being in this glorious red and gold opera house was a thrill. Two of the four tiers of boxes around the sides hold graceful sculptures. All the seating is excellent and the seats themselves are wide and extremely comfortable. Sit back, relax and enjoy; this is Prague at its best.
After a drive through a rich agricultural area of Bohemia, we arrived at Terezin. Linda and I had not known of this place until we saw the children's drawings in Prague. For us, this was the most sobering and emotional experience of the tour. The fortresses of Terezin, built in 1780-90, became famous when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. A police prison of the Prague Gestapo was established in the small fortress and a concentration camp for Jews was located in the main fortress, the town of Terezin. The Terezin ghetto was originally supposed to be only a reception camp and way station for the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. It also became an old-age ghetto for prisoners of all faiths from other countries under the Nazi occupation.
As the persons died from natural causes, punishment and disease, the high water level at the small cemetery became a problem and a mass crematorium was constructed for burning the corpses. It was a frightening sight to see this large room filled with furnaces. If this wasn't bad enough, the adjacent "work rooms" is where the gold teeth were removed and the bodies dissected in search of hidden treasures before the mutilated corpses were burned. Some 150,000 poor souls passed through this place. Of the 87,000 who left on transports to extermination camps in the east, fewer than 4,000 survived.
In the last days of the war more than 13,000 other prisoners were shipped here from closed concentration camps in Poland and Germany. They were seriously ill and many arrived dead, while others died soon after arrival. They brought typhoid fever with them, which took a heavy toll in the first weeks after liberation.
The Ghetto Museum, established in October 1991, does a remarkable job of depicting the history of the ghetto individual aspects of the inmates' day-to-day life. A documentary from the perspective of a child was a chilling experience. There is an incredible exhibition of the art and drawings of the prisoners of all ages. That they managed to create such meaningful, quality work under such horrible conditions is mind-boggling. Add to that their presence of mind in finding ways to preserve this evidence of the atrocities for future generations and one is overcome with sorrow for the loss of such talented and courageous people.
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