Our History is Captured in the Sidewalks of Prague

Prague was everything the guidebooks said it would be, and more.  It is a beautiful city and, just as they say, in the early morning and at sunset, the light is such that you could almost think that you are in Italy.  There is always some architectural detail on every building that catches your eye.  But what truly caught my eye as we started our tour of Josefova, the Jewish quarter of Prague, was not on the buildings but in the sidewalks.  To honor the memory of Jews deported to Terezin and then to the death camps, brass plaques are being placed in front of the homes of these Czech Jews.  Walking along one of the main streets of the Jewish quarter, we found this plaque:

If you look closely, you will see three names: Alois Bergmann, born 1899, his wife, Beila, born in 1897, and their daughter Ruzena, born 1931.  A couple that had one child later in their lives, during the Depression.  The plaques then go on to say they were deported to Terezin in 1942 and then on to two other concentration camps.  Their ultimate fate is unrecorded.  Another silent, subtle memorial, much like the iron shoes on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.

There is also a living tribute to the Czech Jewish community, in the form of HaGibor.  In the residential section of Prague, ten or fifteen minutes from the Old Town Square, stands an imposing building, with a security gate and guard.  HaGibor was originally the JCC for the Prague Jewish community.  It housed community theatre productions, youth sports teams and community events.  During World War II, the Nazis turned it into a detention center, placing barracks on what had been the playing fields.  Much like Terezin, it was used as a way station before Prague’s Jews were transported to concentration camps – from what had been their Jewish community center.  After the war, the Communist government used the building as a hospital.  With the advent of the Velvet Revolution, the building was returned to the Jewish community, in terrible shape. 

With funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – which means each of us, through our gifts to the UJA Annual Campaign – the building was restored, expanded and adapted.  It now houses a 62-unit home for Czech survivors of the Holocaust, a day center for survivors still living independently and a kindergarten.  It is a remarkable space – the front of the building and the offices are imposing, spacious, grand – and the apartments attached to the main building look for the entire world as if they come from an Israeli kibbutz!  There are all kinds of physical and occupational therapy rooms, an arts and crafts center (and a puppet theatre and art room for the kindergarten), a kosher dining room and beautiful gardens in the courtyard between the main building and the residences.  Most amazing is the computer room, also funded by the JDC.  The residents, who are in their 80s and 90s, use the computers to Skype with their friends and family around the world.  As if to remind them of how much the world has changed, there is an old-fashioned typewriter in the room, and an old rotary phone.

After everything this group of people has endured, they have a home, where they are treated with respect and dignity, the Jewish values that light up the world.   And you help make it possible!

Next week, I will introduce you to some very special people from HaGibor.

Until then,

Leslie

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