The Jewish quarter of Prague is easily walked in a few hours, although absorbing its history and its secrets could take a lifetime. Hundreds of years of Jewish history surround you, exemplified best by the 400 years of gravestones in the hauntingly beautiful Jewish cemetery.
Of all of these places, the one I return to over and over in my mind is the Pinkas shul. It is a relatively small building, below the grade level of the current street on which it sits. Its architecture is Romanesque and Gothic, spare and striking in its simplicity. What is overwhelming is the purpose to which its walls have been put. On every wall, painstakingly painted by hand, are the names of the 77,297 Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who were sent to Auschwitz. You aren’t allowed to take photographs, so the images remain only in my mind’s eye.
And if that weren’t enough, there is an upstairs annex that holds the drawings and sketches by the children, most of them orphans, who were sent to Thereisenstadt and then on to Auschwitz. Many of the drawings portray performances of the children’s opera Brundibar, written by two Czech Jews and performed only once outside the walls of Thereisenstadt before the advent of the Nazis.
So much richness of our past, and so much loss.
That afternoon, we went to visit HaGibor, the former Jewish community center that has been restituted to the Jews of Prague and which is now a residence for elderly survivors of the Holocaust. Dr. Radek Roule, a social worker at HaGibor, gave us our tour. As we were looking at the theater, Dr. Roule told us that this is where the teenagers of Prague had just performed Brundibar for the residents, the first time it had been performed at HaGibor since the Holocaust. Just as he was finishing his sentence, along came one of those residents, Vera Schimmerlingova. She told us she was actually in the original performance at HaGibor. She invited us to come visit her apartment as we continued our tour. Dr. Roule described the tears in Vera’s eyes as she sat in the front row, watching the teens perform.
Ten minutes later, we were in Vera’s sunny studio apartment, complete with its small efficiency kitchen, balcony, and big picture window overlooking the courtyard. Vera told us that she lost both her mother and sister at Auschwitz. “They aren’t happy memories,” she said in her perfect English, “but they are the memories I have.” The apartment was bright with paintings and family pictures. I noticed two recent family photographs on her wall. One of them depicted a family of four: father, mother, and two young women, who looked to be in their twenties or so. I asked if this was her family and she said it was. After the war she married and had one son. The photo was of her son, his wife, and their two daughters at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Her son and daughter-in-law and one granddaughter live in Prague and she sees them often. The other granddaughter has made aliyah and lives in Israel. If there had been an Israel when Vera was performing in Brundibar, her memories would be so different.
Out of so much loss, there are still the riches of Jewish life in Prague, here at home, and in Israel.
Wishing you a week of riches,