In the afternoon of Day 2, we went up to the Jewish Quarter.
The Pinkas Synagogue is a memorial to Czech Holocaust victims; some 78,000 names are handwritten on the walls. This effort started in the 1950s but many of the names were destroyed under Communism so they started over in 1989. On the second floor there is a gallery of artwork done by children in the Terezin concentration camp – the plaques note whether the artist survived or not. Most did not. It was a difficult exhibition.
I feel weird taking photos in places like this. I’m of two minds – on the one hand, it seems in a way disrespectful to be snapping away (I think of Bender on Futurama always pulling out his camera – “neat!”); on the other, it’s a place to remember and isn’t sharing images a way of doing that? I compromise with myself but only taking a few.
To exit you walk through the old Jewish cemetery. This cemetery was used for about 3 centuries and was the only place for Jewish burials so they had to stack bodies to make room — there are as many as 12 layers of bodies. The ground here is much higher than street level and the headstones are all tilted and some are so old they have crumbled. The place was restful and beautiful in a way, I just felt bad that the reason they had to cram so many bodies here is because Jews weren’t allowed to have land anywhere else.
My favorite place we visited here was the Old New Synagogue (it was new when it was built but became old when other synagogues came around, hence the name). It was built in 1270 (!!!) and is still in use today. Apparently at that time Jews were not allowed to be in the stonemason guild so the synagogue was built by Christians – there are 5 ribs in the vaulting on the ceiling instead of the usual 4, supposedly so that there wouldn’t be any crosses up there.
I liked it because it had a good feeling – it is small and below street level and this felt to me like coziness or closeness. Just a cute Gothic-style synagogue that’s been around for 8 CENTURIES. The Nazis did not destroy this building because they wanted to use it for a museum of the extermination of the Jewish race so it’s especially gratifying that it’s still standing and still being used.
This is where the Golem of Prague is supposedly kept. The legend is that Rabbi Loew created a golem out of clay to protect the Jewish Quarter and help out, animating it with a shem (capsule with magic formula) put in its mouth. The Rabbi would remove the shem every Friday to allow the golem to rest on the Sabbath. But the Rabbi forgot to remove it one Friday and the golem went on a rampage! They managed to subdue it but it was too dangerous to re-animate so they put it in the attic of the Old New Synagogue. You can’t go into the attic but you can see the iron rung ladder up to the door. COULD IT BE THAT HE IS STILL UP THERE?
Rick Steves says the legend of the golem inspired Czech writer Karel Capek to write his play R.U.R., about artificial beings who turn on their creators. He used the Czech word “roboti” — “workers” (LIKE DR. ROBOTNIK) — which English eventually adopted as the word “robot.” Just FYI for your next trivia night.