Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prague log #3

As we had decided the day before, yesterday we went straight to the Astronomical Clock, arriving there in plenty of time for the 10 o'clock "performance". I used the time to find a good spot, as far away as possible from the clock whilst still being straight in front, and checked camera angles and zoom. When the clock did chime, I was able to see the 12 apostles being displayed by the clock; there was also enough time to zoom to the clock tower and film a close-up of the trumpeter.

From the clock, we walked from the square to a different exit which lead us to Josefov, the Jewish quarter. Maybe it was the road's name, Parizska, which triggered my subconscious, but all morning the roads and the ambience caused me to think that we were in Paris.

From Parizska, we walked to Maiselov and began the 'Jewish tour'. The first stop was the Maiselov Synagogue, which has been turned into a museum. Inside were displayed articles from the Moravian and Bohemian Jewish communities: various religious utensils which were used to adorn the sifrei torah (I don't know what the gentiles would call these), menorot ("candelabra" which we use during the Chanuka festival), kiddush cups, curtains which cover the ark in which are stored the sifrei torah, special prayers written to commemorate events in history (such as the battles against the Swedish invasion of the 30 year war). The earliest articles were dated to the end of the 15th century, with most of them coming from the 19th century. This was a time when those communities thrived and even received special charters from Charles IV (also displayed, although I think that these were facsimiles). Unfortunately, things were to change in the twentieth century....

The hall itself was very crowded with people; this is partially because it is relatively a small space so any number of people within is going to make it seem crowded, but also because it seems that many tour groups cover these sites. I found myself wondering all morning what these people would make of the synagogue and its display; I suppose it's like when I have toured medieval cathedrals; I can admire the various displays without necessarily knowing the emotional baggage.

From there, a short walk lead us to the Pinhas synagogue; this too has been decommissioned, although male visitors were strongly encouraged to cover their heads as the traditional Jewish mark of respect (I saw several males with uncovered heads, one woman with a covered head (a Reform Jewess, as my wife suggested, but I think that it was more out of ignorance but maybe respect) and one youth who placed his kipa on top of his hat). If the Maiselov synagogue was a testament to the golden days of the 18-19th centuries, then the Pinhas synagogue was testament to the defining event of European Jewry in the 20th century: the Holocaust. There were no items on display; the walls were covered - without bare patches - with the names of over 80,000 members of the Jewish communities of Prague, Brno and other Czech towns who were exterminated in the concentration camps of the Nazis.

Tears naturally came to my eyes then, and I am crying (or more accurately, leaking tears) as I write these words now, in the safety of my hotel room. Again, the museum was crowded, and it seemed that German was the dominant language being spoken. I wonder how much those people - some older than me, who would have been babies at the end of the war, and some youngsters still at school - understand and what they feel. Are they detached from the abominable activities of a misguided generation or two? Are they ashamed of their country's modern history?

Upstairs was an exhibit of children's drawings mainly done in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Concentration Camp (we will be visiting there tomorrow, so I won't write any exposition today). I don't recall ever seeing similar displays in the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, although the above article on Terezin suggests otherwise. There is so much to see in Jerusalem - and most of that through tears - that it is not surprising that some things remain hidden from the consiousness.

The path from the synagogue leads directly into the old Jewish cemetery. As in common with all cemeteries, it is very quiet here, with only a whispered commentary from the tour groups breaking the silence. My wife remarked that the stones were placed in such a way that it was impossible to know where each separate grave was; I pointed out that the gravestones had probably been collected and placed in the best way possible. The sanctity of the graves themselves was not the point, but rather the huge collection of stones - dating from the 15th century. As opposed to modern gravestones whose paltry text state the name and dates of the deceased, these stones were covered in writing from top to bottom. We couldn't make out much of the text, but what could be deciphered tended to be religious writings and not personal details.

The graveyard leads into another synagogue converted into a museum, the Klausova. After the emotional stress of the past hour or so, we were content to sit on a bench, look around the crowded room and get our emotions back in order. From there, we found ourselves back in Prague, or should I say, Paris? We crossed a main road and found ourselves in a quiet street with no tour groups, and in fact, few pedestrians. We entered a small tea-room which could have been transported brick by brick from Paris, and enjoyed a quiet cup of tea. The name of the road is Bilkova; from there we walked to Kozi which lead to Dlouha, all the time the roads being more and more populated, but enjoyable all the same. No tour groups, very quiet and very beautiful. Dlouha ends on Revoluchni, a main thoroughfare, which leads of course to Namesti Republiky and our hotel.

We ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the Palladium shopping centre, which is where we seem to spend most afternoons. We are girding ourselves to trying sushi but at the moment are sticking to chicken dishes that we know and like. After lunch, we shopped (and shopped and shopped). Unless my calculations regarding the exchange rate are seriously wrong, clothes are incredibly cheap here and my wife was in heaven. I found several jackets which roughly were what I wanted (in the bargain basement of Marks and Spencer, to be accurate), costing 899 CHK. I tried a few on, but they were either not wide enough around the body or else the arms were too long. Enter a saleswoman who may not know English but does know her jackets: 44 short she kept on saying and eventually found a jacket with the correct measurements. 44 chest to cover my barrel-like middle age pouch, and short arms.Yes!

A neighbouring C&A seemed like a bargain basement, selling shirts at give-away prices. My wife snatched a few hoodies for our son, I bough some corduroy jeans and she bought herself some items. I jokingly suggested that we buy items in order to sell them in Israel at twice the price, which still would be less that the comparative Israeli price, thus financing our trip.

Eventually we finished, drank a concluding pot of tea in a coffee bar (again, the tea seems cheap, 50CHK, which I calculate to be less than half the equivalent price in Israel, and this is for a pot of tea, which yields nearly two large cups) and then back to the hotel to unpack, get organised and do Internet research for the days to come. The program seems to be:
Thursday (today) - Karlovy Vary by bus
Friday - Terezin, organised tour
Saturday - flea market in Prague, including journey by Metro
Sunday - to be announced
Monday - flying to Malta

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