europe: holocaust remembrances

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

So much to write since my last real entry. I’m currently in Budapest or Istanbul—or something like that. My head is pounding and my nose is running as I sit in this outdoor café, after having ditched Greg and Rosie, in this rather warm day. Before I go into my miserable existence, I must write my thoughts about our second day in Prague, especially with respect to the Jewish Quarter.

Before going there on Tuesday morning, though, we went to the Old Town part of the city. This part was very much like the other shopping districts of other countries. It had lots of stores, a large portion of them being US chains. I walked around Old City myself for a couple of long and uninspiring hours.

After Old Town, we went to the Old Jewish town, had lunch, and began our exploration of the Jewish Museum of Prague.

We started our journey in the Spanish Synagogue, which was the nicest of the synagogues, with respect to alter design and layout, that we visited. This synagogue was not a working one, as most of them weren’t, but did begin the running commentary of the plight of Jews in Prague, as well as display old Jewish artifacts. After the Spanish synagogue, we went to the Maisel Synagogue, which just continued giving the history of Jews in Prague and showing old paintings and artifacts.

After leaving the Maisel Synagogue, we entered the Pinkas synagogue, which was reworked as a Holocaust remembrance memorial. Upon entering, a brief numerical estimation of the Prague Jews that were killed in the Holocaust is given on eight different signs in different languages. The signs are posted in the open courtyard that leads into the synagogue.

Upon entering the synagogue, you are struck by a disheartening and moving site. The introductory pamphlet describes how the names of Holocaust victims are inscribed on the wall, but that knowledge does not prepare you for the full brunt of what you’re about to see. The first room contains approximately 8 walls, upon which are inscribed in painstaking calligraphy an alphabetical list of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Each entry contains the family name of the victims, followed by their first name, a grid location of where they were living before the Nazis came, and their date of death, or last known date that they were seen alive.

Each walls’ inscriptions is in the shape of a large tombstone, which is rounded on top and straight along its left and right sides. The calligraphy is done in black letters with red letters signifying the start of a new family name or person.

It’s not the single wall that sickens and saddens you, but it’s the wall upon wall and room upon room that grates on your humanity. As you walk through the 4 or so rooms of wall upon wall of these names, it becomes increasingly difficult to see straight and comprehend what is being shown to you and what it means. The soft praying that is pumped through the loud speakers is interlaid with the reading of the names of the victims. The prayers and reading add to the incredible atmosphere of sorrow, regret, and creates a deep gulf in your mind that yearns to be filled with an understanding of how this could happen.

It does not end there. Going up a little staircase on your left as you leave the wall of names brings you to a room that defies explanation or description. During the war, 10,000 Jewish children were interred in Terezin, which is a concentration camp outside of Prague. Out of these 10,000 children, 8,000 were deported to the East. And of those 8,000 children deported, only 242 survived the wartime suffering, i.e., came back alive. At the top o the stairs is a room filled with the children’s drawings that were made during their interment in Terezin. They are for the most part crayon drawings on yellow construction paper and water color paintings on white paper. There is no way that I could describe what it was like in that room. No mere words could paint a picture of the sorrow and incredible sadness that wallops you upon entering that room. I had to leave a number of times before I could stay in there long enough to truly look and read their stories.

The Pinkas Synagogue houses in its back the old Jewish cemetery, which contains thousands upon thousands of Jewish gravesites, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. They are impacted so closely together—the gravesites, that is—that there’s barely any room between them. It is a long walk around one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world.

After writing this entry, my current problems don’t seem as important or worthwhile to report. I’ll therefore put off my desire to go home RIGHT NOW for another time.