Jewish Quarter and Wenceslas Square

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December 23rd 2013
Published: December 25th 2013
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This morning we took a guided tour of the Jewish Museum which is divided between several buildings around the area of Prague's old Jewish ghetto. The walls that used to separate the Jewish ghetto from the rest of the city were taken down at the end of the 19th century as enlightened attitudes permeated the Czech lands.

When we arrived at the Maisel Synagogue, in what we thought was good time for the 11.00am tour, we were told that the guide didn't have any takers for the tour - at 10.00am - and had left the building. There was another English-speaking volunteer at the Maisel Synagogue who very generously agreed to take us on the guided tour of the buildings that make up the Jewish Museum. Jerry (he told us the English version of his name is Jerry) is not Jewish, but his wife is a Catholic/Jew. His wife is not a practising Jew because she is only Jewish on her father's side. To be accepted as Jewish in a mixed marriage the person's Mother must be Jewish.

The Jewish Museum of Prague is one of the most well preserved Jewish areas in any European City. Elsewhere the Nazis systematically destroyed and burned synagogues and other Jewish buildings. However, it is said that the Nazis chose to leave Prague's Jewish quarter intact so that once their aim of murdering every Jew was complete, the Prague Jewish Museum would be turned into a macabre 'Museum of an extinct race'.

The Jewish Museum was established in 1906 and has been open continuously since then - apart from during the Second World War. Following the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the museum was nationalised but, in 1994, five years after the end of communist rule, the museum was returned to the Jewish community. The museum holds one of the most extensive collections of Judaic art in the world, but all the buildings have a strict 'No Photo - No Video' policy.

Our tour commenced in the Maisel Synagogue which was built in 1590-92 by the mayor of the Jewish Town, Mordechai Maisel, who funded the extensive Renaissance reconstruction of the ghetto. It was later badly damaged by fire in 1689 after which it was renovated in the Baroque style only to be re-built in a Gothic-influenced style at the end of the 19th century. The building is no longer used as a functioning synagogue, but holds exhibits covering the period from the 10th century to the end of the 18th century.

Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue. Built by the Horowitz family in 1535, in the late 1950s it was turned into a memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by the Nazis. The names, dates and places of birth of the victims are recorded on the interior walls. This memorial was destroyed by the Communist regime in 1968, but has since been painstakingly restored between 1992 and 1996. Upstairs it contains an exhibition of drawings made by children at the Terezin concentration camp. Only 242 of more than 8,000 children detained at Terezin survived the Holocaust. Amazingly 4,500 pieces artwork survived because they were buried in a suitcase by a teacher. Whilst much of the artwork had a dark feel about it, indicating that the children knew how dire things were, there were still some pieces that displayed optimism and hope.

We visited the Old Jewish Cemetery where we were allowed to take some photos. The cemetery dates back to the first half of the 15th century and was used until 1787. Today it contains some 12,000 tombstones, but more than 100,000 people are buried in the cemetery. Jews were not allowed to be buried outside the ghetto, so the dead had to be buried on top of one another. It is believed that the burials are up to 10 layers deep.

From the exit of the Old Jewish Cemetery we continued to the Klausen Synagogue. It was originally built in 1573 to honour the visit of Emperor Maximilian II to the Prague Ghetto that year. The present synagogue dates from after the fire of 1689 with parts of it dating to a further 19th century reconstruction. Fires were a common occurrence in the ghetto because most buildings were built of timber and very close together. This former synagogue houses the exhibition 'Jewish Customs and Traditions'.

Nearby we entered the Ceremonial Hall which was built in pseudo-Romanesque style in 1911-12. The 'Jewish Customs and Traditions' exhibition is continued in this building, in particular covering themes of illness and medicine in the ghetto, Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia and Moravia and the activities of the Prague Burial Society or the ghetto undertakers.

Our next stop was the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe and the oldest working synagogue in the world outside Israel. When it was built in the Gothic style in the middle of the 13th century the synagogue was the 'New Synagogue'. In the 16th century, when other synagogues were built in Prague, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue. As it is still a functioning synagogue we only viewed this synagogue from the outside while our guide, Jerry, related the tale of Golem a Frankenstein-like creation who is still reputedly sleeping in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.

We ended our tour at the Spanish Synagogue which is much more flamboyantly decorated than the other synagogues having been built in a Moorish style by Jews who fled persecution in Spain. Because the Spanish Jews were from a different tribe of Jews they weren't allowed to worship in the existing synagogues, but were allowed to build their own synagogue in 1868 on the site of Prague's oldest Jewish house of prayer (the 'Old School'😉 that had been destroyed by fire. This synagogue covers the history of the Czech Jews through the period of enlightenment and emancipation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the First Republic, the Nazi occupation, and the post-war decades. The synagogue was carefully restored following years of neglect and reopened in 1998.

Having been in Prague for three days without exploring Wenceslas Square we headed over that way for lunch. To us it seems more of a grand avenue than a square, but they call it Wenceslas Square. I was hankering after some more bramborák, but there were no stalls selling the potato pancakes so we settled for sausages ... AGAIN. We did sample the bramborová spiralá though, these are spiral cut potatoes threaded onto a skewer and deep fried. Not as tasty as the potato cakes! We had to finish with tdrelniks for our daily sugar fix. Today's hot alcohol experience was a Tradiční Moravek Punč or traditional Moravian punch each!

After walking along Wenceslas Square to the National Museum (currently being renovated) we returned to our apartment to put our feet up for a while. We ate locally again and had our dinner at the Two Camels restaurant which is about 20 metres from the door of our apartment! I had roast duck with red AND white cabbage and bread dumplings. Bernie had the knee of pork braised in dark beer.

We waited until after 8.00pm to go out with our tripods to take some night time photos. There are so many people around that we thought we should wait a bit before attempting to negotiate the streets with our cameras and tripods. Of course we got a bit carried away with it all and we were out until about 11.00pm taking photos!!

18,156 steps / 12.36 km. Weekly total = 120,711 steps / 82.20km

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25th December 2013

Merry Xmas
Entertaining and enlightening as usual. Have a great Xmas. Graham

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