E-Mailing Through Europe >> Prague August 21, 1998

Real Tourists say the Shma

Date: Fri, 21 Aug 1998 07:59:44 -0700 (PDT))
From: k p
Subject: Czeching out of Prague

Well, one more full day of Prague is about all i need. I'm on a train to Berlin in a couple hours, and I'll arrive at 11:00 p.m. I booked a hotel room with the sweet Czech reservations clerk who didn't speak very good english. And she insisted I didn't need a confirmation number. So, I might be spending the night sleeping by the Berlin Wall.

A review of my day or so:

Charming buidlings in, Prague  

After sending my last dispatch, I went in search of a nice park to begin the copy of Catch-22 I picked up in the Munich train station. Alas, the Czechs don't share the same passion for parks as the Parisians. I couldn't find one to my liking on the east side of the river, so I wandered for a half hour through a charming part of town. This was very Parisian, and I entered the Jewish Quarter of Prague, and decided Yossarian could wait.

After passing a number of exquisite architectural buildings worthy of photographing I passed the Jewish Cemetery. This includes hundreds, if not thousands, of gravestones of Jews who used to live--and of course died--in Prague. I stumbled around the area trying to figure out just what the Jewish Museum is, when finally I realized it's a bunch of different buildings in the same general area. I bought a ticket.

The first stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, which was a beautiful old building from 1530 that has been turned into a memorial for the Jews slain in the holocaust. Here's a long excerpt I copied from the wall that explains the situtation:

"The names of Czech and Moravian jews, victims of Nazi Genocide between 1939 and 1945, are inscribed in the walls of the Pinkas Synagoge built in the 1530s by Aaron Meshullam Horowitz. The synagogue where for centuries Prague jews came to worship is now a memorial to some 80,000 innocent men, women and children who have no graves and would othersise remain forgotten. It also commemorates the 153 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia which were destroyed during the war, as well as other localities where jews lived before the war."

Similar to the Vietnam memorial in a fashion, 80,000 names of the murdered were inscribed on the walls. They were written in a light, airy almost whimsical script on the wall, with the town name in gold, the family name in all-caps red, followed by the first name in all caps red, and finally their birth and death dates (if known) in black. The names covered every wall of the synagoge. It was an impressive, overwhelming list that seemed almost impersonal. So after browsing the endless list, I found this section of the biggest wall, only a fraction of the dead:

"PRESSBURG, HUGO 5.V.1880, ALZBETA 30.IV.1897-10.IX.1943, MARIE 21.X.1922-18.V.1944, PRESSBURGER, HANUS 3.11.1896-29.IX.1944, MAX 23.V.1833, BERTA 18.VII.1882, FONTISEK 29.V.1915-15.II.1942, RUZENA 4.VIII1894-6.IX.1943, PRESSER, ERVIN, 26.VII.1`915-23.XI.1944, JAKUB 28.XII.1852-23.X.1942..."

This was followed by an exhibit showing a number of drawings by children before, during and after they were sent to the concentration camps.

Somber from the experience, I walked by all the little Ye Olde Jewish Tourist shoppes when a nice, young, bearded Hasid asked me if I was Jewish.

"Yes," I replied.

"Would you like to perform a mitzvah?"

"Of course," I replied.

He brought me over to a little tin table with some pamphlets and tifilin, and then attached them to me, and asked if I can read hebrew.

"A bit," I said sheepishly.

"Do you know the Shma?"


I said the shma prayer by heart, then he handed me the card to recite the paragraph after the one sentence prayer. Amazingly, I recited the entire thing without having to read the card. I guess Ms. Minsk wasn't so bad afterall. By beating some of those prayers into my head as a little boy, I will never forget them. A fitting realization to never forget after experiencing the Pinkas Synagogue.

Bring out your dead  

After that, I went onto a building right in front of the cemetary filled with plundered artifacts that the Nazis were kind enough to steal before they sent the jews off to the camps. Then, it was onto the cemetery, with ancient, old, decaying gravestones inscribed with Hebrew that were falling on top of each other like domnioes. They are slowly restoring the gravestones at a rate of 100 a year, so it looks like the worst ones will probably crumble before the effort is finished.

From there I worked my way back to the hostel and fell asleep. Woken at 9:00 or so by Matt from England, we proceeded to go to some local drinking establishments and get very drunk for about four dollars.

This morning began with a couple cups of coffee to get over the hangover, while I remembered that everyone I meet always tells me that the best cure is another beer. It never works for me. I enjoyed the coffee with a Canadian fellow from Edmonton. We talked about hockey, soccer and the outrageous salaries that draw star players away from their teams. He's still pissed about Gretzky.

From there I hauled to the train station to book my ticket and drop off the backpack. All squared away, I ventured up to the Prague Castle. An impressive number of buildings walled in by towers and, well, a huge wall. It seems like life must have been very good for the Kings and their courts when the castle was used as a home and defense against enemies. And a good place to tourture people too. They've continued that practice today by letting too many tourists in and by converting the home of Franz Kafka into a little Souvenier Shop.

I could imagine the parties they must have had in the great hall. Beer was pretty cheap back then too, I'm sure.

View from Prague Castle.  









A few cathedrals, a long march up the great tower--with great views of Prague--a bunch of old musty chambers below grounds and rooms filled with ancient stone carvings and statues, and I was ready to go.

On the way out, I passed an endless number of Money Changing shops. I've seen more change shops in Prague than any other European city, which surpises me because all the guidebooks warn tourists to stay away from them.

To kill some time before the train, I grabbed the Herald Tribune in a cafe and was glad to see that we bombed some terrorists while I'm travelling abroad and a natural target for those that escape to Europe. That's really the only reason I'm looking forward to coming home I suppose. That and some decent eggs for breakfast. My British friends call bacon and eggs a "proper english breakfast," though I'm sure the greasy spoons in NYC do it much better than the English Pubs. Also, the Brits call the Wave that people do at stadiums "The Mexican Wave."

And I always thought some ingenious Americans thought it up.

So long from Prague. Keep your fingers crossed that Berlin at 11:00 p.m. is as civilized as New York City.


next next