A Visit to the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

A Visit to the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

A Visit to the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

“Six million of our people live on in our hearts. We are their eyes that remember.

We are their voice that cries out. The dreadful scenes flow from their dead eyes

to our open ones. And those scenes will be remembered exactly as they happened.”

                                                                                    Shimon Peres (1923-2016)

                                                                                    Former Prime Minister and President of Israel


The American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was an abolitionist and reforming minister of the Unitarian Church. He is, perhaps, best remembered for a quote, since borrowed by others, most notably Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. The quote came from a sermon delivered in 1853, when the scourge of slavery still blemished the character of the American Republic. His words would have been wistful, even fatuous, to the more than three million Americans still then enslaved: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” Grand words – and perhaps true given enough time – but little solace for those who suffer the evil of man’s cruelty to man.

There are places we visit where we express gratitude for the sacrifices made by a few for the many: Arlington National Cemetery, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing at the Somme, the American Cemetery at Normandy, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and the Florence American Cemetery, where 326 GIs from the 10thMountain Division lie, including Juan Barrientos from my father’s squad whose grave I have visited. There are other memorials dedicated to the deliberate, pre-planned evil that man has inflicted on man, like the memorial to the victims of 9/11. These tend to be less grand, but more poignant, like Memorial Hall in Nanking, dedicated to the victims of the Japanese massacre in 1937, the memorial to the Holodomor victims in Ukraine, the Wall of Grief in Moscow that memorializes those killed in Stalin’s Gulags, the Choeung Ek Memorial in Cambodia to victims of the Khmer Rouge and the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. Sadly, there are other examples of man’s inhumanity to man for which there are no memorials, such as the estimated thirty million Chinese who died during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

In Europe, there are places of remembrance for the more than six million Jews killed during Hitler’s reign of terror. More than two dozen concentration camps in Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Holland and Austria are open to visitors. They sit as reminders of what man is capable. In Berlin, there is the spacious Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and in Vienna a small memorial; but both seem inadequate to the horrors Nazis inflicted. But the one in Prague is different.

The names etched on the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue represent but a small fraction of those who died in the Holocaust. But perhaps that adds to its power. One gazes with incomprehension on the names, including birth and death dates of 78,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who were killed in the Holocaust. Families are grouped; so that the elderly are mingled with children and grandchildren. Upstairs is a room housing two dozen pictures drawn by children taken to the Terezin ghetto, which became the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. There they were held, before being shipped to Auschwitz for extermination. A woman named Friedl, who was also imprisoned at Theresienstadt, taught some of the children to draw, suggesting remembrances of their homes and families. Her purpose, to distract the children from a world where no arc was bending toward justice. Below the drawings are the names of the child-artists and the date – when known – of their death. Before she was sent to Auschwitz, Friedl gave the tutor of the Girl’s Home two suitcases of the children’s drawings, thus they survived. It is impossible to walk through this display without tears.

My seventeen-year-old grandson Alex saw this Synagogue as a “sacred place,” now devoid of members, “an empty temple dedicated to God,” he said. As he looked at the names and of the drawings of children not much younger than himself, he said he “felt regret for the fallen darkness,” and that he was “filled with melancholy for the fathomless acts of cruelty.” Usually voluble, he was silent as we walked into the cemetery. It is the personalization that makes this hallowed ground so sacred. These are not just names on a wall, but real people who laughed and cried; people who loved and were loved; people who worked, prayed and played. This is not a cold, stone monument erected by those who would absolve themselves from the sins of their fathers, by those who felt a monument would wash away any guilt of a Nazi past.  

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is Europe’s second oldest and was used between 1439 and 1787. The oldest gravestone is that of Rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara. About 200,000 Jewish people lie interred within its small enclosure, with graves in some places twelve deep. It is so crowded that tombstone abuts tombstone. In 1784, Emperor Josef II (at that time, Bohemia was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) banned burials within the city walls for hygienic reasons, so the cemetery was closed. During World War II, while other Jewish cemeteries in Prague (and elsewhere) were destroyed, with Nazis using tombstones as target practice, this one was saved. Hitler wanted one preserved as a museum, but also as a warning that he had the power (and the willingness) to annihilate whole segments of society he felt undesirable. 

Prague is an ancient city and Jews were long part of its culture. Evidence of settlements in the region date back more than 7,000 years. Around 500 BC, a Celtic tribe named the area Bohemia and the river Vltava, both names that are still in use. By the 8thCentury Slavs had settled in what is now Prague and in the 9thCentury construction began on a castle on a hill top across the river. In 926, the foundation was laid for the city’s first church, on the grounds of what is now St. Vitus Cathedral. It was outside that church where Wenceslas (a Duke, never a King, and later a Saint) – made famous in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” – was murdered on orders from his brother in 935.  

Adding to the sorrow is learning that Jews had lived in this area for hundreds of years. The first recording of Jews in Prague dates to the 10thCentury. While subject to periodic pogroms, by the early 18thCentury they represented, according to Wikipedia, a quarter of the city’s population. In fact, according to the same source, there were more Jews in Prague at that time than in any other city in the world. The 1930 Census showed 117,551 Jews living in Bohemia and Moravia (essentially today’s Czech Republic). Today, about 4,000 Jews live in that same area. A people and their culture are gone.

The Great War was less than twenty years in the past when the Munich Agreement (September 30, 1938) ceded the Sudetenland – a narrow strip of land, wrapping around the north, west and south of what is now the Czech Republic – to the Nazis. In March 1939, in violation of that Agreement, Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France sat silently. Six months later Hitler invaded Poland and World War II was underway. 

Tears well in my eyes, as I walked out of the Old Jewish Cemetery and into the “old town,” in all its aged splendor – with its narrow streets, small squares hidden behind stone arches, open plazas and beautiful buildings. I thought of the more than six hundred years of a culture that had been lost – a way of life that came to a brutal, abrupt and final end, during six years of German occupation. Looking at the walls of names in the Pinkas Synagogue, I thought of lives and loves that were lost and of loves and lives that would never be. I could only imagine the size of a building needed to list the other five million, nine hundred and twenty-thousand names not here memorialized. I can only pray that the arc of history will bend toward justice. It must. If we do not believe that, what, then, is there to believe?


This article was first written on Though of the Day.

Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams
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