Nestled against the banks of the river Vltava in the old town of Prague lies the Jewish Quarter, a sempiternal place shouldering the burdensome boulders of European history. Tourists can go on a walking tour of some 800 years of Jewish history. There are six synagogues, including the Spanish Synagogue and Old-New Synagogue, combined with the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery forming some of the best preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the Europe.
Of course, there are reams of documentation both amateur and professional, intellectual and stupid on the history of Judaism, inevitably, in Europe, linked to historical pogroms, culminating in the Holocaust and I am not about to try and summarize all that work, but here’s a few points of interest I took away from that afternoon’s wander with the Diplomat.
I am not someone who has ventured into Synagogues much. Not out of choice, but simply lack of opportunity. As the Diplomat would cheerfully remark “travelswithadiplomat is a sucker for culture, history, loving a wander through Churches and Museums as though he’s on a Saturday shopping trip.”
Anyhow, we eventually, after a wander into B.O.B’s Prague Four Seasons for a spot of lunch, find our way past this cringeworthy vehicle to a small shop selling tickets for entry to this historic quarter by the Old-New Synagogue. Two adult tickets later we are in the Klaus Synagogue.
This is also a fascinating place. Take a look at the artefacts stored under peering eyes…
We leave here after twenty minutes because travelswithadiplomat is drawn to the cemetery scant yards away. It is a meadow, artificially crowned with burial mounds, packed with the fading, in many cases broken, teeth of of tombstones. The cemetery is fascinating to a historian. The earliest surviving Jewish cemeteries are both here in Prague and in Kolin, established in the fifteenth century; yet only a few tomb fragments survive the pogroms, many of the stones from the sixteenth century are rare, rural cemeteries are in disrepair. Many don’t have the funds to stall their devastation, some are needlessly closed. Yet, those that do survive are in good condition due to the care of local communities. As such some 330 survive in Czechia.
I took some time to understand the nature of these tombstones. As a rule, the Hebrew inscription has the name of the deceased, the date of death, words of praise and a eulogy. The deceased is indicated by forename and linked to the forename of his father; the name preceded by a title, For married women, the name of the husband is alongside that of the father. The date has the day of the week, the day of the month and year – according to the Jewish calendar, Praise elevates the qualities of the deceased; use made of rhymes, acrostics and chronograms, usually with quotations and paraphrases of biblical passages.
Nearly all tombstones end with the inscription:
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life
Most of the male first names are either Hebrew biblical or hypocoristic forms of such names. Like ‘Heshil’ for Joshua. Female names are also biblical but linked with Slavic of Germanic characteristics – such as Gutl (good), Rezl (rose), Slava (renowned) etc.. The family names usually indicate a a familial profession. In addition the tombstones has symbolic images: the Star of David coupled with those of lineage, name, profession or position of the deceased. The imagery is usually an animal or bird, tending to depict one of the Twelves Tribes of Israel. For example Benjamin is a wolf, Yehuda a lion. There are also a glut of animals representing forenames – Leibl is a lion, Tavi is a deer, Dov is a bear, Taubl a dove…and so on. Somewhat strangely the symbol of trade or profession is much rarely in the lands of Czechia.
The Diplomat and I move out into the guided tour of the cemetery, entering via the Pinkas Synagogue. It is a forest of tombstones, each placed over a grave eleven months after the funeral. They are nearly all stone (wooden structures were common in the past but tend not to survive the rigours of the elements) but some are metal; most are stela, adorned with small stones so placed, according to some, to keep the souls in their belit olam, their graves; some say it is the souls themselves, counted and accounted for. I suspect the true answer lies in the mythology of this ancient monotheism.
This is a place laden with the burden of history. The traumas of Europe’s pogroms lies on top of the individual histories of those who lie in this place; each with a story bound to oath, bound to rite, bound to living in an epicentre of Christian European Empire. The Diplomat and I amble slowly round these faded monoliths; somehow you want to reach out and straighten them, as though the voices of those who have gone might speak more clearly to the passing mass of curious tourism. There is a lot to mull for travelswithadiplomat…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?