Thursday, June 14, 2007

Prague Spring

I'm enjoying my trip to Prague much more this year than last's. First, it isn't nearly as crowded now in the middle of June as it was last year towards the middle of July. I've only seen two bands of british stag partiers (though perhaps with the weekend approaching, they may increase). The weather, while still somewhat warm, is not the hot, muggy nightmare of last summer. Finally, the air is perfumed, not with the stench, sweat, and (too often) the vomit of drunken college students on holiday, but with flowering trees. I'm not sure what it's called, but it smells faintly of night-blooming jasmine, only not as strong.

I spent the morning taking pictures of some of the great art nouveau and cubist buildings in Prague. I hoped to upload them, but I couldn't get the computer to read my pictures, but if I find one later that does, I'll upload them then.

On the way to the Cubist museum yesterday I passed by a strange storage container like structure, draped in black fabric, and with a long line of people waiting to get in. It took me a few moments, but I finally figured out it was a "cafe in the dark." I vaguely remembered reading about this fad a few months ago. The idea, as far as I can tell, is you pay a fee for the opportunity to eat and drink in pitch blackness. I'm guessing the waiters have night vision goggles to see the customers. I toyed with the idea of going in (for about 2 seconds) and decided to pass on it. I came back today to take a picture, but they were already disassembling it (it was a one-week special event).

I checked out the Cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn, but they were having a mass inside. They barely had enough people for a minyan, and the Italian tourists photographing them ("no pictures, no pictures" pleaded the watchman in vain) outnumbered them five to one.

Then I headed down to the Jewish Museum to take a tour of the synagogues. I did this partly to time how long it would take with students, and partly to refresh my recollection of the place. For some reason, they start the tour path with the Pinkas synagogue, which, since it contains the memorial to the Holocaust, should rightfully come towards the end.

Pinkas is a good name for it since it contains the names of all the Czech Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. I was surprised to notice that in the upper nave there are damaged names from the original installation of 1959. The design of this memorial was set out in the 1950s, but was closed after the "Prague Spring" was crushed in 1968. Only after the fall of communism in 1989 was the original museum restored. In this way, the exhibit parallels the fate of several holocaust monuments in Poland, which also were closed, damaged, or destroyed after 1967. The catalyst there, however, was partly the Six Day War, but also the purge of Jews from Poland.

What they have in common is that both campaigns were the result of new hardline positions within the respective communist parties. In Czechoslovakia, it was a product of the Soviet occupation and the neo-Stalinist government put in place in 1968. In Poland, it was an internal struggle between those who wanted a more liberal approach, and a group known as the Partisans, who combined an ethnic Polish nationalism with rigid communist ideology. But in both cases, the effect was the same regarding the Jews: suspicion and persecution.

Upstairs was the moving collection of children's drawings from Theresienstadt. It is impossible not to be moved to tears by these sketches, which are both childlike in their execution yet so adult in their subjects. The valiant artist-teachers who inspired these drawings did so to help the children cope with the horrors of life in what was a rather elaborate concentration camp. Most heartbreaking to me were the depictions of what the children most hoped for: a return to their homes or a new life in Palestine. The contrast between the dreamlike image of a parade of happy children with banners flying, marching back to Prague, or playing under the blue sky and hills of Erets Yisrael, and the nightmare fate that waited for almost all of them at the end of the deportion train to Auschwitz is unbearable.

From there I walked through the old Jewish cemetery to the house of the burial society. One of the most amazing things in this house is a cycle of paintings, excuted in the late 18th century, depicting the role of the burial society members, from visiting the sick to washing the dead, accompanying them to the grave, and then comforting the mourners. It is a wonderful way of teaching one of the greatest values in Judaism: about caring for the sick, honoring the dead, and consoling the living. Not for the first time, I wished there was some way to purchase a book containing the complete set of paintings (I know exactly who I'd give it to, too), but I can't find it anywhere for sale.

I did, however, find a couple of them on line, so I'm going to post them below.

[Praying with the dying]

[Washing the dead body]

[Consoling the bereaved]

From there I headed out to the other synagogues on the itinerary. At the Alt-Neue Schul, I finally heard the real reason for the odd name. When it was built in 1270, it was the "new synagogue." Over time, though, other new synagogues were built, and it became the old "new synagogue," hence its current name. I had davened here last time and never got to the women's gallery (for obvious reasons), but today I was told, you can only visit it during prayers, so I guess I'll never see it. The barrier between the main sanctuary and the women's gallery looks to be two feet of rock, and I was curious what the women could see from their section.

By the time I got to the Spanish synagogue, I was beginning to fade, and as I walked to the Meisl synagogue I knew I was beat. I had been going from synagogue to synagogue for two and a half hours and I had reached my limit. I've got to find out how logistically I can take students through all this. How do I get all their tickets in advance? Do I need to hire a guide? Oy.

I decided to have lunch at the cafe next to the very art nouveau Municipal Theater. It took a while for them to take my order and I began to get nervous. Only later did I realize that I had sat down by myself at a table for four, rather than at one of the smaller tables for one or two. The cafe was only a quarter full when I arrived, but soon filled up, and I felt bad about hogging a whole large table to myself.

I ordered the grilled chicken and some mineral water (which I downed in two gulps). The chicken was pretty good but I'm pretty sure it was cooked in fat back. The potato was boiled, cut in two, topped with sour cream, and cheese in to which was mixed some bacon, all of which was then browned in a broiler. I ordered a second water and then paid and left.

Although the meal plus tip came to $19, I figured I saved nearly that much today by passing off my faculty card as a student ID to get the discounts on museum entries.

From there I headed to the Mucha Museum, which is a lot of art nouveau. Pronounced "Mukha" (with a gutteral "h"), he was the premiere stylist of art nouveau in Paris and Prague. Tons and tons of ornate, curving posters. During the film of his life, though, I started to fade again. I decided I was museumed out for the day, and walked to a nearby cafe for an ice tea and ice cream sundae (I figured I was good at lunch with ordering relatively low fat entrees -- there was even a salad! -- so I could treat myself to a few calories). I read some of the new International Herald Tribune that I bought (more depressing news out of Iraq) and now I've come back to the hotel to take a nap before dinner.


Steve said...

Ah quite fond memories of my (very) rushed weekend visit to Prague in 1998 with the Federation Mission. I felt I got my fill of the synagogues as well but not nearly enough time visiting the famous cemetery and the Jewish Museum collection. I found the Pinkas with the names of the Holocaust victims to be incredibly moving and never made it to the Alt-Neu Shul which was closed for renovation when I was there. My first Concentration Camp visit was to Tereizin the following day and it was intense and moving, particularly with the visit to the Punishment Cell and the "Irma Lauscher" tree outside the crematorium juxtaposed (almost exactly) 24 hours later with standing in Kikar Zion in Jerusalem. Czech food was not memorable at all though I remember a concoction called "strong clear broth" which had a vague resemblance to bath water or dirty dish water with cabbage and of course the plentiful and good Czech Beer. And of, course, as I mentioned before, my serendipitous find of that cool Moroccan Restaurant near old town where I had the best meal I had on the trip. My friend Marty left a mural like drawing in their guest book of "us" standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you get there, look for Nov 1998 if they still have the book. Steve

J.B. said...


Are you referring to Dunia? It's the only middle eastern restaurant in Stare Mesto my guide book mentions.