For my 5 month internship with BOMAH– The Brand of Milk and Honey on Career Israel it is my job is to collect stories from people who have a connection with Israel. Whether they are recent Birthright or Masa program participants, olim (new immigrants) or local Israelis, it is my task to collect their stories and publish them for the world to see. Now it is my turn to share my experience. Since most of the stories I gather take place from within Israel, it is time to talk about some place different. In this blog I will talk about my experience leaving Israel and traveling to Prague.
My trip to Prague with the Jeff Seidel Foundation was an amazing three-day trip. I went with a group of 40 people from Israel (Career Israel, other MASA participants and a few Israelis).
I have always wanted to see Prague, mostly because I’ve heard from friends about the cheap beer. But spending Shabbat there and learning about the history of Jews in the Czech Republic made Prague something entirely different from what I had imagined.
We immediately covered the typical tourist attractions; the Prague Castle, John Lennon Wall, Charles Bridge, Clock Tower and a boat ride down the Vltava River. I enjoyed just walking around the city, eating kielbasa, drinking hot wine and cheap beer. Looking at the beautiful buildings, visiting museums, breathing in the crisp air, and admiring the luxuriousness of Prague. With the snow falling, the medieval buildings, and the Prague Castle looming in the background, it felt like I was in an episode of Game of Thrones.
We stayed at the Caruso hotel, two doors down from the Chabad in Prague, which was very convenient for Shabbat. It was the first Shabbat that I spent outside of Israel since my arrival in August. I never truly considered the connection between Shabbat and the Jewish people around the world, until my experience in Prague. Here we were, davening with the local congregation in a city with a historical track record of persecution against the Jews. It was from this experience that, for the first time, I really started to comprehend the strength and the resilience of the Jewish people of the Diaspora.
I never knew how strange and mystical the Jewish history was in the Czech Republic. With Rabbi Ezra Amichai leading the way, we explored the old Jewish ghetto, visiting multiple synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery. We learned about the history of the Jews in Prague, about the reorganization and deportation of Jews during the Holocaust, and listened to the legend of the Golem. What really struck home was the Pinkas synagogue, an old place of worship turned into a memorial for 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust with no graves; their names were written on the walls to commemorate their death. When you hear a number like 80,000 it is hard to appreciate the reality of how many people that is. Every person’s name was hand written and the entire building was full of names and where each person was from. I saw many familiar names and even a few variations of my last name.
The reality of what happened during the Holocaust was starting to hit me like never before.
Another area of significance to me was the Old Jewish Cemetery. Dating back to the early 15th century, this burial ground in the old Jewish quarter of Prague hosts an unknown number of burials with mossy tombstones protruding from the ground in sporadic directions. There are no dates indicating the time period of the graves (except for the ones with the Kabalistic Hebrew conversion symbols). This Cemetery is the final resting place of famous scholars and rabbis including the legendary Maharal of Prague. Walking through the cemetery was like traveling back in time. I realized that Prague was a place that once had a significant Jewish influence and is one of the oldest and most-well known Jewish communities in Central Europe. I felt an outlandish sense of empathy for the Jews that once used to be a part of the culture that are now lost in time.
It was strangely fascinating that a city with such religious history including amazing synagogues and huge churches could have a population that is primarily Atheist. But things only got stranger, more shocking and conflicting, during our visit to Theresienstadt.
Theresienstadt was a transit camp and was used for Nazi propaganda as a “model Jewish settlement”. Tens of thousands of people died there, some blatantly killed and others dying from malnutrition and disease. More than 150,000 people (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent by rail transports to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps.
While preparing for our visit to the concentration camp, I thought it was going to be a big courtyard with some barracks, a watchtower and barbed wire. It took me by surprise, completely breaking all stereotypes for what you would think a concentration camp to be. It was like a ghost town, a very eerie atmosphere with large streets and buildings, creepy trees and a foreboding ominous presence. Yet people still live their daily lives there like the Holocaust never happened. Our tour guide mentioned that most people who live there see no problem with their residency there and don’t even acknowledge that their home may have also been the home to victims of the Holocaust. It was hard for me to believe that such tragic events could be so easily brushed aside like it never happened.
The museum at Terezin was full of artwork, music, journals, poetry, theater and memorabilia from Jews that were living there during the Holocaust. I found myself asking; what would I do in that situation? What method would I choose to express myself during that miserable time of oppression? If and how would I survive?
The hardest part of Theresienstadt was going inside the crematorium. There we were, a group of Jews coming from Israel, standing in the middle of a Central European concentration camp, in a place where the most unimaginable things happened not so long ago. It all started to become too real. We each lit a candle and sang Am Yisrael Chai and Hatikvah together. I was overwhelmed with emotions that I have never felt before; sorrow for the history, optimism for the resilience of my people, appreciation for everything I take for granted, and the drive to live my life to the fullest every day.
What I found amazing was that despite all the death and misery prevalent during life in Theresienstadt, Jews still found a way to keep their faith. Buried deep in the middle of the old fortress, there is a hidden synagogue that was used during the Holocaust. On one wall of this obscure, cramped shul in the middle of a WWII concentration camp is a faded Hebrew inscription of the prayer “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning”. We closed our eyes and prayed. It truly was a moving and spiritual experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Overall, I can confidently say that I learned more about myself, my religion, and the history of my people than I had originally expected.
The trip made me appreciate the State of Israel as a home for all Jews.
I gained respect and admiration for the ambition and resilience that Jews have exhibited throughout history and the extraordinary lengths in which people have gone to preserve their Jewish identity and the practice of religion during times of turmoil and in the face of death. As I reflect on my experience in Prague I feel a void has been filled related to my knowledge about my Jewish Identity and myself. However, there is always room for growth and this experience is just one fraction of self-enlightenment I have felt since I have been living in Israel.