During a trip to Prague, we contracted the services of Blanka Lukes, owner manager of Prague Private Guides, to facilitate visits the Jewish sites and institutions as well as the nearby Terezin Concentration Camp.
Nearly all Prague Jewish Institutions are concentrated in the old Jewish Ghetto which is part of Prague’s Old Town. It is just a short distance from the famous clock in Old Town Prague.
Jewish people settled in Prague in the tenth century and some were victims of the first pogrom in 1096. They were concentrated within a walled ghetto in the thirteenth century. We learned that the ghetto was renamed Josefov in 1850 in honor of Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Emperor Joseph II who was the son of Maria Theresa emancipated the Jews in 1781 with the Toleration Edict which allowed them to live outside of the ghetto.
Much of the ghetto was demolished by the city of Prague between 1893 and 1913 in an effort to modernize the area. During World War II, the Nazis decided not to destroy the ghetto. There was a Jewish Museum in Prague which had been established at the beginning of the 20th centry. Hilter added artifacts to it which were collected by the Nazis. He believed that the museum would be unique - it would depict the Jewish people as an extinct race. Thankfully, as a result of his faulty thinking, many artifacts survived the war. In addition, six synagogues are still standing having been spared the destruction faced by so many others.
The old Jewish Cemetary contains over 100,000 bodies and 12,000 tombstones covering the time span of 1439 to 1787. Since space was limited in the ghetto, over time additional burial space was created by layering the remains.
A famous legend states that that in the 16th Century CE, the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II had decided to expel or kill Prague's Jews. Rabbi Juddah Loew ben Bezalel, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, created and brought to life a golem, in order to protect his people.The Rabbi's tombstone is often filled with notes from visitors who are requesting special favors.
The Pinkas Synagogue was built at the end of the nineteenth century and contains a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jews from the Czech areas of Moravia and Bohemia that were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Their names are poignantly inscribed on the walls. Most listings include the victim’s date of birth as well as their residence when they were deported.
Even though the organized education of the children was prohibited, permission was eventually granted for music and art instruction. The artwork includes memories of better times along with pictures drawn by the children depicting the hanging of Jews.
Nearly 8,000 of these children under the age of 15 were deported from Terezin to the Nazi run extermination camps and only 242 survived.
We next visited the Klaus Synagogue which was built in 1604. It contains an important exhibit depicting Jewish traditions and customs.
Our next stop was at the Old New Synagogue which was completed in 1270 in Gothic style. Blanca told us that it is Europe’s oldest active synagogue. The synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue. Later, when newer synagogues were built in the 16th century, it became known as the Old New Synagogue. Rabbi Lowe had his own special seat there which is perhaps the most visited feature in the synagogue.
Terezin Concentration Camp
Next, we drove about 45 minutes north of Prague to visit the infamous Terezin Concentration Camp also known as Theresienstadt. We learned from Blanka that the camp began as a fortress built under the orders of Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1780. It was named for Empress Maria Theresa and was initially used to house military and political prisoners. In fact, Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, was confined and died there in 1918.
Our first stop was the Terezin Memorial Ghetto Museum, where we saw more pictures drawn by the children and learned additional facts about the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia.
After Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1940, the Gestapo took over the fort and converted it into a prison for political prisoners. The prisoner quarters were crowded and treatment was inhumane.
Terezin is best known as a concentration camp for European Jews, primarily of Czech origin. Starting in 1942, Jews were held in the camp until they were eventually deported to the Eastern extermination camps such as Auschwitz.
While inmates were not exterminated at the camp, there were executions. In addition, it is estimated that more than 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children died at Theresienstadt due to disease or mistreatment. At one time nearly 60,000 people were crowded into barracks and housing designed for 7,000 inhabitants.
The Germans as part of a propaganda campaign presented Theresienstadt as a model Jewish settlement. They even had some of the camp’s children take part in a soccer match during a Red Cross inspection in 1944. Mass deportations to the extermination camps began the day after the Red Cross visit.
Our day with Blanka Lukes as our guide was educational. She is quite knowledgeable about her native country of the Czech Republic, but is also fluent in English having lived in Los Angeles for 30 years and is a most pleasant companion. She has the ability to tailor tours to your specifications and has a group of knowledgeable fully licensed tour guides as part of her team. She can be reached at [email protected] or access the website at Prague Private Guides.