The Jewish Quarter in Prague

The Jewish cemetery in Prague was surrounded by a high concrete wall; this might have been for reverence or even for security but I think mostly it was to make sure everyone bought a ticket to go inside. We bought ours and were pleased to discover they included admission to a number of other sites in the Jewish quarter.  This part of the city had been demolished for public health reasons at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the synagogues and the cemetery had thankfully been spared.

First we went into the ceremonial hall of the Jewish burial society to see an exhibition of the Prague ghetto.  Here there was an amusing incident when a city tour guide got confused and thought for a moment that he was a member of the state ticket police and doubting our legitimate entitlement to be there reported us to the official ticket clerk.  She demanded inspection of our tickets for a second time in an impressively authoritarian eastern European manner.  We produced them of course and she did apologise.  Twice I think.  The man who thought that he was from the ticket police didn’t.

It wasn’t that impressive in there anyway and after we had moved at a lively tempo past the exhibits went on to the Klausen Synagogue next door, which was slightly more interesting and included exhibits of Jewish history and life in central Europe including some informative displays about circumcision and kosher meats, neither of which particularly appealed to me.  Jewish life didn’t strike us as being terribly exciting and the exhibits were a bit dull so we moved on quite quickly.

Next we went to the Pinkas Synagogue, which is a memorial to nearly eighty thousand Jewish Czechs and Slovaks who were imprisoned by the Nazis during the war, later deported to death camps and never returned.  It was cold and austere and for me failed to be as emotive as I imagined a place like this should be.

The sun was coming through now just in time for a walk through the cemetery.  It was surprisingly small and until 1787 this was the only place that Jews could be buried in Prague and there an estimated hundred thousand bodies (twelve layers deep) and twelve thousand gravestones there.  There is no order to the gravestones at all and they appeared untidy and arbitrary like a mouthful of rotten old teeth pointing randomly in every decrepit direction.  We idled through the cemetery around the meandering paths and noticed some tombstones where visitors had placed tiny pebbles and in some cases bus tickets and wondered what this was for.  Later I discovered that it was for good luck.

Out of the cemetery we walked to the Spanish Synagogue, the last admission and the one that turned out to be the most interesting of them all.  There was an exhibition of Jewish history in Bohemia with some particularly poignant displays charting the years of Nazi persecution.  Also here was free admission to a temporary exhibition but that turned out to be very disappointing and the only exhibit of note was the ticket clerk who was at least eighty years old but had flame red hair, dyed of course, and an entire jar full of foundation applied to her face in a totally arbitrary way that had obviously been put on in the dark and without the aid of a mirror and hadn’t improved her appearance one little bit.

The Jewish quarter had been an interesting place to visit but it was a bit morbid and I for one wasn’t terribly sad to leave it and walk back to the Old Town Square through streets that became incrementally more cheerful and colourful with every block that passed.

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