Tag Archives: Czech Republic

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.

Prague Astronomical Clock

It was about half past ten so we sat at a pavement café and had a Staropramen, which is a pleasant Czech beer and although it was early I don’t think anyone in Prague would have found this early drinking unusual because according to the Economist, in a poll in 2006, the people of the Czech republic are the biggest alcohol consuming nation in the World.

After a second glass of the excellent beer we wandered over to take up a good position to see the famous astronomical clock that stands in the centre of the square strike eleven.  It really was very impressive to look at but not nearly so good that it justified the city authorities blinding its creator after it was completed just so that he couldn’t make another one elsewhere.

 “So what do you think of it” he probably asked,                                                            “It’s very good, yeswe like it,” they said                                                                        “How much will you pay me?”                                                                                               “Just stand still while we poke your eyes out with this stick, now shove off”        “Ouch! What about my money?”                                                                                     “Shove off!”

There’s gratitude for you!  Actually, I have heard this same story about Ivan the Terrible and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and I didn’t believe that one either!

Anyway, bang on time, the mechanism creaked into action and the little statues started to do a little jig, I especially liked the skeletal figure of death that to be absolutely certain of the time diligently inspected an hourglass and then rang a tiny bell to get proceedings started.

First came the promised highlight of the event when a small window opened and the twelve Apostles passed by in procession each one in turn gazing out over the square.  They had to be quick though because this wasn’t so much a procession as a hundred-metre dash and they sprinted past as though the landlord at the rugby club had just called last orders at the bar.

Then a cock crowed and the clock chimed out the hour and that was it.  I thought the whole horological experience was over rather disappointingly quickly.

 

Dastardly Deeds and Gruesome Crimes in Prague

On a visit to Prague in 2007 our first planned destination was the City’s old town, which was reached by crossing the Charles Bridge and I know that it was overcast and there was no sun to help cheer things up but the famous statues were dull and grimy and seemed to me to be desperately in need of a good scrub.

One statue, St John Nepomuk, is supposed to bring luck to those who touch it and it is polished bright where tourists rub their hands on it.  If the City spread the word that touching any statue would bring similar good fortune then they would all be gleaming clean in no time at all.  Actually I found this statue a bit surprising because poor old John Nepomuk didn’t seem to have a great deal of luck himself in his lifetime as he was a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by King Wenceslas in 1393 and his body was thrown into the river.

The streets were busy and we walked until reaching the old town, which opened up into a spacious and welcoming central square that was free of traffic so we were able to wander aimlessly around looking ever upwards and admiring the buildings that surrounded it.  In the centre is the Jan Hus monument, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake on 6th July 1415 for his beliefs.  I was beginning to detect a gruesome pattern here.  In the Middle Ages there always came a time where persisting with a point of view became dangerous to life and limb and poor old Jan obviously did not get his timing right, a bit like Thomas More!  This statue needed a good clean as well.

In another part of the square is the City’s famous astronomical clock and we wandered over to take up a good position to see it strike eleven.  It really was very impressive to look at but not nearly so good that it justified the city authorities blinding its creator after it was completed just so that he couldn’t make another one elsewhere.

So what do you think of it” he probably asked,

It’s very good, yes, we like it,” they said

But just stand still while we poke your eyes out with this stick, now sod off

Ouch! What about my money?”

sod off!”

There’s gratitude for you!

In another part of the city near the castle and cathedral there were many fine buildings and many others were undergoing restoration.  Amongst them was the Ćernĩn Palace, which is the Foreign Office building and where the Foreign Minister Tomáš Masaryk fell from a top floor window and died in 1948.  He was the only non-communist in a new communist Government and the guidebook said that it might have been an accident.  Somehow I doubt that!

A Life in a Year – 19th September, 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.

A Life in a Year – 18th September, Prague Astronomical Clock

It was about half past ten so we sat at a pavement café and had a Staropramen, which is a pleasant Czech beer and although it was early I don’t think anyone in Prague would have found this early drinking unusual because according to the Economist, in a poll in 2006, the people of the Czech republic are the biggest alcohol consuming nation in the World. 

After a second glass of the excellent beer we wandered over to take up a good position to see the famous astronomical clock that stands in the centre of the square strike eleven.  It really was very impressive to look at but not nearly so good that it justified the city authorities blinding its creator after it was completed just so that he couldn’t make another one elsewhere.

 “So what do you think of it” he probably asked,

 “It’s very good, yes, we like it,” they said

 “But just stand still while we poke your eyes out with this stick, now shove off

Ouch! What about my money?”

Shove off!”

There’s gratitude for you!   Anyway, bang on time, the mechanism creaked into action and the little statues started to do a little jig, I especially liked the skeletal figure of death that to be absolutely certain of the time diligently inspected an hourglass and then rang a tiny bell to get proceedings started. 

First came the promised highlight of the event when a small window opened and the twelve Apostles passed by in procession each one in turn gazing out over the square.  They had to be quick though because this wasn’t so much a procession as a hundred-metre dash and they sprinted past as though the landlord at the rugby club had just called last orders at the bar. 

Then a cock crowed and the clock chimed out the hour and that was it.  I thought the whole horological experience was over rather disappointingly quickly.

A Life in a Year – 5th January, Communism, Oppression and the Prague Spring

All of my childhood, and indeed the first thirty-five years of my life, was spent with Europe separated by an iron curtain behind which lurked the spectre of communism.

This post war balance of world power was highly significant and provided the tense atmosphere of the Cold War years that lasted until the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989 and I spent my childhood with a dread fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.  During this time the very thought of visiting eastern European countries was completely absurd which makes it all the more extraordinary that in the last few years I have been able to visit the previous Eastern-bloc countries of Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.

In 2006 I visited the Czech Republic and went to Prague Castle, which, according to Guinness World Records, is the largest ancient castle in the world and stands proudly at the top of a very steep hill.  It was already getting warm and the walk was pleasant.  We decided not to go in straight away and we walked instead to discover the Hradčany area that had a regal air full as it was of old royal palaces and government buildings.

Krakow Russian Tank

We walked to the top of the town, which brought us out close to the observation tower that we had climbed yesterday and at the top we stopped and admired the view over the city and hurried past a beggar with no toes just in case he was a leper.  He didn’t have a little bell however and on reflection I guessed that it was more likely that he had just enjoyed a spell in a Gulag in Siberia and lost them all to frostbite.

This was quite likely because one of the principal features of Stalinist Communism was the vigilant exposure of the alleged enemies of the state and the political purges in Czechoslovakia from 1950 until Stalin’s death were on a larger scale than in any other Eastern European country.  Thousands of accused individuals were coerced into admitting to crimes they hadn’t committed for which they were sentenced to years of slave labour or if they were lucky very quickly executed.

In 1968, the Prague Spring was a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union. It began on 5th January, when reformist Slovak Alexander Dubček came to power, and continued until 21st August when the Soviet Union and other members of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country to halt the reforms.  The restructuring, you see, especially the decentralisation of administrative authority, was not received well by the Soviets who, after failed negotiations, sent thousands of troops and tanks to occupy the country. A large wave of emigration swept the nation and Czechoslovakia remained occupied until 1990.