The Strange and Slow Death of Jewish Prague | Georgia Gilholy
It is July 2022 and a dry heat is descending on the cobblestone Jewish quarter of Old Prague. Once a fortified ghetto where most of Bohemian Jewry resided apart from the Christian majority – partly for their own protection – it is now little more than an open-air museum.
“We Czechs are so tolerant. That’s why people of all religions have lived here,” the tour guide announces as he approaches the neighborhood’s colorful Mudejar-style facade. Jeruzalemska Synagogue. Indeed, the fact that the synagogue is also named in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph I’s Silver Jubilee is a testament to the entrenched role Prague’s Jews once played in the city’s colorful political life.
Unlike others in the area, this synagogue remains an active place of worship, but it’s evident that its attendance is dominated more by curious tourists than a thriving congregation.
The tour guide’s monologue alludes to this. One thing he fails to mention is why Prague 2022 is a very different world from Prague 1939, when 90,000 Jews made up around 20% of the city’s population. The answer is what most of us already guess: the Holocaust.
Of course, there are far more Jews left in Prague – between 4,000 and 8,000 or so depending on the definition – than in Damascus, Baghdad or Birobidjan, and there’s a reason for that.
In 2021, Czechia recorded 381 anti-Semitic hate incidents, while the UK recorded 2,255. The UK is obviously home to many more people than Czechia, including a large Jewish population of almost 400,000. . However, it is clear that the former is becoming a more dangerous place for Jews, with a number of violent incidents made headlines in recent years.
“Prague Jews feel safe and respected, that’s for sure, but it may only be a matter of time before more of us move to Israel or America where there seem to be more opportunities for them,” said a local man whose two daughters have both emigrated. in Tel Aviv following the coronavirus pandemic, “the Czech winters aren’t helping to persuade people to stay either,” he joked.
Indeed, Jews feel markedly less “safe and respected” in much of contemporary Europe. In France, the number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded increase by almost 75% in 2021. In Germany, they have climbed by 29%. It is hardly surprising that 1 of 4 European Jews plan to emigrate.
A testament to the vitality of the Prague community has been its recent effort to establish Ukrainian language classes and social clubs for hundreds of incoming Jews fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion. “Much of the help for Ukrainians has come from America, but we hope this program will do some good,” he said.
Still, the local gentleman, who says he knows friends who have accumulated decades of service at the city’s last Jewish schools, said he believes the recent Ukrainian exodus is just one more step toward death slow of the Jewish civilization of Europe.
“The synagogue we’re in is named after Jerusalem for a reason.” His two companions, congregants who spoke no English, nodded vehemently after he quickly translated his words.
As we emerge from the complex interior of the synagogue, the tour guide finally drops the H-word. the city. Apparently he didn’t feel the need to elaborate.
Inside the impressive building, once the site of an active Sephardic settlement, crowds of tourists thronged around the exhibits, examining one of the largest Judaic collections in the world. While many of these objects were deliberately preserved after Prague’s urban renewal efforts at the turn of the century bulldozed swathes of the historic ghetto, much of the collection consists of effects confiscated from victims of the Holocaust.
Once appropriated by the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic as a “campaign for peace and against fascism”, the museum’s commercial credentials are now hard to ignore. A shop for delighted visitors offers dozens of volumes on the many centuries of Jewish presence in Prague, as well as an array of colorful postcards, coasters and “PRAHA” mugs.
As American author Dara Horn put it so devastatingly in her 2021 book, “People love dead Jews,” or, at the very least, collecting mementos from the site of their persecution. The alive ? Not really.
Georgia Leigha Leatherdale Gilholy is a journalist and media director for the Pinsker Center think tank. Follow her on Twitter @llggeorgia.