There are graves in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, the Czech Republic, converted, as too all of Prague’s Jewish quarter, into the Museum of Jewish History. In one sense it is a cemetery not only of Prague’s dead Jews, but also of this site’s vanished contemporary Jewish identification – and it is not only as a result of the Holocaust.
A lot of Jewish history, and no Jewish life – mostly because of assimilation!
A sculpture of a probably grieving Moses is located in the Jewish quarter not far from the cemetery. Is he thinking that it was not such a history of the Prague Jews he had in mind when he led the Jews, with God’s help, out of Egypt?
Prague has an interesting Jewish-quarter museum with unusual history of the Czech Jews. The Jewish quarter in Prague was preserved fully in the Nazi period because Hitler decided to organize there a museum of the “vanished race” after the “final solution” of the Jewish problem.
Moreover, ceremonial Jewish objects were brought together for this purpose in this quarter from many other Eastern European synagogues that had been destroyed and from historic Jewish settlements and shtetls of Ukraine, Byelorussia, Lithuania and Poland.
There are five magnificent synagogues in the Jewish quarter in Prague. But they all were converted to museums after liberation from Nazism – they are no longer places of religious Jewish life.
There are practically no Jews in Prague who are aware of themselves as Jews and who act in a corresponding manner, though many recognize in themselves the presence of Jewish blood (some Czechs even maintain with some pride that almost everyone in the Czech Republic had Jewish ancestors in the past).
The answer to the question, “why are there no Jews in the synagogues” is obvious – almost all were killed by the Nazis. Actually, nearly ten thousand Prague Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. Something like all of them.
But not even quite like that. It turns out these synagogues were virtually empty before the seizure of power by the Nazis. By the start of the 20th century, the Jews in Prague had ceased to exist as a community living according to the canons of Judaism (it is immaterial according to what kind – Orthodox, Reform or secular).The Nazis exterminated people born into Jewish families, who partly had Jewish blood, but were no longer living visibly according to the Jewish canons and who considered themselves fully assimilated.
But, what does it mean to be fully assimilated? Does it mean to stop living in accordance with moral principles of Torah, or just ending association with a synagogue and not performing traditional religious rituals?
And then the question arose of just what led to such changes prior to Nazism.
At the end of the 18th century, in the Czech Lands of that time (Bohemia/Moravia), the abolition of many laws restrictive for Jews began. By the middle of the 19th century, this legislative process which had been started by the enlightened monarch, Joseph II (not a dictator, but an enlightened democratic monarch) led to the abolishment of all laws disqualifying Jews, acknowledging the important contribution of Jews to the Czech Lands’ spiritual and material prosperity.
The dangers of life that lay in wait for Jews as Jews disappeared. And it turned out that the incentive for Jewish unity and preservation also disappeared. It turned out that Jews had been uniting only to better defend themselves from external danger. And as soon as the external danger disappeared, the need for unification and for preservation of traditional identity also disappeared.
It turned out that Jewish education and upbringing were directed at the organization of Jewish life within a closed Jewish society for preserving themselves as Jews behind a spiritual fence they had erected.
It turned out that Jewish education did not teach Jews to live and act Jewish under complete freedom in Gentile societies when the spiritual fence was demolished.
In other words, the chosenness of the Jews as the foundation of their identification and as a mission for their life was forgotten both under oppression and under freedom. Identification based on the religion of Judaism and on the Torah was forgotten; the identification and chosenness it is necessary to follow in any circumstances and conditions of life.
The history of the Prague Jews is a characteristic example of what happened in many European countries in the pre-Nazi and pre-Soviet periods of European life.
Since the time of the French Revolution the Jews were permitted to assimilate fully, to become “like everyone,” to cease being different from others and to cease suffering from anti-Semitism. Many did so accordingly and it seemed to them that their Jewishness and the agonies connected with it “sank into oblivion.”
And that was what had led to assimilation. Rabbis and Jewish educators taught the Jews how to remain Jewish by separating themselves from hostile Gentile environment – and not how to be Jewish and gain the respect of Gentile community by living together and demonstrating that Jews identify traits are helping make the life of everybody better.