On July 6, 1969, my LOT Polish Airlines left Okecie Airport in Warsaw for a flight to Prague via Krakow.
Because of a heavy rainfall the flight was delayed and I arrived at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport three hours later. Prague is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and its magnificent ancient buildings were largely untouched during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On the drive from the airport to my hotel I saw graffiti painted on several walls of buildings and scribbled on base of monuments: “Ivan, go home”, “Socialism-YES. Russia-NO”, “Dubcek, we love you”, “Long live the Czech republic”, “Boris is sleeping with Katyusha — Ivan, hurry home quickly”
Prague is a student’s city and the cafes and beer halls along the main boulevard, Vaclavske Namesti (Wenceslas Square) are over-crowded with young people eating potato dumplings and downing them with Pilsener beer. Almost impossible to find an empty seat. Lots of Arab students from Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan and I even met two from Gaza who spoke Hebrew.
My visit to Prague was supposed to be an official one. There was to be a formal celebration of the Millenium of Jewish settlement in the Czech lands. I was designated to be the representative of my university and I was carrying an official letter of congratulations from the president of my university to be presented at the ceremony to the officials in charge of the celebration. One thousand years of Jewish life in the Czech lands was no small thing and the entire city of Prague was looking forward to the event.
But with regrets, it was a celebration that never was.
Elias Katz, Chief Rabbi of Bratislava had left the country for Israel in the previous year. The only rabbi left in the country was the 94 year old Chief Rabbi of Brno, Dr. Richard Feder, who was too ill to travel to Prague for the millennium celebrations. And on top of that, the Chief Rabbi of Israel who had been invited was denied a visa from the Czech government which at the time had no diplomatic representation in Prague or in Tel-Aviv.
On the morning on which the celebration was to have been, I made my way to the office of Otta Heitlinger, Secretary of the Council of Jews in the Judenrat, the Jewish town hall. I presented him with the official letter of greetings from the President of my university on the occasion of 1000 years of Jewish settlement in Bohemia. His explanation was the the celebration had been “post-poned” indefinitely by the Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia due to the uncertainty of the present political situations.
Heitlinger provided me with a very knowledgeable elderly Jewish tour guide who led me through the many streets of the Old City’s Jewish ghetto. At that time he informed me that Prague had 8 synagogues, including the 13th century Alt-Neu schul, the oldest synagogue in all of Europe. Six of the synagogues form a gigantic complex known as the State Jewish Museum and only two synagogues are used on Shabbat and holidays.The last shochet in Prague had left after the August 1968 Soviet invasion. There was one shochet still in Bratislava and kosher meat could be ordered from there to Prague. The Judenrat kept a kosher kitchen which served approximately forty elderly Jews daily.
My guide walked with me to the historical Jewish sites. The Alt-Neu synagogue was built in 1270 and religious services were still held there. Behind the synagogue with its large Hebrew-lettered clock is the Klaus synagogue, an integral part of the State Jewish Museum. Here, the Nazis gathered every Jewish ritual and religious objects from all towns and villages in Czechoslovakia to create a “Museum of the Annihilation of Czech Jewry”. It was intended to be a showplace of treasures if the Nazis had won the war. It contains thousands of silver Torah crowns, several encrusted with precious gems, silver pointers, magnificent tapestries, silver and gold spice boxes, thousands of silver Kiddush cups, and ancient books and manuscripts dating from the 12th century.
Directly behind the Klaus Synagogue is Europe’s oldest Jewish cemetery. The earliest recorded burial was in the year 968. The Jewish traveler, Abraham ibn Yakov, visited the city in 965 and he described a large Jewish settlement. The cemetery is cluttered with tens of thousands of ancient, crumbling tombstones. Hebrew inscriptions are still legible on many of them. There are twelve layers of graves and bodies were buried on top of other graves through the years. There have been no burials in this historic cemetery for more than 450 years.
Here can be found the graves of Mordechai Meisels, David Gans, Avigdor Caro and the most famous tomb in all of Europe, the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bezalel Loew, creator of the legendary Golem. A statue of Rabbi Loew stands at the entrance to the New City town hall in Prague.
A walk across the famous Karlovy Most — the Charles Bridge — spanning the River Moldau, reveals a shrine of the crucified Jesus and on the cross, written in pure gold Hebrew letters, is the inscription “Kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai Tzvaot, mlo kol haaretz kvodo”.
According to legend, in the year 1370, a pious Jews was crossing the Charles Bridge and when passing the image of Christ crucified, he spat at it. He was arrested and imprisoned for some months and the Jewish community of Prague was taxed and required to pay a ransom in gold as a means of giving homage to Jesus.
My guide assured me that there were no signs of anti-Semitism anywhere in Czechoslovakia.The country was the only one in eastern European slavic nations which never had an anti-Semitic history. Its two greatest leaders of the 20th century were President Tomas Masaryk and Prime Minister Eduard Benes, both of who were cordial and friendly to their fellow citizens of the Jewish faith.
And to the elderly Czech people with whom I spoke in German they expressed warm memories of former Jewish friends who were among the 78,000 Czech Jews who were deported to Polish death camps.
Prague today remains a museum of a brilliant and dynamic Jewish past. It is a city worthy of several days visit. I arrived in Prague in 1969 for the Millenium celebrations…an event that never was. Maybe one day in the future it can yet be.