The strange and slow death of Jewish Prague

Prague’s Moorish Revival Spanish Synagogue, where many exhibits from the city’s Jewish Museum are displayed. (CREDIT- Georgia Leigha Leatherdale Gilholy)

It is July 2022 and a dry heat is beating down on Old Prague’s cobbled Jewish quarter. Once a walled-off ghetto where the bulk of Bohemia’s Jewish community resided apart from the Christian majority  –  partly for their own protection  –  it is now little more than an open-air museum.

“Czechs, we are so tolerant. That is why people of all religions have lived here,” the tour guide announces as we approach the colourful facade of the district’s Mudéjar-style Jeruzalémská synagoga. Indeed, the fact that the synagogue is also named in honour of Emperor Franz Joseph I’s silver jubilee speaks to the embedded role Prague’s Jews once played in the city’s colourful political life.

Unlike others in the area, this synagogue remains an active place of worship, but it is obvious that its footfall is dominated more by curious tourists than a thriving congregation.

The tour guide’s monologue hints at 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 about 20 per cent of the city’s population. The answer is one that most of us already guess: the Holocaust.

Of course, many more Jews remain in Prague – between around 4000 to 8000 depending on one’s definition– than in Damascus, Baghdad, or Birobidzhan, and there is a reason for this.

In 2021, Czechia recorded 381 antisemitic hate incidents, while the UK recorded 2,255. The UK is obviously home to far more people than Czechia, including an almost 400,000 strong Jewish population. However it is clear that the former is well on the road to becoming a more dangerous place for Jews, with a number of violent incidents making headlines over the past few years.

“Jews in Prague feel safe and respected, for sure, but maybe it is only a matter of time before more of us move to Israel or America where there seem to be more opportunities for them,” explained a local man whose two daughters both emigrated to Tel Aviv following the Coronavirus pandemic, “the Czech winters don’t help persuade people to stay either,” he quipped.

Indeed, Jews are feeling markedly less “safe and respected” across much of contemporary Europe. In France, the number of recorded anti-Semitic incidents increased by almost 75 per cent in 2021. In Germany, they soared by 29 per cent. It is hardly surprising that 1 in 4 European Jews considers emigrating.

One testament to the Prague community’s vitality was its recent effort to establish Ukrainian language classes and social clubs for hundreds of incoming Jews fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion. “A lot of the big help for Ukrainians has come from America, but we hope this programme is doing some good,” he stressed.

Yet this local gentleman, whose says he knows friends who have clocked up decades of service in the city’s remaining Jewish schools, said he believes the recent Ukrainian exodus is simply another step toward the slow death of Europe’s Jewish civilisation.

“The synagogue we are standing in is named after Jerusalem for a reason.” His two companions, fellow congregants who did not speak English, nodded vociferously after he hurriedly translated his remarks.

When we file out of the synagogue’s intricate interior, the tour guide finally drops the H-word. “A lot of the exhibits are about the Holocaust,” he casually remarked as we descended on the city’s Jewish museum. Apparently, he felt no need to elaborate.

Inside the impressive building, once the site of an active Sephardi fold, bulging throngs of tourists lined the exhibits, examining one of the world’s largest Judaica collections. While many of these objects were deliberately preserved after Prague’s turn-of-the-century urban renewal efforts bulldozed swathes of the historic ghetto, much of the collection consists of confiscated belongings of Holocaust victims.

Once appropriated by the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic as a “campaign for peace and against fascism”, the museum’s commercial credentials are now hard to overlook. A shop catering to the delighted strings of visitors offers scores of volumes on Prague’s many centuries of Jewish presence along with an array of colourful 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 souvenirs at the site of their persecution. The living ones? Not so much.

 

About the Author
Georgia Leigha Leatherdale Gilholy is a journalist and the director of media for the Pinsker Centre think tank. Follow her on Twitter @llggeorgia.
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