Uncovering Jewish History in Prague

For Jewish students on Georgetown’s campus, there is an elephant in the room.

The past few weeks at Georgetown, multiple swastikas have appeared on dorm room buildings, in elevators, and around campus. Even from thousands of miles away in Prague, as a Jewish Georgetown student, I’ve still viscerally felt the frustration, outrage, and heartbreak over the anti-Semitic vandalism on Georgetown’s campus.

In fact, anti-Semitic incidents in the present day, such as those at Georgetown, are a large reason why I came to Prague in the first place; I want to learn and explore the heritage of my family as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. I came to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears the history of violence and oppression against the Jewish people from medieval times to present day. I also came to Prague to reconcile with the cities and sites my own family so bravely left behind at the end of World War II, and to keep an often forgotten history alive for my generation.

I have only spent two weeks in Prague but have already planned many trips for the coming months. I will visit historical Central European sites relevant to my history, from Auschwitz and Lidice to Prague’s Jewish Quarter. For the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah last week, I decided to take a walk by myself through the Prague’s Jewish Quarter before making Rosh Hashanah dinner with my roommates. I briefly walked through two of the historic synagogues, passed shops selling dreidels, Hanukiahs, and other Jewish trinkets and passed by the Jewish cemetery. As I walked, I reflected not only on the more obvious Jewish sites, but also the more obscure Jewish memorials embedded in the city. 

Jewish history exists throughout Prague beyond solely the Jewish Quarter. The city has gone above and beyond in preserving and memorializing obvious Jewish sites. Additionally, there are also a number of more obscure Jewish memorials throughout the city.. For example, small bronze cobblestones commemorating victims of the Holocaust, called Stolpersteine, are embedded throughout the city sidewalks. Although these cobblestones exist all over Europe, the first stone was laid in Prague in 2008. 

As I walked through the streets of Prague, I found myself marveling at the rather impressive memorialization of Jewish history in the city. I also wondered about and the motivation behind for this memorialization. The motivation is certainly not one of preserving religious traditions, as the Czech population is one of the most secular in the world. Between the bloody history of religious disagreement in Prague and its more recent stint under the control of the completely sacrilegious Stalinist Iron Curtain, any and all religious influence has completely lost its importance to Prague’s population. Even Prague’s contemporary Jewish population is very small relative to its history, standing at only around 1,600 people.

A secular population thoroughly documenting Jewish history is significant. It illustrates that Prague understands and accepts Judaism as a cultural and ethnic tribe. Prague documents some of the darkest times in Jewish history, many of which happened in the city itself. This memorialization occurs not because Prague sports a significant and powerful Jewish population, but rather because the city recognizes that Jewish history is intertwined with Prague’s history. 

Maybe Prague has preserved Jewish history so well because the city simply doesn’t have a choice—after all, the mere proximity of some of the Holocaust’s most gruesome events makes denial almost impossible. Or maybe the city’s population, oppressed by the Communist regime, identifies with the struggle of Jewish oppression. Take the Zizkov TV Tower, for example, which was built by the Communist regime right on top of a Jewish cemetery. Since the fall of communism, the tower has been decorated with sculpture babies to represent the infancy of democracy that would slowly grow in the Czech Republic. The babies were not a tribute to the Jewish cemetery that was demolished in order to build the tower—but nonetheless, the babies still illustrate a common protest of building the tower against the will of the people.

The Czech population seems to agree with preservation of Jewish history for no other reason than the Czech people can sympathize with the Jewish plight. Regardless of the reason, Prague seems successful in openly and respectfully presenting Jewish history. It is a lesson anyone interested in understanding not only Jewish history, but also any ethnically based history, could learn from.

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