Prague 2012

          by David P. Stern                           About Czech letters, see here

    Note:    These are notes of a one-week visit to the Czech Republic in October 2012, by myself, my wife Audrey and my cousin Itamar of Erez, Israel, guided and helped by Charles Wiener of the Jewish Federation and by Lena Arava of the Charles University in Prague. It was, in a way, a pilgrimage to our Jewish "roots" in Prague, Terezin (Theresienstadt) and in Děčín on the German border, to the synagogue founded there in 1907 by Adolf Pächter, grandfather of Itamar and myself.
        Includes references to a 1985 visit to Prague, whose journal "Return to Prague" has been posted on the web.


    Note: Pictures of many of the locations mentioned here are linked from
    2-3 October, 2012

    We were met at the Prague airport by Charles Wiener wearing a burgundy shirt, efficiently herding our luggage to a parking area and then fetching his car. Traffic was dense, but he drove without problems to the huge Dejvice traffic circle, next to the new campus of the Technical University ČVUT, the institution from which Charles had graduated and the site of my 1985 meeting. As a special treat he detoured to the Sinkuleho kolej (kolej is dormitory) where I had stayed in 1985. The entrance lobby was bare---no posters or announcements as in 1985, no watchful lady guard--but a student living there chatted with us and told a few things about the place.

    Charles loves to talk, and has a lot to say--much more than this tired mind can ever soak up. On the way he pointed out where a Jewish kindergarten was (or had been), also (vague memory) a house where he himself used to live, and told us about his twin daughters--Suzanne an MD living close to him (outside Geneva but across the French border), her daughter Ma'ayan whom he baby-sits, and Carine, their other daughter, living in Israel in Azur, near Mikveh Yisra'el, and working in finances. We continued in heavy traffic towards the city center, through a tunnel, and suddenly we were crossing the Vltava and then heading south along the eastern embankment, past the Charles Bridge and the Smetana statue.

    A short while later we turned left onto Národní třída, the big "National Avenue", then a short distance further turned left again onto Karolína Světlá street, a narrow street paved with cobblestones (like most of the old town). Karolína Světlá (1830-99) was a writer and women's equality advocate (according to Wikipedia, she also had an affair with the writer and poet Jan Neruda). The street was quite narrow and twisted randomly, yet cars were parked along most of its length. Traffic in the old town of Prague flows surprisingly smoothly, even in narrow streets with parked cars everywhere. Amazingly, I cannot remember seeing a car with scratched paint or crumpled fender.

    Charles found a parking spot in front of Hotel Leonardo, a "boutique hotel" blending with the old houses next to it, though its inside is modern. The numbering scheme of floors was new to us--ground floor is 0, first one up is 1st and the vaulted cellar (where we ate breakfast) is -1. Our room faced the street, but twin windows (about 18" or more apart) blocked any noise. It had comfortable twin beds, placed close enough for us to hold each other, a TV with news in English, and a bathroom with a "telephone shower" in a glass enclosure, a bidet and a toilet providing a choice of flushing, 3 liters or 6. Tired as we were, we still slept irregularly because of the difference in local time.

    Before retiring we went up the street for dinner at the "New Kabul" Afghan restaurant, recommended by the guidebook. The food was tasty--a chicken kebab served on a spit and done to perfection; its owner is a Kirgiz or Kazakh. In the morning we found in the hotel cellar an ample breakfast, covered by the room charge--delicious breads, rolls and baked goods freshly baked, good coffee, fruit salad, all so different from the stale fare of 1985.

    In the morning a message came from Itamar, He was in room 418 of the Thalia hotel, at the corner of Narodní and Karolína Světlá street. After breakfast I walked up to his place, right under the roof with a sloping window facing a glorious view of Hradčany castle. He remains the same amiable Itamar I always knew and we had a pleasant reunion after 12 years. He had already eaten breakfast and we walked back together.

    The morning was devoted to a visit Jewish sites in the Old Town. Charles arrived without his car--instead, we all walked to tram no. 17, which followed the river along the "Avenue of 17 Listopad" (17 November), a meaningful date. That was when in 1939 the students of Prague demonstrated against the Nazis and were brutally put down; at a demonstration to mark the 50th anniversary of that event in 1989, the Czech Communist regime started unraveling. I vaguely remember the day in 1939, when I heard adults discussing it; Kurt Sitte, later my thesis adviser ,was arrested that day and sent to a concentration camp (Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, Charles said; Sitte ended up in Buchenwald).

    The tram was modern and fast, and we rode it for just two stops: seniors 70 an up need not pay and Itamar too went as senior, somewhat reluctantly since he was only 69. Tickets are no longer the all-purpose chits of 1985, but are stamped with the time they are issued and typically remain valid only for the next hour and a half.

    I had expected the Jewish museum to be an expanded version of the "Precious Legacy" Smithsonian exhibit of 1984. But we never saw anything like that beyond some scattered display cases, though more of those may exist in places we did not visit, like the Klaus synagogue and the Maisel. What we saw were primarily some impressive houses of worship, built when Prague was the center of a thriving Jewish community. Several were quite old. They were built in a grand style, as if to match the splendor of churches, and were preserved by the Nazis for their planned "Museum of the Extinct Race". Most were oriented towards a "bimah" at the eastern wall (the recent fashion), though in the old Altneu the Torah is still read from a table at the center.

    From the tram we walked to Jáchymova street, past what once was a big Jewish school (now occupied by offices--that was where I met Dr. Nosek in 1985), then to the "Spanish Synagogue" (built to replace "the old Schul" which might have had a Sephardic connection long ago) and to the offices of the Jewish museum next door (where Charles got tickets to all the sites). There we met the museum director, Dr. Leo Pavlát.

    A tall man with grizzled beard, he told about his life a dissident during the Communist rule. In 1987 he was detained for interrogation, left alone in a room for three hours and then falsely accused of foreign exchange violation. In the end the interrogator told him he would be allowed to go, but on the condition that he stayed away from the Altneu. Pavlát stayed away 2 or 3 weeks, then came back and nothing happened to him. Other dissidents fared worse, and some were taken by car at night to a forest 50 kilometers from Prague. They probably wondered if they would be shot, but all the police did was take away their shoes and leave them there, to make their way back as well as they could.

    Then, after the velvet revolution, he met his interrogator on the street--"hello, how are you, remember me?" There was no punishment for the misdeeds of Communism.

    Charles too told about being hauled before a interrogator during in those days, because he had corresponded with people outside Czechoslovakia. He said such correspondence was always held against the investigated person--if the correspondence was positive, he was branded "internationalist", if negative, "cosmopolite."

    Informants kept Alt-Neu under observation: once cantor Feuerlicht included a prayer for the state of Israel and was barred from leading services for half a year. Culturally active Jews were expelled from the country, including Karel Sidon, who used to write dramas and books. In exile he attended Jewish studies in Heidelberg, and after the overthrow of communism he finished his studies in Israel to become a rabbi. He came back and has until recently served as the Chief Rabbi of Prague and of the Czech Republic (now as emeritus). Pavlát showed us a Czech translation of the bible by Rabbi Sidon, and we later met him in his office at the Jewish community center, near where I once met Dr. Galský. I brought Dr. Pavlát a 1990 copy of the Washington Jewish Week featuring an interview with him, and Charles handed it to him about 10 days later.

    The Spanish synagogue was opulent, and its benches were herded together, allowing the many visitors to stroll around. A woman snuck behind Charles and clapped her hands over his eyes, like saying "guess who?" It was Sylvie Wittmann, guiding a group of visitors; she is a friend of Charles and said she would love to have a coffee with us later, but unfortunately our paths never crossed again. For a while I listened to her explanations to her group, very detailed and knowledgeable.

    From there we walked to the Alt-Neu, stepping down to the sunken floor below the level of the street, which now runs over the debris of centuries. On the wall of the building one could see the high-water mark of the flood of 2002, which submerged many parts of the city and greatly damaged the National Library at the end of the Charles' Bridge. Charles pointed out the synagogue's vaulted ceiling with an extra 5th arch, breaking the symmetry of four arches meeting in the shape of a cross. The seat of the "Maharal," Rabbi Loew ben Betzalel, was preserved at the eastern wall, the "Swedish Flag" with the original Star of David hung high above the center, and tourists were circulating everywhere, the men wearing kippot of plasticized paper provided at the entrance. Oblong rectangular windows along one wall connected the women's gallery--like gun ports, they started narrow at the gallery end and widened in the main hall. The synagogue had separate entrances for men and women, and Helena Wiener told how she hated visiting the Altneu, because she and other women used to be confined to that gallery.

    We then went next door to the dining hall of the Jewish community center--the one with twin clocks on its tower: the top one has Latin numerals and its hands move clockwise, the bottom one has Hebrew letters and turns counterclockwise. Charles paid for our lunch at the "insider rate" and the food was very good--I think Audrey had fish and myself chicken curry (less spicy than the one on the airplane). He then took us next door, to meet Rabbi Sidon and see the "High Synagogue" there, one synagogue which holds regular services and is not a tourist destination. It is named "high" because it is raised one floor above the street, and its eastern wall is covered with a large square fabric hanging, centered on a quilt made of old talitot, the black and white blending artistically.

    Out on the street (not sure whether before or after lunch) we unexpectedly encountered Rabbi Daniel Mayer--the same I had met in 1985! He seemed even shorter and chubbier, with grizzled beard, but he remembered me--still has the "Sefer Ha'agadah" I sent him long ago. As I knew, he lived in Haifa, after being dismissed from his post for collaborating with the Communist government. Mayer is now a grandfather and was in Prague to finish his doctoral study.

    With him was a tall young man, Rabbi David Peter who had studied 13 years in Israel and now seconds Rabbi Sidon, who has turned 70 and is slowing down. He speaks Hebrew but no English, and can be reached at or 420-720-145-030 .

    Then we went to the old Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagoga), founded around 1500 and turned into a memorial, with names of all Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust written on its walls. In 1985 Dr. Nosek took me there see those inscriptions, but the gate was padlocked and I never learned that those names had in fact been removed by the Communist government as part of a renovation project; only after the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 were they restored. The names are in alphabetical order, also sorted by area of origin, each with the dates of birth and death or date of transportation "to the east," and I readily found "Josef and Ottilia Stern" as well as "Vilhelmina Pächter", hand written in square letters. Some had to be redrawn after the flood of 2002.

    With its inscriptions covering all walls, the Pinkas synagogue is a rather stark place. Sylvie Wittmann once asked the Federation of Jewish Communities to make it available for a Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Sidon objected, because Sylvie is a reform Jew, but Charles Wiener argued that was not enough of a reason. "Look at those names listed on the walls" he said, "Most were just non-practicing Jews, like my grandparents and your dad." The rabbi relented, only asking that no halachic rules be broken in the ceremony, and Sylvie complied. Later she was granted permission to hold high holiday services there, and her congregation Bejt Simcha now uses the Pinkas for high holiday services every year.

    Tourists pay an entrance fee for visiting the old sites of the Prague Jewish community, which are rented to the Jewish Museum in Prague. Such revenues provide income to the Federation of Jewish Communities which supports ten Jewish communities and ten Jewish organizations in the Czech Republic and also publishes a monthly newsletter "Roš Chodeš" (first day of the Jewish month, a minor observance). Web site is

    In December 2004 the community was evenly split between two factions, and as a compromise Charles was named Executive Director of the community. One faction, just voted out, was led by Tomáš Jelínek, a civil engineer and very much of a politician; Lena had praised him, saying he offered a way out of the deep divisions in the Jewish community. She proposed Audrey and I have dinner in her home with him and with Dr. Nosek, on the day we were set to arrive, but I begged off, expecting to be too worn from the flight.

    That year Charles was nominated from the floor of the general assembly of the congregations. He told the council, "but I don't live here!" and was told that his experience of 20 years on the Geneva Jewish council qualified him sufficiently. Charles called Helena in Geneva and assured her it would be a temporary post, just 3-4 months, but it turned out to last 14 months. He said his main concerns in office were "the past and the future", the past being senior members of the community and the future being the education of the young. According to Pavlát the mean age of Jews [or Jewish members?] in Prague was finally dropping--has been 70, is now 50.

    Charles wanted to serve as director without pay, but that proved difficult; the directorship needed insurance, and that was linked to pay--if the pay was zero, he'd pay nothing and still be insured. In the end he agreed to a salary equal to the rent of his residence in Prague and cost of his cell phone.

    From the Pinkas synagogue we continued to the old Jewish cemetery right behind it. It is densely covered with tombstones, perched on mounds and sometimes tilted in random directions, because of the settling of the ground. The mounds conceal multiple burials, some said to be 12 layers deep; with each burial a memorial stone was added on top, which explains the large number of such stones. Today the Prague community has a new cemetery outside the center of the town, but until it was opened the community had to make do with this cramped plot.

    By now the stones are old and worn. The tomb of the Maharal is one of the largest--two flat stones mark the ends (like ends of a bed), while between them two long flat stones are angled like an elongated tent. We dined again at the New Kabul, with Charles and Helena (and of course Itamar), very enjoyable. I followed Charles in sampling the Czech beer, very tasty and with a big head of foam.

    Friday 5 October 2012

    The schedule for the next day, Friday, proved too ambitious: I had planned to visit Terezín, then Děčín, then attend the Sabbath eve services at Altneu, which started at 6:14. Gustav "Gugi" Vodrážka said he would be at the Altneu, but we never got there: we gave Terezín far too little time and were happy to return there on Monday, while in Děčín we stayed for dinner at Café Andy, excellent food and company, plus a large window-view of the synagogue next door.

    Charles picked us around 8:30 and expertly threaded his way through traffic until we hit highway 8 out of Prague, an expressway heading north-west. The weather was clear and the Czech countryside pretty, fields plowed or green with crops, a largely flat expanse. Then Mt. Říp rose on the horizon and gradually grew closer, the first outpost of the hills which enclose the north of Bohemia; this is where the Slavic tribe of headman Čech is said to have settled first. From a distance it reminds one of Mt. Tabor, but smaller. I read that it is actually the remains of an ancient volcano, and as we got closer we could see others like it further to the northwest, as well as Mt. Lovoš which towers above the town of Lovosice.

    After a while a sign announced the approach of the Terezín turn-off. Soon we turned right, passed through the town of Bohušovice and suddenly, there was Terezín and the river Ohře (Eger in German) next to it. On a map Terezín looks orderly and symmetric, but approaching it on the ground one just gets the impression of a maze of brick battlements.

    The Jewish ghetto of Terezín was in its main fortress, a part that is now a regular Czech town; only the museum at the center and parts of the Magdeburg barracks contain memorials to the ghetto. The offices of the museum are in the separate "Small Fortress" or "Malá pevnost" across the river, where the German Gestapo kept political prisoners and which appears to be the main destination of Czech visitors.

    The main entrance road to the fort ran next to a cemetery where victims (mostly non-Jews) are buried; it is now marked by a big wooden cross in its middle and a matching Star of David some distance away. Charles drove to a secondary gate, talked to someone over a phone located there, then used the keypad next to the phone to open the barrier. He parked the car inside the fort and walked to the office to make arrangements, then came back and drove us to the front of the office, where some guided groups of Czech visitors (students from schools?) were milling around.

    At this point I felt urgent need for a bathroom, and was pointed to one near the main gate. Hurry can be a bad thing: I tripped over the iron threshold of an entranceway and went sprawling face-down, good suit and all. Nothing broken, thanks God, just my knee tore open and bled, and the ball of my right hand too. One of the guides came, wiped the wounds on the hand, painted it with the tincture of iodine and bandaged it, and that is how I went to the office of the Jewish museum in Terezín.

    Dr. Munk, with whom I had corresponded, was away that day, and we met instead with Dr. Blodig, a genial man who did not talk much, balding on top and looking more Czech than Jewish. I had expected someone more lively and outspoken, and only fully appreciated him when we returned Monday to view the main Terezín exhibits, beautifully arranged and displayed, because his name topped the credits. He also wrote the introductions in the book "Art against Death" which was presented to us by the secretary in his office.

    We sat down for coffee and some conversation, and Dr. Blodig provided a guide, a white-haired skinny woman whose name I no longer recall.

    The guide gave us what seemed to be the standard tour of the prison, which was separate from the ghetto. The ghetto was essentially a holding tank, starving its inmates as they tried to keep their community alive and their spirits from sagging, all the while dreading the one-way trip "to the east." The Small Fortress, by contrast, was just an extremely brutal prison, which too many inmates never left alive.

    First we were shown the courtyard where about 1500 prisoners were crammed--one room was reconstructed with bunk beds, crude washing facilities etc. Also interrogation rooms, where prisoners were shackled to the wall--I no longer remember it all. Punishment was harsher in the cells of another courtyard, where prisoners were housed in a dense warren, covered by a concrete ceiling with skylights and not much ventilation. In the center was a courtyard facing a raised masonry stage: that was where prisoners were executed, while others had to watch. The guide told of three prisoners who escaped over the barbed wire encircling the site. They were caught; one was shot, while the other two were tied up and the other prisoners were ordered to stone them, burying them in a pile of stones.

    The Nazis meanwhile lived with their families in the middle of the camp, in brick houses surrounded by gardens.

    After that visit Charles took us to the crematorium outside the walls, centered on a hall with two large oil-fired ovens. It was built by prisoners when deaths in Terezín became so frequent that burial could no longer keep pace. The ashes were carefully collected in cubical cardboard boxes about 10" wide, labeled with the name of the deceased and stored in a dry "columbarium." However, when allied occupation became imminent, the Nazis ordered all of them emptied into the river Ohře, at the point where it leaves Terezín. Before we reached the crematorium, Charles drove us to that spot, marked by a memorial sculpture of a grieving woman on a small lawn perched high above the water.

    By the time we left the crematorium, time was running short, so Charles skipped the Terezín museum and drove straight to the Magdeburg barracks, where the internal offices of Theresienstadt ghetto used to be, and where many inmates were also housed. On the way we passed the breach in the walls where a railroad spur was brought to the ghetto, and the nearby casemate where bodies of the dead were collected for transport to the crematorium.

    The Magdeburg barracks are a massive building with an inner courtyard, and according to Les carnets de Minna (Elsie Herberstein & Anne Georget, p. 111, published by Seuil 2008), that was where
my grandmother Minna was housed in room 118. The building had been remodeled and there was no way of locating that room, though a drawing on p. 129 of the artwork collection which Dr. Blodig gave us suggested what it must have been like. It shows a women's dormitory with no bunk-beds, so that everyone slept on the floor, as suggested in Minna's rhymes:
    "I keep harmony with everyone
    except those few too quarrelsome
    "Those five centimeters are not hers by right"
    Five centimeters--are they worth a fight?"
Maybe that was because no one expected old women to climb up and down bunks at night.

    Now part of the building houses art exhibits and also the far-too-clean reconstruction of a large dormitory room. The exhibit is impressive, and as already noted, Dr. Blodig led the team that designed it. Among concentration camps, the ghetto of Theresienstadt has a special position: it was less oppressive than camps in Poland--especially the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. But thanks to the relative freedom inside its walls, it left behind a unique trove of testimony--writing, art, recollections of survivors and evidence of music, drama and life within its walls. The impact on the visitor is enormous, especially of the drawings, above and beyond the impressions conveyed by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or the small exhibits of Beit Theresienstadt in Israel. I have not seen Auschwitz or Dachau, Ravensbruck and others, where the view of gas chambers or electrified fences is enough to terrify anyone; but the Terezín pictures speak to the visitors as no other evidence can.

    There was no way to absorb all this in this short visit, and after a while we drove out towards Děčín. Soon we got lost, probably my own fault: the GPS kept directing us up the flanks of Mt. Lovoš to the road towards Teplice, which may well have been faster, since parts are a divided highway. However, I had recalled the road taken in 1985 along the river (rte 30), about equally long, narrower but probably more scenic. Wiener finally yielded and drove to the river, to a road paralleling the railroad along a deep green gorge. We emerged near Usti, which now has a handsome Calatrava-style bridge with a tilted pylon. Approaching Podmokly-Bodenbach the view widened and a lot of active industry appeared, also the church which in 1985 stood neglected with a hole in its roof, now repaired and apparently in good order. We continued on the floodplain and were soon climbing Teplice street, the main street of Podmokly.

    Žižková street opens on the right just after Thomayerova street on the left (where I was born), it is a narrow cobble-stone road climbing steeply uphill. And on its right stood the synagogue, painted a radiant yellow, one house uphill from Teplická street. This is in fact the road to the top of Pastýřská stěna, the steep cliff overlooking the river.

    We were welcomed by Mirka (Miroslava) Poskočilová and her husband's father Vladimir Poskočil. Mirka is a slender woman with reddish-brown hair, soft spoken and with good command of English, instantly likable. Her father-in-law is around 80 years old (looks much younger), with thinning white hair, lively eyes and enthusiastic personality, but unfortunately he speaks no English. He used to compete in world-championship contests for throwing the javelin (though not in the Olympics) and some of his medals were on display in his office in the synagogue.

    The building itself is magnificent, constructed in the "Art Nouveau" style of the turn of the 19th century (German "Jugendstil", Czech "secese,") with Moorish overtones such as oblong windows topped by wider circles, a keyhole outline. Its airy interior has a high ceiling like the nave of a church, with balconies originally reserved for women worshippers (not any more). The ark at the end faces the seated congregation, and IMHO its direction is more northward than eastward (or south-eastward, the direction to Jerusalem).

    The synagogue makes good use of a small steep site, and its 4 levels include meeting rooms and offices (a 5th might be hidden under the cupola); according to my mother, some of those rooms were living quarters for the caretaker. Outside stood a decorated sukkah, and on the wall of the entrance lobby was a dark blue plaque listing the founders, including Adolf Pächter. A separate plaque commemorated Ing. Rudolf Pollack, father of Liesel Laufer, and his family, including Liesel's sister Helena, all of whom died in an early transport from Terezin. A table displayed brochures, memorabilia for sale and issues of "Roš Chodeš." On the stairway going down from the entrance one passed the foundation stone, kept bare of plaster and paint (ל"ק means thousands digit omitted)
AM 10 MÄRZ 1907
כ"ד אדר  ל"ק  תרס"ז

We hadn't eaten, but across the street stood "Pension Andy", a restaurant with attached hotel--a visitor to Děčín may find this a good place to stay. It certainly was a good choice for lunch, with its large plate-window facing the synagogue. I ordered my dad's favorite, "svíčková" beef in cream sauce with Czech dumplings, rather non-kosher but tasty. And we talked... I forgot most details. Mirka told about her family--her husband is the director of a hospital in a different town and often comes home just once a week. She is not Jewish, has an engineering diploma in economics and is employed as social worker, taking care of 17 seniors, including 11 who are Jewish. She helps them with purchases, with keeping their homes and with travel.

    She has a girl Andrea and an older boy Robert, ages 11 and 8, and raising them is a great challenge. Robert was born deaf, his cochlea (the hearing organ at the end of the auditory nerve) lacked sound sensors, and his sister was afflicted that way, too, although doctors had predicted for her an 80% chance of normal hearing. Mirka has obtained cochlear implants for both, hearing aids connected directly to the auditory nerve. Users wear small microphones near their ears, which convert sounds to oscillating electrical currents in a small coil; those signals are then picked up electronically, analyzed and sent to multiple wires implanted in the cochlea. Sound is perceived as a superposition of electric signals in the cochlea, which the brain must interpret: it is not the same as normal hearing, and generally much less selective. Using such a hearing aid is therefore rather subjective and requires appreciable training.

    Mirka has trained her children, and because they were young, both quickly learned to use their devices. They are now capable of listening to TV and the older one is even studying English. The following week Mirka was scheduled to fly to Brussels to a conference on cochlear implants. Tough lady!

    By then we had given up on reaching Altneu ahead of the Sabbath, and I don't remember any more what else was discussed. Later Charles Wiener drove us up Teplická street to look for the site of the Pächter factory. I remembered it had tall chimney and stood just before a mountain slope advanced all the way to the road. There was such a place, but the chimney carried reinforcing metal rings and did not look the same. Also the area in front was all built up--whereas in vague memories of 1985 there was a parking lot. In 1985 I pulled into that lot for some reason, but did not recognize the factory for what it was. It seemed too small; its photograph should be somewhere in our house (or maybe with Gabi in Israel).

    We drove back in the falling darkness. A large loaded barge, met near Děčín on the way up, was still slowly pushing its way against the current near Lovosice. No need for dinner after the big lunch.

    Sabbath 6 October 2012

    This was to be a special day: we would return to Děčín and participate in Sabbath services, scheduled for 10:30 in grandfather Pächter's synagogue. Lena Arava promised to get us there: Charles had to pick up his wife Helena at the airport at about the same time, but said he would drive with her to Děčín right from the airport.

    Lena arrived at 8:30, Itamar too, and we started out on the same road as the previous day. Lena is fortyish, with dark hair and sincere personality. She said she was single--her hyphenated family name was intended to honor both her stepfather's family (Novotný) and her mother's, which was Romanian and related to ravens--"corvo" or something like that. Unfortunately, in Polish and some other Slavic languages, "kurva" means (quoting here a web dictionary) "bitch, slut, whore" and is also a general swear-word used when things go wrong. So Lena chose the Hebrew "Arava", related to "Orev" (crow) and includes the Czech suffix for a woman's name (Aravah also means "steppe" in Hebrew and is the name of the rift valley south of the Dead Sea).

    Later I told her it reminded me of the name "Rapaport," derived from "Rapa" meaning "raven," with the "port" added either because the family came from the town Porto, or married into the Porto family. In the Encyclopaedia Judaica the family's escutcheon has a black raven on the bottom and hands with paired fingers (the priestly blessing) on top.

    Soon we were out of the city, then past Říp, past Terezín, into the river's gorge and then past Ústí. The time was close to 10:30 and road repaving delayed us, so Lena phoned Poskočil to tell him we might be slightly late: she was told "we will wait for you". As it turned out, we arrived at 10:30, but services had a late start anyway. About 40 people were present, including some from out of town. We met cantor Ivan Kohout, a young man with black hair, trim beard and moustache; Lena said he had studied in her university department. In a side room we met a lovely young woman named Veronika who expected to marry Kohout in December, after she takes the final steps to become a Jew. Audrey talked with her and also with her friend Jana, both speaking English well.

    Around 11:15 the service began: Kohout has a strong and resonant voice, though his melodies were not the ones we knew and sounded less musical. The prayer book is a shortened version, closer to the reform style and printed in four columns (two on each side of facing pages): Hebrew, Hebrew in Latin letters, Czech and English. The service began with the morning blessings, "modeh ani lach" מודה  אני  לך and the ones that follow, then the "Barchu" call for prayer. In earlier correspondence Kohout suggested that I could read the "Shma" and the two paragraphs from Deuteronomy which follow it, and also read the first aliyah from the scroll, but in the synagogue I suggested to him to give the second paragraph to Itamar, who read it very nicely.

    The Czech torah scroll has a different style from the one in my English "tikkun" facsimile--letters were smaller and the scroll not as heavy (the same is true for the Czech scroll at Mishkan Torah, from a town SE of Prague--I think Vlašim). The reading was the one for the Sabbath of Sukkot, where Moses receives the second set of the tablets of the law, having broken the first ones in his anger over the golden calf. After I read the first Aliyah Kohout asked me if I wanted to do more, but I declined, my voice was not holding out. Audrey was called to the Torah as second reader and Itamar was third, and he also got the honor of carrying the scroll in its procession through the congregation (I had forgotten to suggest Lena!). The Haftarah, Ezechiel's prophecy about Gog and Magog, was read in Czech by a tall young gabbai.

    It was all very festive and proper, and though the building could have held a much larger congregation, it was gratifying to see a good number of young faces. I had prepared for the service a sermon about Adolf Pächter, his family and the synagogue, and sent it ahead to Kohout with the suggestion that he might translate and present it. He did not, but presented a running translation which was well received (he promised to send it to "Roš Chodeš"). Here it is:
Adolf Pächter

I would like to tell you today some of the story of Adolf Pächter, who founded this synagogue. Two of his grandsons are here with us today. A "Pächter" in German is a "tenant farmer," someone renting land in return for part of the harvest; Adolf's grandfather Aharon was a tenant farmer on an estate in Dačice in southern Bohemia.

    Adolf was born on 14 September 1846 in Wisonitz near Moravské Budějovice, studied engineering in Vienna, and opened in Jílové a very successful factory for buttons. They were made from "stone nuts," the very hard nuts of the Tagua tree of South America. Around 1880 he moved his factory to Podmokly which, thanks to the railroad from Prague to Germany, had become a center of industry. German was the main language spoken there, and the city was called "Bodenbach," Děčín was "Tetschen" and the Pastýřská stěna was known as the "Schaeferwand."

    Adolf was a tall man with a long moustache--the style of his times--and he invented an attachment to a machine for making buttons, later named "the Pächter." He became the richest man in town, owned several houses and a large area on the mountainside, also a factory with a tall chimney. He became president of the Jewish Kehillah, which started in 1875 and which by 1894 had grown to 177 souls. On land near the factory he built a garden pavilion which served as the first local synagogue, with Rabbi Max Freund hired in 1894 to serve the community.

    From 1892 money was collected to built a temple, an "Israelite Temple Society" was formed in 1901, and the result was this temple, built 1906-7.

    Adolf married 3 times. In 1873 he married Martha Herschel with whom he had 4 children and who died in 1890. In 1892 he was married again, to Adele Hirsch who bore two children but died in 1897; sadly, none of all those children survived the Holocaust. And then in 1900 he was married for the 3rd time, to Wilhelmina ("Minna") Stein, whose family manufactured barrels in Hluboká. He died of diabetes on October 14, 1915, and the family lost the factory in the great depression of 1929 or before that. His widow Minna supported herself as an art dealer.

    She had two children--Heinz born in 1904, and a daughter Anny born in 1907. Heinz Pächter married Dorothea Schipfer in Germany, and being a Zionist and something of an idealist, he moved to British Palestine. Minna strongly opposed his actions, but in retrospect, this saved his life.

    In Migdal, on the shores of the Lake of Galilee (Magdala of the Christian bible) he started a farm, but Arabs burned it down and he moved to nearby Tiberias, where Dorothea died of cancer. Their son Gabriel lives today in Sderoth near Gaza, he made an unscheduled visit to this building about 2 years ago and said here Kaddish for his grandparents. Heinz later remarried, and his children live in villages in Israel under the name of "Ben Aris," which is Hebrew for "son of tenant farmer."

    Anny married George Stern of Lovosice, and with great luck they and their son Peter escaped to British Palestine in December 1939, after the Nazis had already occupied Prague. Peter had been given the middle name "Adolf" in honor of his grandfather, but in Israel that name was quietly dropped because of another man named Adolf, and he was re-named "David."

    Like most Czech Jews, Minna was taken to Terezín. Adele's grand-daughter Liesel (Elisabeth) was a nurse in Terezín and tried to keep her alive in the ghetto's hospital as long as possible, but she died there of hunger, on Yom Kippur, 1944. Earlier, in a room of 14 women, Minna fought hunger by collecting with her room-mates recipes from the "good old days," copied on a collection of pages sewn together with string. This "Kochbuch" survived the war and reached her daughter Anny in 1960, shortly after she had moved to New York. Its story is too long to be told here, it has led to 2 books and a 42-minute documentary video, also a dramatization of it in English is on the internet.

    Liesel survived Terezín and Auschwitz--another story which should be told separately--and visited this synagogue in 1991, before it was re-dedicated. She had also seen it in 1945, shortly after she escaped the Nazis and joined the Russian army. She grew up in Podmokly-Bodenbach for the first 12 years of her life, and her father, Ing. Rudolf Pollack, built there the municipal building, savings bank, library and firehouse Let me finish this talk with what she told about that 1945 visit (recorded in 1984):
    I came to the synagogue and I just couldn't believe my eyes. The women's section, which was upstairs, balcony, was all pulled down. The whole synagogue, the Germans used the synagogue for their horses. So the floor, which was of (?), was just broken out. The whole balcony didn't exist any more. The nice wooden benches weren't there, the whole "aron kodesh" was broken out. But, there were a few very primitive chairs, and on these chairs was about a minyan of Jews, from Carpatho-Russia, who fled to Bodenbach. And there was Dr. Farkaš as the rabbi again, and Löwy the shamash again. And when I came in they told the congregation that I am really from Bodenbach and that my grandfather erected the synagogue. But I tell you, it was so horrible, it was one of the instances I just sort... well, what happened? It's unbelievable! Where are all the people? And everything gone. ...

    ... I went to the side room, and in this side room, which was in a much better shape than the synagogue, was a picture of our grandfather. I thought... I couldn't believe it. But it was there. And I didn't take it down. I didn't take it with me, because I thought it was too heavy. It's been a colored photograph, they somehow colored the photograph, I think, at that time. But it's been, what my mother called the official painting of grandfather. That's been it.

Itamar and I joined in the memorial Kaddish, the service ended with a concluding hymn somewhat like Adon Olam here, and afterwards a short concert was presented, by Alexander Shonert on his violin, accompanied by piano. He gave a spirited performance of melodies in East-European style, including one by Shonert himself, not quite klezmer (one needs a clarinet for that) but in a similar style. Then we all went out to the Sukkah for a Kiddush, I recited "Boreh pri hagafen" and Itamar did the blessing on the bread, "hamotzie lechem min ha-aretz." I am not sure whether it was before or after the service (maybe both) that Vladimír Poskočil spoke, in Czech and with great enthusiasm. After the service the congregation elected new officers for the year--Vladimír was returned to the presidency, and Kohout was also elected to the board.

    Charles and Helena appeared at the end of the service, and again we ate lunch at Café Andy; Vladimír and Mirka came there too for some light fare. Charles told stories from his endless store, but his telling was much better than my memory of them. He told of visiting Lake Manitoba in Canada and being unexpectedly helped by someone. He asked the man--why did you do that to a total stranger? The answer was, "A stranger is a friend I have not yet met," and that has become Charles' motto.

    Later we drove up Žižkova street to visit Pastýřská Stěna, the crag facing Děčín castle across the river. The steep road soon ended in a parking lot next to the Děčín zoo (yes, the city has one!). From there a road let to the overlook with its castle-like restaurant, but a sign prohibited cars from using it, so we slowly walked up along it, except for Audrey who stayed in Lena's car.

    As already noted in 1985 (when I reached the place from the riverside, using an elevator inside the cliff) the view from the top is truly stunning. The edge drops away steeply and reveals Děčín castle almost within a stone's throw, with the new bridge and highway cutting straight across the scene. Noting several cars in a nearby parking lot, Charles decided "Audrey must see this too!" and went back with Lena to fetch the cars. They soon came back with Audrey in Lena's car, and we all enjoyed the view.

    I don't remember any more what we did for dinner. I think I went to "Lehká hlava " and booked dinner for Sunday. It is a vegetarian restaurant quite close to the Leonardo Hotel, highly recommended by the "Lonely Planet" guidebook, we had gone there on Thursday (?) but found it fully booked.

    Sunday 7 October

    The day started cold and wet, with light but constant drizzle. Lena meant to pick us up at 10:30, but instead sent a message to the hotel that she had a migraine and would only come at 2 pm. So we decided to walk to the Charles' Bridge, within easy distance. Itamar had providentially brought two umbrellas--I had considered bringing one too, but in the end decided not to.

    To get there we followed a little cobble-stone alley to the riverbank road--too narrow even for Czech cars--then walked along the river under the gaze of the sculpture of Smetana. The sidewalk led to a roofed arcade with shops for the tourist trade, ending at the entrance to the bridge.

    Audrey was feeling cold and unhappy that morning (probably was awake at night), indeed she seemed reluctant about the entire excursion, so Itamar and I left her sitting on her walker-seat, shielded from rain beneath the tall tower above the entrance to the bridge. Posted near that spot was a young man in red-and-yellow mediaeval garb, with steel helmet, breastplate and a short lance, ready for tourists' cameras.

    Earlier in the visit, whenever we passed by the bridge it always seemed crowded with visitors, and even on this wet day it was fairly busy. Itamar and I walked to its far end, identifying sculptures with the help of a list in the "Lonely Planet" guidebook. Too many seemed devoted to obscure church figures--including St. John Nepomuk, who in 1393 was tossed from the bridge to his death, on the orders of King Wenceslaus IV "the lazy" (der faule), a supporter of Hus. His statue was placed here after the Catholic emperor defeated a Czech uprising. On that same side stood a big crucifix with Hebrew words "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts," erected as punishment by a Jewish merchant who voiced doubt in the divinity of Christ.

    Another tower guarded the far end, and there we turned back. On the upstream side we saw an elaborate tableau of the society for redemption of Christian prisoners, with a swaggering Turk, three prisoners cowering in a dungeon and a happy liberated prisoner with broken shackle. We also passed the statue of a knight guarding the bridge, standing at a lower level.

    Near the tower where Audrey sat was a statue that might have been Sta. Barbara, with iron bars to which many padlocks were attached. That may be part of a fad that had swept Europe, starting with a certain bridge in Italy and with a story about it in a 2006 book. Supposedly, lovers attach these padlocks as symbols of eternal love, then toss the key into the river (see "love padlocks" on Wikipedia).

    We returned the way we came. Next to the shopping arcade was a shop selling marionettes, and I told Audrey I would like buy one for grand-daughter Zoe. I had in mind one of the many Pinocchios on display, but Audrey said "get something that's Czech." So I ended buying one of Hurvínek, Czech forerunner of Dennis the Menace (sort of), and will keep it. Hurvínek and Špejbl, with big ears and popping eyeballs, are familiar figures on the Czech marionette stage; Špejbl is the pedantic dad and teacher, while other marionettes depict the mother, sister and dog. They were popular in pre-war Prague, and I remember being taken in 1939 to a show of Hurvínek and Špejbl. That was that when I jumped out of the door of a tram, thinking it was the wrong one, ending my flight by hugging a lamp post. One of their lines sticks in my mind: "Kolik ma veverka zuby?" (how many teeth has the squirrel?). The rhyming answer: "Veverka ma zuby, veverka ma zuby .... plnou huby!" (the squirrel has teeth ... a mouth full!).
        (Charles Wiener showed me a printed script "Kolik má lasička (weasel) zubu??" However, I do remember "veverka ma zuby"--maybe that was the version for small kids)
    We returned to the hotel, Audrey took a rest and Itamar and I visited the famous astronomical clock at the Old Town Square. The map suggested it was not far, but to reach it one had to thread a maze of alleys with no clear pattern. We arrived in time to join the crowd waiting for the clock strike the hour, when apostles marched behind a window and other figures went through motions. The clock has all sorts of arcane markings on its face, enhancing its medieval appearance.

    Lena appeared at 2, saying she felt OK. The previous day Charles prepared her at length about the Hradčany castle, said one may not park in front but only in a square some distance away (and even then only for a limited time). He advised her to drop us at the entrance, park on the square and later pick us up at a different place.

    And that was how it went. We entered through the main gate at the uphill end of the castle and continued beneath the Czech president's office building to the cathedral of St. Vitus, whose spires dominate the Prague skyline. Many visitors were milling around, and the cathedral itself seemed somber, gray and stony; in 1985 its monotony was broken by hanging flags and by busts of kings, but not today. We soon came out again and continued to the courtyard below, to a statue of St. George slaying a dragon, and then to Saint Georges's Basilica, the Romanesque church which preceded the cathedral. Czech kings were buried in the crypt under it. The castle has many other things worth a visit, but the day was cold and we soon turned around, looking for a bite to eat and a rest room. We found both in a dingy refreshment shop next to the cathedral, facing the passage beneath the gargoyles. Lena then explained to Itamar where she would pick us up and hurried to the car before her 70 minutes of parking ran out, and after a while we continued leisurely, leaving the castle grounds on a path overlooking a deep moat and thriving gardens, with a statue of President Beneš standing tall on a pedestal. Lena was already waiting, and we continued downhill.

    We came back to the hotel, and as I recall, sat in the hotel lobby and talked. Lena told us more about herself--she owned a house in a village between Teplice and Děčín, and was teaching Jewish history and the evolution of prayer at the university. She was also finishing her doctoral thesis on Jewish life in Czech provincial towns, using records from a selection of 7 selected communities in different parts of the country.

    And then? It seems she would still like Mr. Right to appear on the scene, but Prague may not be the best place. She had "made aliyah" to Israel and first settled in Jerusalem, but did not like it. She then got a job at the Haifa University, but was shunted there to work with non-Israelis--Russians, Germans etc. She was busy with some research when word came about a job opening in Prague--someone had retired--she applied for it and was hired. But now she was ready to leave the Czech Republic too. She said she would be happier in France--had lived there before, and while her thesis will be written in Czech, she thinks about translating it to French.

    Her immediate plan, after completing her thesis, is to get a job in England, to help her master the English language. Or in America, one wonders?

    She brought for us a recently published "Festschrift" of articles published as tribute to Dr. Nosek on his 70th birthday. It has his picture on the flyleaf, with snow-white hair and beard, and she told us that he was no longer concerned with contemporary Jewish history and culture, but rather with the legacy of the era of the Talmud and the books of Zohar. Lena has contributed to it an article about Czech Jews at the time of Rabbi Loew, and there was even a contribution by Ivan Kohout, around נעיצו   קטירא,  an obscure phrase in the Zohar which seems to mean something like "the dark side of the force" (sitra achra) but which I was unable track down, even with Google. Lena's article, surprisingly, is printed in English--if she can write material like that, we could just as well have communicated in English!

    For dinner we went to the Lehká hlava , which in Czech means "light head." It is on a side alley of Karolína Světlá street, on a cobblestoned cul-de-sac, a tiny place with just a few tables, one reason why the reservation specified both starting and ending times. A small room with an arched ceiling on which a starry sky was either painted or projected, a décor more at home with young backpackers than with us members of the bourgeoisie, but what the heck, the food was good and plentiful. I already forgot what we ordered, except for delicious vegetable brochettes: Lena, who had never heard of it before, pronounced it good and said she'd keep it in mind for visitors who seek kosher food.

    8 October 2012, Monday

    Charles and Itamar both arrived around 8:30 and we drove straight to Terezín, of which we had so far seen only a small part--and besides, I had forgotten my notebook in the office of the Jewish Terezín Memorial. This time Dr. Munk was there--a cheerful short man with black hair. In his office I told him of the Pächter family and retrieved my notes, and we then returned to the main fortress and picked up where we had left off.

    First we went to the museum building, formerly a school, which in the ghetto housed young boys. Now the entrance is topped by the Hebrew word "Yizkor" ([God] will remember) with which the memorial prayer begins, and it houses exhibits of the ghetto, with signs in four languages--Czech, German, English and Hebrew.

    It is all very striking, but my memory focuses on just one item, a list on a wall similar to the one of the Pinkas synagogue in Prague--only this one records the names of over 1000 Jewish children who were taken to Terezín and never returned.

    I searched the list and found the name of Kurt Koralek, three weeks younger than me, with whom I used to play long ago. He might even have lived on the same short street in Bodenbach-Podmokly (vague memory of playing on entrance steps across the street). Kurti's family fled the Nazis to Denmark, but his father saw how poorly refugees lived there and decided to return. But for God's grace, my name could have been there too.

    His brother Hansi Koralek was sent to Palestine with the Youth Aliyah organization, which tried to save Europe's children. He changed his name to Channan Almog (= coral in Hebrew), helped found Kibutz Neot Mordechai in the northernmost Jordan valley, married a lady named Chana and raised four children.

    From there we drove to the Magdeburg barracks which we visited too briefly on Friday, a huge building. This time we entered the other end of the exhibit, devoted to theater in the ghetto--pictures, costumes, posters. From there one reaches the art exhibit where we had briefly been on Friday, it stretches from room to room on the second floor. Racks and more racks of displays--mostly graphic art, with more in albums scattered on tables here and there. Itamar, no mean artist himself, felt they displayed admirable quality, and showed us on his camera drawings he himself had made--colorful and well done. We had time to explore, but even so, one quickly gets saturated.

    In both museums I was struck by how few tourists seemed to visit them, apart from organized school tours. This place ought to attract many more Jewish visitors, but (unlike in the Prague synagogues) few were in evidence here, and few cars were parked outside. Most visitors to Terezín seemed to be Czech school children (with more attention to the political prison of the Small Fortress). The place deserves far better attendance: young Israelis are regularly sent to visit Auschwitz, a monument to Nazi atrocity, but not to Terezín which highlights the prisoners' will to live, to maintain their community in the face of adversity.

    On the way out Wiener drove slowly along a street, stopped at the entrance to a walled courtyard, and guided us inside what seemed like the yard of a small farm. There, in an airless storage room, the remains of a Jewish prayer room were recently discovered. The storage room had painted walls, but when they were recently cleaned, an older layer was discovered beneath their paint, with wall inscriptions in Hebrew similar to those in the Altneu--"Hear O Israel" and "I always imagine the Lord in front of me." One cannot well call a cubbyhole a "synagogue" when it is scarcely large enough to admit ten people, but there it was, and attendants were standing ready to show it to visitors.

    We then continued a few miles to Lovosice, where my father grew up; from there Wiener called Prague on his cell phone and reserved a table at Lehká hlava . Lovosice stretches along a main street with a 90-degree bend in its middle, and its church stands on the outside of the bend. Right across from it is a house with a sphere at its crest, built by grandfather Josef for his own family, for the family of his brother Julius and for his own father, with stores on the street level. Viewed at a distance from the street, the sphere indeed looks as if it might be hollow, with a cache deposited in it when the building opened in 1910 (as my dad told): it does not look like the masonry spheres found in many wall decorations in Prague, but has a flange.

    We entered the small courtyard and a young man approached us, asking whom did we want to see. He was quite friendly, we told him what we knew of the house and he said he was sharing it with several other people. Itamar took quite a few pictures.

    Then back to Prague and a good dinner at the Lehká hlava , which Charles and Helena liked. It was the evening of Simchat Torah and Altneu was holding a children's service, scheduled to end at 7:30 pm with a procession to the street, carrying Torah scrolls. Thanks to Audrey's "handicap" placard (brought from Maryland at Charles' advice) we parked at a spot reserved for the handicapped--and not one minute too soon. As soon as we arrived, a procession with six scrolls emerged from a side door, led by portly Rabbi Sidon and followed by many men, women and quite a few children. The police had already cordoned off an area of the street, and soon people were dancing there with the scrolls, to the tune of old melodies. Snacks were also offered,

    Having missed meeting Gustav Vodrážka at Altneu on Friday night, I hoped to see him this last evening, but he had not come. However, I was introduced by Charles to Harry Farkaš, son of Rabbi Farkaš, the last rabbi of Děčín. I told him how much I enjoyed visiting the old synagogue there and meeting its members, and then Farkaš told me "but they cannot come here", because in his eyes they were not really counted among Jews. Vládya Poskočil has mixed parentage, and Mirka certainly is not Jewish.

    I don't remember whether we said good-bye to Itamar that evening, or the next morning when we had ample time to pack, since our flight was only scheduled around noon. Charles picked us up and took us to the airport, and the flight back was tedious but on time. Itamar's flight was next day (10th), and Wiener took him to the airport, too, after some problems arose with his scheduled ride to the airport.

    Both Audrey and I were rather exhausted by the time we reached Baltimore, and Audrey drove back very, very carefully. And yes, both camera and wallet (which we had missed when we left Baltimore) were safe inside our locked car.

    What does one bring back from such a journey? By all signs, the Czechs have recovered from their dark era, have once again become (as a working girl told my dad in 1972) a happy nation, a "veselý národ." For Audrey, of course, everything was new. In Prague I saw places missed in 1985, like the old Jewish cemetery and the list of Holocaust victims on the walls of the Pinkas synagogue. Once again I met Dr. Leo Pavlát, and unexpectedly, Rabbi Daniel Mayer, very much aged.

    Terezín refreshed and deepened our awareness of the evils of the Holocaust. Especially remembered will be the name of Kurti Koralek on a wall, and among exhibits of Terezín artwork, two watercolors by Zdenka Eismannová. One showed a women's dormitory room with no bunks, inmates jam-packed next to each other on the floor; I counted a dozen women, in a room like the one described by grandmother Minna. The other, by the same artist, shows a woman cooking in a small pot, not "platonically" but for real. Both are on page 129 of the printed collection "Art Against Death."

    And in Děčín, both synagogue and congregation were a revelation too. The synagogue is beautifully restored and its service was inspiring.

    But more than sites and memories. this was also a visit with many encounters. Charles Wiener has my admiration and thanks--if not for him, this trip would probably not have taken place. He is immensely personable and talented, outgoing, helpful, and full of stories and information. The Czech Jewish community is fortunate to have him devoted to its causes, yet he is informal and easy going. Thank you, Charles, and thank you too, Helena.

    Lena Arava also turned out to be a pleasant and interesting person, and I wish all her hopes and plans come to pass. The fact we had to converse in Hebrew was an impediment for Audrey but established a special bond between Lena and Itamar. Itamar himself was wonderful company and walked better than I had feared, it was great to be together again after a dozen years.

    Mirka Poskočilová was also a revelation, a woman dedicated to serve others, first and foremost her deaf children, as well as the Děčín congregation. Though not Jewish, she seems to take on much of burden of running the synagogue off her father-in-law Vlá?a. He himself is about my age but (as a former athlete) with much more energy, grinning, personable and quite lively. I wish we had a language in common!

    Other persons also will be remembered--Sylvie Wittmann, Ivan Kohout, Drs. Munk, Blodig and Pavlát, Rabbi Peter and others, and I was sorry to miss Gugi and Dr. Nosek whom we missed. I wish I could promise to come back, but next month I turn 81 and should not overreach.

    The Czech Jewish community remains small and elderly, its future in the balance. Much depends on its few young members, on converts and on "non-halachic Jews", those whose Jewish ancestry falls short of the strict demands of orthodoxy. Arguments over "who is a Jew" nowadays divide Jewish communities all over the world, and they have also reached Prague. In Israel orthodoxy with its political clout sets a high bar and imposes harsh restrictions--e.g. excluding from Jewish cemeteries fallen soldiers whose ancestry was not approved by rabbis. In the USA, by contrast, the hold of Judaism is already weak, and most communities tend to be lenient. As the poet Bialik wrote

    Anyone whose heart was touched
    By the nation's troubles
    Gathered be to our camp,
    Let us not exclude him.
The Czech Jewish community straddles this divide. On one hand Israel, where orthodoxy rules, is the undisputed center of Judaism. On the other hand, the Czech Republic is a liberal society (and its Jews were liberal even before the Nazis arrived). As Wiener quipped, "The Czechs are the most agnostic society in Europe. Why? Because in the communist era, one had to either declare affiliation with a religious organization, or else one was labeled 'atheist'. Many Jews were thus identified as atheists."

    The Prague community is officially orthodox, with the support of many converts, although a countercurrent exists, e.g. Sylvie Wittmann's Bejt Simcha. Děčín is liberal and accepts all comers--and for that the son of Rabbi Farkaš in Prague sneered at it. But I am not kidding myself, if Děčín followed orthodox criteria for its membership, my grandfather's synagogue might have become a memorial to vanished Jews. Vládya Poskočil and his group get ample credit for hard work, but the danger is not past.

    And yet, an undercurrent exists of Czech Jewish cultural activity: the monthly Roš chodeš ( ) does not seem to lack content (though I'm unable to read it), Wiener, Lena, Kohout, the "festschrift" (titled "Šalom") for Nosek's 70th birthday, activities at Terezín and at the Jewish museum. Also Sylvie's "Beit Simcha" which publishes a monthly newsletter Maskil (roughly translated, "enlighted Jew"), the anniversary booklet of Děčín and Rabbi Tom Kučera who edited it. And one wonders who created those Jewish sites of Radio Prague on the internet.
        [Wiener told that Rabbi Kučera was now serving a congregation in Munich; he used to work in Prague and also traveled among scattered Jewish communities. However, his pay was minimal and therefore he focused his attention on the liberal community in Munich, which supported him during his rabbinical studies. He was one of the few rabbis accepted by the Federation--by its rules they must speak Czech or Slovak. His ordination (smichah) is from the liberal Geiger Institute in Berlin-Potsdam. Other congregational leaders have not qualified--Ron Hoffberg who leads a "Masorti" group in Prague, the leader of Chabad there who speaks no Czech and who mostly serves Americans and Israelis, and an Israeli Michael Dushinsky who teaches cantors and whose most notable student is Ivan Kohout. ]

It may all be part of the deeper question of where religion is heading--for Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus and others. In early days, faith in God was hard to separate from superstition. It resembled early childhood, when the world is full of mystery, and one usually relies on parents who tend us with love, vastly more powerful and wiser than ourselves. Similarly, the world of adults in those times was full of mystery, and it seemed only right to credit a father in heaven with a similar role.

    In the last few centuries, many ancient mysteries have yielded to reason. The heavens are no longer a godly world of purity above us, but a frighteningly vast expanse of emptiness. And although we still need to understand the origin of life, of the universe and of its constant expansion, the religion we have inherited no longer explains the natural world, and supernatural manifestations are becoming part of the remembered past, no longer expected in the present time. As Wiener pointed out, the future may not be "atheistic" which means "without God," but "agnostic" which simply means "not knowing."

    In this future, instead of a belief in supernatural help and an afterlife, faith may focus on the purpose of our lives. Granted that the world is here and real, and that we the stewards of a planet where life has sprung forth--what should one be doing?

    As Jews, we may be among the first to ask that question, with a long history and many precedents. We hold ourselves to be the "chosen people," as "a kingdom of priests and holy nation" through which "the families of the Earth will be blessed." Does this imply a higher standard and wider duties?

    Personally, I like to think that it does. One recalls a story about the Basque nation, which long ago fought a bitter war against neighboring Spain. Neither side prevailed, and in the end the Spaniards suggested a truce. "Send us some of your noblemen so we can negotiate with them." The Basques reply was "we all are noblemen."

    That may also be the real meaning of the "chosen people."

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 26 December 2012