Throughout history Prague has had a significant Jewish population, but as is true elsewhere in the world, their well being has been dependent on the whim of whoever was in power – they could go from being valued citizens to outcasts.The darkest hours were of course during the German Occupation, when along with gypsies, they were targeted for elimination. Only 10% of the Jewish population survived.Visiting the Jewish quarter was our first step. We wandered silently around the old Jewish Cemetery – the oldest graves dated from the 15th Century. Then we visited the ceremonial hall of the Prague Burial Society and the three Synagogues.
The Spanish Synagogue was unbelievably ornate, the Maisel Synagogue had lots of treasures, but it was the Pinkas Synagogue which stopped me in my tracks. It has been turned into a memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia exterminated by the Nazis. On its walls are written the names of the victims and the communities they came from.Tens of thousands of names – it was at times overwhelming, but occasionally I just zeroed in on one life and stopped there – Helena 1899-1941.
One name, one life, one story, one mother protecting her children, one death. In another room were the Children’s drawings from Terezin – children being children, but also glimpsing the dark future ahead of them.
Of the 8,000 children deported, only 242 survived.I have always been struck by trappist monk Thomas Merton’s words “I could not understand the horror of Auschwitz until I discovered within myself the same potential”. To visit places like this is to remind yourself of the darkness of which we are all capable, and to commit yourself to being an active part of building a better world.