During our travels, we like to keep our tales light. We hope to hold your interest with a new fact about a foreign land or make you laugh with a story about silly Americans abroad. However, we are getting into a region of the world where it isn’t all fun stories and cute photos. The places we are visiting now are friendly and cheerful, but they weren’t always this way. The history of these areas has a dark past, and the people who grew up here have lived through some unthinkable oppressions.
We aren’t tourists- we are travelers- and learning the basic history of these cities is crucial to our role as explorers of the world. We don’t want to just visit the sights, grab some unique food and a T shirt before heading out. We want to know why things are the way they are. What does this monument really stand for? What is the basic history of the people who call this place home?
In many cities in Europe, there is an area of town referred to as the “Jewish Quarter.” The poor Jewish people seem to be always shoved into a corner of town and picked on, but in Czechoslovakia they had it much worse than in most places.
Now I am by no means an expert or an historian, but I can understand the basics of how these people were treated and our visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery provides a great example. Let me break down the cliff note version of a little Jewish history ….
In the 15th century, the Jews were living in the Jewish Quarter in Prague – not super merrily, but they were doing alright. They were always sort of bullied, but they had an area of town to call their own. Eventually, they began to outgrow their area. They asked the city for more land and were of course turned down. Over the course of 300 years… three. hundred. years. they were stuck in their corner and unable to expand. What you might not think about is the number of people, naturally, who passed away during 300 years. The Jewish population ran out of room in their cemeteries quickly and begged for more land, as the burial process is very important to the Jewish faith. Eventually they had to figure out another way. They began to add more dead bodies on top of the old ones. The gravestones got tighter and tighter until they were a giant mess of broken stone. Many didn’t even receive gravestones- there simply wasn’t room. The result is a cemetery, used for three centuries, where the bodies are stacked 12 people high and the tombstones are haphazard at best.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a powerful place to visit. It is the size of a small park, with 20,000 people buried below. When you look over the gates to the street outside… you realize you are many, many feet above street level… showing once again how the ground kept growing taller with the addition of more bodies and more soil. More bodies and more soil. It is so sad, and so moving to think about these realities.
Fast forward to WWII. I don’t even need to tell you what happens to the Jews next. My dad calls this era “the darkest of all mankind.” Czechoslovakia was geographically situated right in the way of the Nazi movement and was one of the first places to be sieged by the Germans. The Jewish museums in Prague have excellent Jewish memorabilia that was hidden and saved during this time, as well as a wonderful account of the horrifying history endured. They are definetly worth a visit.
We know the story, I won’t go into details, but in Prague you can visit a striking place called the Pinkas Synagogue. Take a moment to consider the following: See the wallpaper on the walls in front of me? The walls of this entire Synagogue are actually covered in teeny, handwritten names. The names of the Jews – JUST. FROM. PRAGUE. that were murdered in the Holocaust. It is beautiful, but overwhelming to walk through the entire building and glance at the hundreds of thousands of names; Of lives lost. It is a place in Prague that is somber, and humbling, but can not be missed.
Unfortunately, the abuse of the Czech people didn’t quite end after the Holocaust. When WWII ended, and the Germans moved out, it wasn’t long before the Soviet Communists took their place. In 1948, Czechoslovakia was overtaken by communists and lived for four decades under communist rule. The minute the commies came in, 95% of private property and businesses became property of the state. Human rights were violated, executions took place, and the goals of the communist party were not to be challenged. The Czech people seriously can’t catch a break!
Although the city is beautiful now, with a booming economy, you can find many museums and memorials to teach you about the not so beautiful history. My personal favorite place in the city was the John Lennon Wall. It began as the communist regime was losing it’s power in the late 80s and is ever-changing even today.
The wall began as a place where students would write their grievances with the communist party, leading to not-so-nice run ins with the police. As communism fell, it quickly became an ever rotating, always evolving public art space full of messages of positivity and encouragement.. and a lot of Beatles lyrics 😉
The wall is a place where you can be uplifted and remember that people are inherently good, when it is sometimes hard to remember that. There will always be those jerks who don’t use the wall for positive purposes, but those people are swiftly overlooked and the positivity continues. Anyone can leave their mark on the wall making it an interactive, ever-changing space. We will end with pictures of that, and focus on the current positives, instead of the horrid history endured to get here.
Thanks for sticking with me during this long, heavy post. As we wrap us, let’s remember to be kind to one another. Please. We could all use that life motto right about now.