Prague is one of the most touristic cities in Europe. It is a large UNESCO World Heritage site, full of fairytale towers, ornate statues and art nouveau façades. The beauties of its historical and cultural heritage arouse the imagination and evoke its millenary history in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, in the midst of all this beauty, there are stories that people probably would rather forget. Despite its 3.5 million tourists a year, Prague has a history of pain, suffering and genocide linked to the former Jewish population that lived here.
The shiny square pebbles of Wenceslas Square, in the historic center of Prague, are crossed by light and dark gray patterns. During 1987, when Wenceslas Square was restored (in view of a visit by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev) a passerby slipped a pair of spare stones into his pocket one spring morning.
On that spring morning just over 30 years ago he was on his way to work in the Albatros children’s publishing house. He’d passed piles of new cobbles waiting to be laid by workers in overalls and kneepads. Something about them caught his eye, and he bent down for a closer look. They were fragments of Jewish tombstones that had been cut into perfect cubes of granite and, judging by the dates, they’d been taken from a 19th Century cemetery. Shocked, he pocketed a few and walked briskly away.
Three decades later, the same person, Leo Pavlat, now director of the Prague Jewish Museum, took two pebbles from his bag and compared them to the pebbles at his feet: they were identical. Pavlat revealed that the opposite side was a smooth face with visible inscriptions in gold paint: the date 1895 and the Hebrew letters “he”, “vav” and “bet”. It was part of the eulogy written on a Jewish tombstone.
“It wasn’t easy being Jewish back then” he told the BBC. “I was an active member of the community, though not in the official circles. And I wasn’t a member of the Communist Party. Even attending the officially-sanctioned weekly service in one of the few functioning synagogues was enough to prompt a chat with the secret police. There were no publications, no education. I think the regime just wanted the Jewish community to slowly die” he continued.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Prague was a city rich in art, culture and harmony. Germans, Czechs and Jews all lived together peacefully in the “Golden City”. One of the greatest writers of all three categories – German, Jewish and Czech – was Franz Kafka.
The Jewish quarter of the Old City developed in the 16th century with the influx of Jewish refugees from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain. At the beginning of the 18th century, a quarter of Prague’s population, according to some estimates, was Jewish and It was the second largest Jewish community in Europe after Thessaloniki in Greece.
However, In 1939, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Nazi Germany and Prague’s Jewish community was at the mercy of Adolf Hitler. 20% of the city’s population was Jewish – about 92,000 people – and two-thirds of them were murdered in the Holocaust.
In 1945, Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Red Army of the Soviet Union, which rebuilt the nation in his own image. Only 15,000 Jews remained throughout the country and in 1950 half of them had emigrated to Israel to escape the Nazi occupation and the suppression of their culture by the communist regime. At least 90 synagogues in Czechoslovakia were demolished by the communist authorities. Talking about the Holocaust was taboo and the survivors were silenced and prevented from sharing their experiences. In the 1980s, around 8,000 Jews still called the village their home.
In addition, across the country, on the edges of villages and towns, some 600 Jewish cemeteries lay untended and forgotten. The Communist authorities – and, it seems, officials within the Jewish community too – saw them as repositories of valuable building material that would otherwise go to waste.
Leo Pavlat couldn’t remember where his stones had come from, but his cobbles, it seems, were cut from tombstones taken from a Jewish cemetery established in 1864 in the town of Udlice in North Bohemia.
There’d been a Jewish community there since the 17th Century, with a synagogue, yeshiva (a religious school) and two cemeteries. By 1930, the Jewish population of Udlice had fallen to 13. By the 1980s, when its cemetery was looted, it was – presumably – zero.
With the fall of communism, Czechoslovakia was divided into two democratic states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Jewish quarter, the work of Franz Kafka and the legend of the Golem form part of his history, attracting millions of people.
And still today, each year, millions of visitors walk through the cobbled streets of Prague’s Old Town without realising, most likely, that many of the stones below their feet have been looted from what was meant to be sacred ground.
Sources: BBC and me. Images BBC and web.