Underneath Prague’s Streets Lies the Haunting Story of its Former Jewish Population

Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital, is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s one enormous UNESCO historic site with fantasy towers, baroque sculptures, and art nouveau facades that evoke phantoms from its thousand-year past at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

However, there are phantoms that Prague would rather forget. Under the feet of an estimated 3.5 million tourists every year lies a narrative of sorrow, misery, and genocide that would go unnoticed as people rush from museum to cafe to boutique hotel and back again.

Cityscape view on the clock tower and Tyn cathedral on the old square in Prague.

The BBC traveled to Prague’s Old Town’s Wenceslas Square to learn the terrible secret of its streets. The polished square cobbles are crisscrossed by light and dark gray patterns, and a passer-by snuck a couple of the replacement stones into his pocket in 1987 when Wenceslas Square was being renovated ahead of a red carpet visit by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Leo Pavlat, now the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, pulled two cobbles from his backpack and compared them to the cobbles on his feet three decades later – they were identical.

Church of Our Lady before Týn in Old Town Square of Prague in the morning. Czech Republic

Pavlat turned his stones over to expose a purposefully polished face with legible inscriptions in gold paint: the date “1895” and the Hebrew characters “he”, “vav”, and “bet”. It was written on a Jewish headstone as part of the eulogy.

When Pavlat saw the laborers taking fresh stones from a large pile 30 years ago, the inscriptions caught his attention and he realized what he was looking at.

“Being Jewish back then wasn’t easy,” he told the BBC. “I was an active part of the community, but not in the official circles. And I wasn’t a Communist Party member.”

Lion herald on the gravestone of Hendl Bassevi, in the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague. Photo Andreas Praefcke CC BY 3.0

“There were no publications, no education,” Pavlat said. “I believe the dictatorship just desired that the Jewish community perish slowly.”

Prague was a cosmopolitan metropolis of art, culture, and relative tranquility towards the close of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Germans, Czechs, and Jews all coexisted in the ‘Golden City’ as Habsburg subjects. Franz Kafka, the most prominent member of this mixed society, was one of the finest authors of all three groups – German, Jewish, and Czech.

Prague has had a vibrant Jewish community since the 11th century, and aside from a few harsh stains on its liberal Medieval and Early Modern history, the city was a refuge in compared to much of Europe.

Thousands of gravestones are crammed into the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Photo by Postdlf CC BY-SA 3.0

With the inflow of Jewish immigrants from Moravia (in the east of the contemporary Czech Republic), Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 16th century, the Jewish Quarter of the Old Town evolved as a Jewish neighborhood hood.

By the early 18th century, an estimated 15,000 Jews made up a quarter of Prague’s population. It had the second biggest Jewish community in Europe, behind Thessaloniki in Greece, and it had the most Ashkenazi Jews of any city in the globe.

Prague, ?zech Republic – April 06, 2016: View on Old Town Square in Pargue from the Astronomical Clock Tower – tourists in colorful clothes are gathering on the square.

This was not going to last. In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded autonomous Czechoslovakia, putting Prague’s Jewish community at the mercy of Adolf Hitler’s murderous insanity. Twenty percent of the city’s population — an estimated 92,000 individuals — were Jewish, and two-thirds of them would perish in the Holocaust.

Czechoslovakia was “liberated” in 1945 by the Soviet Union’s Red Army, which rebuilt the country in its own image. Only 15,000 Jews remained in the nation, and by 1950, half of them had moved to Israel to escape the terrible memories of the cruel Nazi occupation and the Communist regime’s persecution of their culture.

27 may 2018: tram restaurant in Wenceslas square in Prague at morning. Prague. Czech Republic

The Communist authorities demolished 90 synagogues in Czechoslovakia as part of their assault on religion. As the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s authority grew, Jewish members of the Communist government were harassed, imprisoned, and expelled from the party. The rest began to conceal their Jewish heritage.

The secret police followed Jews who worshiped or displayed their Judaism. The Holocaust was taboo, and survivors were hushed and forbidden from speaking out. By the 1980s, fewer than 8,000 Jews remained in the nation.

View on Old Town Square in Prague at sunrise

The cash-strapped dictatorship raided graves for raw materials during this period. Leo Pavlat told the BBC that he had tracked the cobbles he’d removed to a Jewish cemetery in the North Bohemian town of Udlice.

It had a vibrant population until the twentieth century when the twin evils of National Socialism and Communism exterminated the Jewish community and later obliterated its memory.

Jewish cemetery in Prague

“I don’t think that was done on purpose by the Communists to upset us, Jews,” Pavlat remarked. “However, it is inconsiderate.”

Prague has begun to openly commemorate its Jewish roots after the fall of Communism and the division of Czechoslovakia into two democratic republics, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Jewish Quarter, Franz Kafka’s literature, and the tale of the Golem are all firmly embedded in its proud new identity, attracting millions of tourists.

“It’s not simple,” Pavlat said when asked what he wanted the city to do about its streets of the dead. The gravestones can never be repaired, and laying new cobbles would cost millions of dollars.”

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