If our first day or so in Prague felt like a bit of a fairy tale, our second day had nothing magical about, just a lot of ghosts wherever we turned. We had a new guide that day, Helena from Wittman Tours, a company that specializes in Jewish heritage tours of Prague and the surrounding area, including the concentration camp in Terezin. We had heard good things about the company from friends at home, so chose to use one of their guides for our second full day in Prague. Helena was another excellent guide, and she was able to provide us with another person’s perspective on Prague.
Helena, like Andrea, was a Czech native and had lived in Prague for many years. When she told us that she was Jewish, I asked her about her family’s experience during the Holocaust. Helena said that although her parents had never discussed the matter in any detail with her, she knew that somehow they had been able to obtain falsified papers giving them a Christian identity. Like so many survivors, her parents preferred not to discuss those years, and thus Helena knew only those bare facts.
According to Helena, Prague had a Jewish community very early in its history, though many settlers came and left, depending on the economic and political situation. There was a Jewish community as early as the tenth century, living near the Castle and the marketplace there. Although that community was wiped out during the Crusades in the 12th century, there was then a new community growing on the other side of the river near what is now called Old Town, where in the 13th century the oldest still-existing synagogue was built, referred to as the Old-New Synagogue. That synagogue is still providing religious services to this day. It is claimed to be the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe.
It was humbling to be in this synagogue, thinking of its long history. Although it lacked the awesome size and height of the St. Vitus Cathedral and of some of the other synagogues we saw in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, it was moving to think about Jewish men (women prayed behind a thick stone wall with only a small hole to see into the main sanctuary) almost 800 years ago praying in this space. Jews then lived in a ghetto, separated from the rest of the city by walls, and they faced anti-Semitism and periods of expulsion and then return, but were generally successful merchants and bankers and important contributors to the economy of the city.
The second oldest of the synagogues we saw in Prague was the Pinkas Synagogue, built in the early part of the 16th century. Today it operates as a museum to educate people about the Jewish religion, its holidays and rituals, and does not operate as a place of religious services.
Immediately outside the synagogue is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Prague, so crowded with the remains of about 200,000 Jewish residents that the headstones are tumbled together and, according to Helena, are buried as many as twelve deep, one on top of the other.
There is also a building for the chevra kadisha (burial society) on the cemetery grounds, including a balcony where the Cohanim stood since they were not allowed to enter the cemetery. (According to Jewish law, the Cohanim, the priestly tribe descended from Aaron, are not to defile themselves by touching or going close to a dead body.)
These ancient stones and their placement and inscriptions are evidence of what once was a crowded Jewish neighborhood within the ghetto walls, a community that was observant of Jewish laws and forced to live separately from their Christian neighbors.
In the 1500s Prague had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Other synagogues were built, including a synagogue built by one of the wealthiest residents of Prague, Mordecai Maisel, as his own private synagogue. According to Helena, Maisel was friendly with the reigning king, Rudolf II, and was an important merchant and property owner in Prague. Maisel was also very friendly with Rabbi Judah Loew, a leading rabbi as well as a writer, best known for his rendition of the Golem legend. Both Maisel and Rabbi Loew are buried in the Old Cemetery, their graves marked by large tent-like structures instead of plain headstones. We were not able to get inside the Maisel synagogue as it is closed for renovations, but we were able to take some photographs of the exterior.
The newest synagogue we saw in the Jewish Quarter was the magnificent Spanish Synagogue. Despite its name, the synagogue had nothing to do with Spain nor were its congregants Sephardic. Rather the name refers to the Moorish designs that decorate both the exterior and the interior of the synagogue. This synagogue was built in the second half of the 19th century and still offers services on Friday nights, attracting many tourists.
Seeing this synagogue made me realize just how prosperous the Jewish community must have been in the 19th century. The lavish and ornate wall coverings are indicative of the resources available to the Jewish residents. In fact, Jews were granted equal rights around this time, and the ghetto walls came down, allowing Jews to move out of the Jewish Quarter.
Many moved to the New Town area, where yet another impressive synagogue was built in the early 20th century, the Jerusalem Synagogue. We later visited this synagogue on our own, and although we did not get inside, we were once again dazzled by the colorful and elaborately designed exterior, which also reflects Moorish influence.
Helena told us that once the Jews were allowed to move out of the ghetto, most left if they could afford to do so, leaving behind only those too poor to move. Poor Christians then moved into the area where the ghetto had existed, and because of the poverty, conditions deteriorated, leading to severe sanitary and health problems. Eventually the city tore down the old buildings in an early form of urban renewal, replacing the older homes with the fancy Art Nouveau buildings that line the streets today. The streets were widened, and the whole character of the former ghetto disappeared. For the most part, only the synagogues survived.
Then the Nazis arrived in the late 1930s and 1940s, and what had been a large and thriving Jewish community of over 90,000 people, amounting to about 20% of the city’s overall population, was destroyed. The synagogue buildings survived only because the Nazis found them useful for storing their supplies and horses. Most of the Jews who had lived in Prague were killed. Today there are fewer than 2000 Jews living in Prague.
Seeing the Jewish Quarter and learning about its history helped place into context what we saw in the afternoon when we went to Terezin. As we drove to Terezin, Helena told us about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the SS officer who is considered to have been one of the principal planners of the Final Solution, the Nazi plan for exterminating the world’s Jewish population. He also was appointed as the SS officer responsible for overseeing the occupation of Czechoslovakia during the war and the creation of the Terezin concentration camp. In May, 1942, two Czech resistance members attacked Heydrich’s car and assassinated him. As revenge, the Nazis selected the town of Lidice, claiming it was the home of the assassins, and completed erased it from the face of the earth, killing all the men, deporting all the women and children, and razing all the buildings. As Helena said, when people learned what had happened, they thought it could not get any worse. But as we now know, it got much worse.
I am not sure how to write about Terezin. I wanted to go there to pay my respects to the numerous Seligmann cousins who had died there as well as all the other thousands who had died there. But part of the time I felt very uncomfortable, like I was visiting a museum, not a place where people were tortured, starved, and killed. I took a few photographs at first and then stopped because I felt it to be disrespectful and trivializing to take pictures as if I were visiting an ordinary tourist attraction.
The last photo I took was one of a cell in the Small Fortress, the part of Terezin where dissidents and “criminals” were sent to be punished as opposed to the Large Fortress where the Jews were sent to await their deaths. Of course, many Jews were also classified as dissidents and “criminals” and ended up at the Small Fortress, and the room I photographed was one where such Jewish prisoners were sent, getting no meat and just water and a piece of bread twice a day and sleeping like animals on platforms squeezed into a tiny space where they were crowded on top of each other. The solitary confinement cells, the yard where guards shot Jews for target practice, the sinks where no water ran but were there merely to fool the International Red Cross. My brain had a hard time absorbing that these were real places where these horrendous things actually happened.
My initial impression of the so-called Large Fortress or ghetto was that, by contrast to the Small Fortress, it was not that bad. This was the camp that Hitler used as a “model camp” to convince the International Red Cross that Jews were being well-treated. Children put on performances and created drawings and played soccer, all to impress the visitors. Food was served for the visit that was never served again. Children were required to lie to the visitors to create the impression that they were happy.
Some of the children’s drawings are on display at Terezin, and they are just heart-breaking. The childlike depictions of their happy lives before the war and of their impressions of what was happening around them are so powerful. I can’t possibly convey in words what these drawings convey.
Although Terezin was not a death camp, many thousands of people died at Terezin either from malnutrition, disease, or murder. When we saw the barracks where people lived and the living conditions they endured, my initial impressions were corrected, and I realized how horrible life must have been for those forced to live there while awaiting death, either at Terezin or later when shipped to Auschwitz.
As I noted above, according to records at Yad Vashem several of my Seligmann cousins died at Terezin, including Moritz Seligmann, Laura Seligmann Winter, Bettina Seligmann Arnfeld, Anna Seligmann Goldmann and her husband Hugo and their three children Ruth, Heinz, and Gretel, and Eugen Seligmann. Helena was able to catch a researcher at Terezin right before he was leaving for the day, and in a few minutes he was able to provide me with information about one of these relatives, Eugen Seligmann. He gave me these documents.
From these documents we were able to learn the day Eugen died and from that we were able to identify where in the burial grounds at Terezin Eugen had been buried. You see, the bodies were buried in mass graves that were identifiable only by date. Eugen died on September 16, 1942, and thus the archivist at Terezin could determine that he had been buried in a mass grave located at marker 59.
Helena led us to the cemetery where the markers are posted, and after some searching (many markers had numbers missing for reasons that were not clear) we found marker 59. I placed a stone on the marker and stood in silence, thinking about this cousin I’d never known and what his life and his death at Terezin must have been like.
According to the death certificate, Eugen died from marasmus, or severe malnutrition. In other words, this 87 year old man starved to death. It is just horrifying to look at this document and translate the German words; the document records his birth date, his home town, his date, day, and time of death, his parents’ names and whether he was married and had children (none recorded here), the name of the attending physician, and other information—the level of detail is in direct conflict with the dehumanization the Nazis inflicted on these people. Why create a record that creates an impression that someone cared who this man was and then toss his body into a mass grave?
Eugen, the son of Carolina and Siegfried Seligmann and a nephew of my great-great-grandfather Bernard Seligman, was a member of a successful Jewish German family. He was in his late 80s when he was taken to Terezin. How can anyone possibly grasp what it must have been like for him to have been torn from his home and transported to this camp in Czechoslovakia, deprived of all his rights and property, forced to live in squalor and without any privacy or essentials? How can we grasp what it must have been like for this elderly man to starve to death in such a place? How can anyone understand how human beings can do this to other human beings?
I never knew Eugen or any of the other cousins who died at Terezin. In fact, a year ago I didn’t know I had any cousins who died in the Holocaust. Although going to Terezin was a very painful and nightmarish experience, I am glad that I was able to honor their memories by visiting the place where they are buried, the place where they were killed for no reason at all. Even now I cannot really fathom what happened there. It just is incomprehensible.