Prague, Part III: Italian Music and Italian Food in the Czech Republic?

Our last day in Prague we were on our own and revisited Old Town and the Charles Bridge and then meandered around Lesser Town, the district below the Castle. It was a day to recover from the experiences we’d had the day before and to absorb all we had seen in Prague.

We climbed (yes, we actually climbed) the clock tower in Old Town where we had views of Prague in every direction.

IMG_2576 tower view IMG_2577 Tyn church IMG_2581 panorama 2 IMG_2589 IMG_2591

IMG_2586 us in the tower

We crossed the river and saw the wall covered with graffiti dedicated to John Lennon and the ornate St. Nicholas Church in Lesser Town.

IMG_2594 Vlatava RIver Prague

Vtlava River

IMG_2595 Wall for John Lennon

John Lennon wall

IMG_2598 St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town 5 23

Inside St. Nicholas Church, Lesser Town

IMG_2600 IMG_2603 dome in St NIcholas Church Prague Lesser TOwn

We wandered through the Wallenstein gardens, where we saw peacocks and a very weird grotto wall with sculptures of animals hidden throughout.


In the Wallenstein Gardens


IMG_2614 IMG_2615 IMG_2616 IMG_2620


We had lunch at a restaurant on the river; the walkway from the street to the restaurant was so narrow that they had a “traffic light” at either end so that two people wouldn’t get stuck in the middle, neither being able to pass.  Of course, we didn’t notice that on our way down.  Fortunately, the man coming up was only a few steps up and graciously went back down.

Walkway to Cafe Certenova

Walkway from Cafe Certenova

We also experienced the way that music permeates everything in Prague.  We had been to a concert our second night at the Municipal House’s Smetana Hall, hearing the Prague Symphony Orchestra play Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, a moving and emotional piece of music that I’d never really heard before in its entirety.  For our last night we decided we would try and get to another concert.  Walking through Prague we discovered that wherever we went, people were handing out flyers for concerts at churches and other venues.  What was a bit bizarre though was that in many of these venues the program included Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  We were baffled—was it Vivaldi’s birthday?  He was Italian, not Czech.  Why would all these places be playing the same piece of music?  My best guess is that it’s a piece that is well-known and well-loved and thus a good selection to attract an audience.  We returned to Smetana Hall that night, and yes, we heard the Four Seasons.  It was lovely.

Street performers---can anyone tell me how they do this??

Street performers—can anyone tell me how they do this??

We were also surprised by how good the food was in each of the other places we ate while in Prague—-Giovanni’s Trattoria, RYBI (great fish), and Pasta Fresca (yeah, we like Italian food, as apparently does most of the world since every city we visited seemed to have more Italian restaurants than anything else, other than their own local cuisine).

Overall, our time in Prague was fascinating—fun, uplifting, educational, upsetting, insightful, entertaining, and stimulating. It was good to end the trip seeing all the beauty and good that human beings can create and appreciate instead of the evil and horrors we’d witnessed the day before.  Prague is a wonderful city, and we definitely could have spent more time there.  But it was time to move on to our next stop.

We boarded an overnight train to Krakow.  It wasn’t the most comfortable sleeping accommodation on the trip, but when we woke up, we were in what was once Galicia, the homeland of my Brotman ancestors.

Prague and Terezin

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.

Entrance to prayer hall in Old New Synagogue

Entrance to prayer hall in Old New Synagogue

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.

At services women sit behind the wall where the opening is shown here

At services women sit behind the wall where the opening is shown here (not where this woman is seated)


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.

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague

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.

IMG_2549 buried 12 deep IMG_2550 cemetery


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.)

chevra kadisha building

chevra kadisha building

IMG_2558 cohen symbol

Cohanim symbol

Cohanim balcony

Cohanim balcony

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.

Maisel Synagogue, Prague

Maisel Synagogue, Prague

IMG_2544 Maisel synagogue 2

Maisel's tombstone

Maisel’s tombstone

IMG_2555 Rabbi Loew tombstone

Rabbi Loew’s tombstone

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.

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

IMG_2535 interior of Spanish synagogue IMG_2536 organ in Spanish synagogue IMG_2537 Spanish synagogue interior IMG_2538 Spanish synagogue from above IMG_2539 women's section Spanish synagogue

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.

Jerusalem Synagogue, Prague

Jerusalem Synagogue, Prague

IMG_2622 Jerusalem Synagogue Prague

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.

Newer buildings in what was once the ghetto

Newer buildings in what was once the ghetto

IMG_2568 Prague street 5 22

Wider streets in what was once the ghetto


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.

Jewish prisoners' cell, Terezin

Jewish prisoners’ cell, Terezin


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.

Record for Eugen Seligmann at Terezin

Record for Eugen Seligmann at Terezin


Death certificate for Eugen Seligmann at Terezin

Death certificate for Eugen Seligmann at Terezin

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.

cemetery at Terezin

cemetery at Terezin

Marker 59

Marker 59

location of mass grave where Eugen Seligmann is buried

location of mass grave where Eugen Seligmann is buried

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.



Prague, Part I—A Fairy Tale Setting

We arrived in Prague after an overnight flight and a four plus hour train ride from Vienna, where we had landed.  Although we slept a bit on the flight and on and off on the train, we were nevertheless a bit groggy when we arrived and were greeted by a cab driver who mercilessly ripped us off by charging 699 Czech crowns (about $30) for a ten minute ride to our hotel, the Prague Marriott (it should have been about a third of that).  It was gray and cool, and my first views of Prague were about the same.  The Marriott is a large and very American seeming hotel, so at first, we could have been anywhere.  A generic room in a generic hotel, a crooked cab.  I was not initially sure why so many people had loved Prague.

But then our guide Andrea Reznickova arrived at 5:30, and everything changed.  Like a good fairy godmother, she waved her magic wand and suggested we walk to Old Town Square to see the famous Prague clock strike the hour at 6 o’clock.  By this time it was raining fairly heavily, so I was skeptical.  The cobblestones along the way were slippery, and I was mostly watching my feet, not the surroundings.  Once we walked through the gate at the Powder Tower at the entrance to Old Town, however, I knew we were no longer in Kansas, as Dorothy said to Toto.  We were in a place that seemed almost as fantastical as Munchkinland seemed to Dorothy.

Old Town

Old Town

IMG_2458 rain in Old Town Square

The buildings of Old Town do look like something out of a medieval fairytale—ornate and colorful and built at unpredictable angles that make it seem as if they were created as part of a dream, not a result of any city planning.  The medieval clock with its many faces only adds to the aura of fantasy.  Despite the rain and the many umbrellas raised by the numerous tourists crowding the square, it was enchanting to watch the skeleton start to nod his head and the other three figures—humans defying death—move as the clock began to strike six.  Unlike the clock in Cinderella which ended her magical time, this clock began our magical time in Prague.

Clock Tower, Old Town Square, Prague

Clock Tower, Old Town Square, Prague

Andrea then took us to a non-touristy pub in New Town for some beer and fresh bread while she gave us an overall orientation to her home town and laid out the plan for the following day.  Then she left us on our own, where we wandered back to Old Town, now feeling somewhat grounded, and walked along the street called Paris Street (as translated from Czech, which I can’t even pretend to try and spell or pronounce), passing all the fancy designer stories on our way to dinner in the Jewish Quarter.  We had reservations at Dinitz, a kosher restaurant, and although it was nothing fancy at all, it was a good way to start the trip.  We were still jetlagged, and some bowtie noodles with chicken was just the right comfort food for a quick and quiet meal.

In fact, it gave us some new energy, and we decided to walk a bit more through Old Town, following the winding streets without consulting a map, just following the crowd until we ended up at the Vtlava River and the Charles Bridge.  It was about sunset (around 8:45), and it was gorgeous.  The entire scene—the river, the bridge itself, the views of the Castle across the river, and those fairy-tale building around us.  We crossed the bridge and then turned back, finally ready to head back for the night.

Sunset at the Charles Bridge, Prague

Sunset at the Charles Bridge, Prague

Of course, like Hansel and Gretel, we got lost once we had no tourist breadcrumbs to follow on the way back, but eventually we somehow ended up at the Old Town Square where the lights on the Tyn Church and on the Clock Tower added to my sense that we were living in a place of fairy tales.  We then easily found our way back to the Marriott.

IMG_2466 Prague Old Town Square at night

Clock Tower and Tyn Church, Old Town Square

IMG_2468 Clock in Old Town at night Prague

Clock in Old Town at night Prague

IMG_2471 Old Town Square at night

Old Town Square at night

IMG_2470 Night view of Prague Old Town Square

Tyn Church (some say it was the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyland)

IMG_2469 Old Town Square at night

The next morning we met up again with Andrea and took the tram across the river to the Castle District, where along with numerous large touring groups, we entered the Castle area and then beat the crowd to the St. Vitus Cathedral, a huge awe-inspiring Gothic structure that was first built in medieval times and then expanded in the early 20th century, although done so seamlessly that you would never know.

IMG_2476 main square inside castle 5 21

Main Square in Castle District

IMG_2481 Interior of St VItus Cathedral

Interior of St VItus Cathedral


IMG_2484 exterior St Vitus

exterior St Vitus

IMG_2486 at Prague Castle IMG_2489 final judgment closer

The only clue that part of the building was built in the 20th century was the stained glass window by Alfons Mucha that seemed far too contemporary for a Gothic cathedral.  We had never heard of Mucha before, but would later that day visit the Mucha Museum, a small museum dedicated to the life and work of this Czech artist.  Mucha lived from 1860-1939 and may be best known for his posters of Sarah Bernhardt, but it was his posters promoting Czech pride that moved me the most.

stainglass in St Vitus

Mucha Stained Glass Window in St Vitus

Stainglass St Vitus

Anyway, back to the Castle district—we wandered through the many squares and streets as Andrea told us about Czech history and politics, both before and after the Communist era.   The Castle was built for the king in medieval times, but is today the residence of the President of the Czech Republic.  When I asked about the presence of the Cathedral in the midst of what was otherwise a government building, Andrea talked about the controversy that arose after the Velvet Revolution and the end of Soviet domination concerning whether the Cathedral would return to the control of the Catholic Church.  In the end it did, so there is a Church-owned property in the middle of the property where the President works and lives.  According to Andrea, religion plays a very minor role in the lives of the Czech people; given the number of beautiful churches we saw throughout the city, that does seem a bit strange.  Perhaps that is one legacy of Communist times—a decline in interest in religion.

IMG_2505 Prague and us

Overlooking Lesser Town from the Castle

IMG_2491 basilica at Castle Prague 5 21 IMG_2494 in the Castle District

This topic brought us to the whole question of life in Prague during the forty-plus years of Communist control, and over coffee as we exited the Castle area, Andrea suggested we take the tram back to New Town and talk about the 20th century and the Communist era in Prague. At that point the fairy tale aura seemed to dissipate, and the reality of the history of the Czech people became more clear.  As Andrea described Czech history, the Czech people were historically more progressive than those in many other places in Europe.  According to Andrea, it was a Czech, Jan Hus, who really started the Reformation, about a century before Martin Luther.  The Czech people were historically more tolerant of other religions than in many other places, she said. But Andrea said that throughout Czech history different countries grabbed control over their land—including when the Nazis seized Sudetenland in 1938.  Andrea described the failure of the Czechs to fight against that taking as the biggest “black mark” in Czech history.  The Nazi control followed by the Soviet control was demoralizing to the people, but they also were less willing to accept Communism than some of the other countries behind the Iron Curtain.  (I heard similar assertions in Budapest and in Poland, so I take them all with a grain of salt, but it’s not for me to debate the perspectives of the people who live in these countries.)

As we sat in Wenceslas Square in New Town, Andrea then talked about the 1968 Prague Spring, the movement to lift some of the Communist restrictions on life in Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet invasion that followed and brought greater repression; twenty years after that came the Velvet Revolution in 1989, led by students marching into Wenceslas Square, the crowd eventually growing to half a million people.  Although Andrea was just a small child when this occurred, it was clear to us that these events had left their mark on her and that she was very grateful to live in Prague today where there is more freedom to live and work and express oneself as one wishes.

Prague, Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Rev...

Prague, Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wenceslas Monument in November 1989

Wenceslas Monument in November 1989 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At her suggestion as she left us on our own, we then visited first the Mucha Museum, mentioned above, and then the Museum of Communism, which is situated on the main street in New Town between a McDonald’s and a casino.  It’s a small museum consisting mostly of reading materials with some visual displays, but it effectively evokes the persecution and repression exercised by the Communists during their long reign over the Czech people.  Visiting the museum made us better appreciate just how courageous those protesters had been in their attempts to improve their lives and the lives of their fellow Czechs.

English: museum of communism in Prague Deutsch...

English: museum of communism in Prague Deutsch: “museum of communism” in Prag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looking up and down the street in New Town after leaving the museum, we could clearly see that capitalism had arrived.  There were chain stores all over—McDonalds, BurgerKing, KFC, H&M, and so on.  Although Andrea said that the locals all spent their free time in New Town, not Old Town, for me New Town was nothing special.  It could have been almost any commercial street in any American city, except for the foreign language, the statue of King Wenceslas, and the older buildings.  But that’s my American point of view.  What is boring and mundane to me may still be new and exciting to the citizens of Prague.  What intrigued me as a tourist—Old Town and the Castle—may just seem touristy and old-fashioned to those who live in Prague.

Wenceslas Square By Peter Stehlik - PS-2507 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wenceslas Square
By Peter Stehlik – PS-2507 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s all just a matter of perspective.  And perspective is what makes traveling so valuable; you get to see the world through the eyes of those who have lived in a different place with a different culture and a different history. My fairy tale setting is their ordinary setting; my ordinary setting is their fairy tale come true.


Next—our visit to the Jewish Quarter in Prague.



Home Sweet Home

We are back from our trip, and I have so much to say that I don’t even know where or how to start.  Traveling to a different place can change your whole view of the world, of your place in the world, and of yourself.  This trip did that in so many different ways.  I have hundreds of photographs to sort and label, a lot of notes to transcribe and ponder, and so many thoughts and memories floating through my head that I need to write them all down before I forget them.  So I can’t just start blogging in detail about the trip right away.  I will certainly report about the parts of the trip that related directly to my own family—the trip to Poland in particular—once I have it all digested.

For now I have these overall thoughts and a few photographs to share.  First, standing in the former Jewish quarters in Prague, Krakow, Budapest, and Vienna, some of which still have several synagogues (a few even still in operation), is a chilling and horrifying experience.  For me, these places that once bustled with Jewish grandparents, mothers, fathers, and children, going to work and going to school and going to shul, were a graphic and vivid reminder of what the world lost in the Holocaust.  Had it not been for the Nazis, these Jewish communities could and likely would still exist, adding to the culture and economy of these places and of the world just as they did for hundreds of years before their Jewish citizens were murdered.

A street in the former Jewish Quarter of Krakow

A street in the former Jewish Quarter of Krakow

Nothing made this more painfully vivid for me than standing in Tarnobrzeg, the town where my Brotman great-grandparents lived, a town that was once 75% Jewish and where not one Jew lives today.  The only signs that there were once Jews there were a small plaque on the library, a building that had once been the synagogue, and a Star of David near the gate to the neglected Jewish cemetery, where only a handful of headstones remain.

gravestone on the ground in the Jewish cemetery in Tarnobrzeg

gravestone on the ground in the Jewish cemetery in Tarnobrzeg

Second, every person, Jewish or not, should visit Terezin and Auschwitz.  I cannot say more.  The places say it all.  You cannot go to these places and not be changed.  No matter what you may have read or seen or heard about the Holocaust, you cannot be prepared for what you experience walking in those places of terror and death.  I have only two photographs of Terezin and no photographs of Auschwitz.  I could not bear to think about taking a photograph while standing where so many were slaughtered.



Third, I had little idea what life was like under Soviet domination in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary until we met several people who had lived during that era.  We were lucky to have guides in Prague, Poland, and Budapest who had witnessed the changes and were able to describe to us how different life was before and after the Soviets left in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  Today all these places are clearly capitalist, for better in many ways, for worse in others.  Seeing Starbucks and McDonalds and KFC everywhere amidst the old buildings in these gorgeous cities is jolting, but much better than seeing empty store windows and children forced to march at rallies to support the “state.”

Despite all the sadness that we felt as we learned about the past in these places, overall we experienced these cities as places of joyfulness, liveliness, and overall comfort.  Yes, there were beggars and homeless people, especially in Budapest, and I am sure that outside the areas where tourists congregate there is plenty of poverty and misery.  But each of the cities we visited were beautiful places filled with incredible and fascinating architecture, a huge number of cafes and restaurants and bars, museums teeming with people, cobblestone streets crowded with tourists and tour groups, and the sounds of happy, excited people.  There was music everywhere—in the streets, in the churches, and in the concert halls.

Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

We had an incredible time.  Our tears and sadness were well-balanced with times of pure joy—climbing the tower to see all of Prague, clapping to Klezmer music in Krakow, walking along the river in Budapest, and eating unbelievable pastries in Vienna.  We heard music in every city, we stood in awe in Gothic cathedrals, we watched people laughing and drinking and eating in the cafes, and we walked and walked and walked until our feet were numb.  We had an incredible time.

Musikverein in Vienna

Musikverein in Vienna