Letter from Prague

Letter from Prague

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Prague
April 28, 2005

The only critical comment about this spectacular city I've heard in recent years has to do with the taxi drivers. Everyone who has visited seems to have a story about them. Notorious throughout Europe, they've been known to engage in violence, charge exorbitant fares, and, in at least one documented case, administer a shock, through electrodes wired to the backseat, to a passenger who protested his treatment. Fortunately, these taxis can be avoided. Otherwise, Prague appears to be on everyone's list of favorite cities. Mine, too.

Variously known as the "city of a hundred spires" and "Golden Prague," the city just keeps getting better, ever since the end of Communism in 1989 and a growing prosperity that has permitted, among other things, the restoration of many Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings in the central district.

Emblematic of the city's special qualities are two striking features.

First, the single most visited site is the Jewish Museum, which, in fact, is a series of four remarkable synagogues (Maisel, Spanish, Pinkas, and Klausen), the legendary Old Jewish cemetery, the ceremonial hall, and an educational and cultural center, all within a few blocks of each other. More than 600,000 visitors tour this site each year, many of whom have their first, and perhaps only, encounter with Jewish religion, history, culture, and, not least, the story of the Golem, which, after all, originated in Prague. (The Old-New Synagogue, built in the thirteenth century and the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe, is in the same district but is not part of the Jewish Museum.)

Second, Prague is a mecca for classical music. There are concerts galore. I don't know of another city where people hand out flyers on the street not for salacious nightclubs or "closing" sales, but rather for nightly concerts featuring the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi, not to mention such Czech composers as Antonin Dvorak, Leos Janacek, and Bedrich Smetana.

By the way, it was Smetana's "Moldau" that inspired the melody of "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem.

And speaking of music, the national philharmonic plays in a hall overlooking the Vltava River in Prague. The roof is ringed by busts of famous composers. During the war, Adolf Hitler ordered Felix Mendelssohn's bust removed because he was of Jewish origin. His troops climbed to the roof, but couldn't figure out which one was Mendelssohn, so they removed the bust with the largest nose. It turned out to be that of Richard Wagner, Hitler's favorite composer!

The city pulsates with history. So does the country. Indeed, if one were looking for a place that defines the epicenter not only of European geography but, even more, of its turbulent history, this might be it. In fact, the history is so multilayered, so staggeringly complicated, that it is one of the reasons why I, for one, could never quite get it right. There were just too many border adjustments, rulers, outside occupiers (including, of all people, the Swedes), nationality questions (Czechs, Slovaks, Moravians, Bohemians, Silesians, Ruthenians, Jews, Hungarians, Roma, Germans, Poles, etc.), name changes, and conflicts.

Let's focus only on the twentieth century. Even just skimming the surface takes time.

The architects and mapmakers of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference—U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau—dealt with the aftermath of World War I, including the collapse of the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among other notable decisions taken in a six-month period that was to shape (and misshape) the world for decades to come, they endorsed an entirely new—and some would say artificial—country called Czechoslovakia, which included Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and parts of Silesia and Ruthenia (the Subcarpathian region), with Prague as its capital. In this new country, according to a 1921 census, there were 354,352 Jews.

As Margaret Macmillan notes in her magisterial work, Paris 1919, the leading Czechs of the day, Tomas Masaryk and Edward Benes, who in succession became the country's first two presidents, were among the most popular and admired of the many political figures who came to Paris to make their claim for self-determination. "Benes and Masaryk were unfailingly cooperative, reasonable, and persuasive as they stressed the Czechs' deep-seated democratic traditions and their aversion to militarism, oligarchy, high finance, indeed all that the old Germany and Austria-Hungary had stood for," she wrote.

In the ensuing twenty years, Czechoslovakia embraced democracy and quickly emerged as one of Europe's leading industrial economies. Prague was a city infused with the energy and vitality of three dominant cultures—Czech, German, and Jewish. Franz Kafka—born in Prague in 1883, a Jew, and most at home in the German language and culture—came to symbolize the genius emanating from this cultural crossroads, as well as the complicated psychological make-up of Jews of this milieu and generation. Assimilation, rejection of religion, and high rates of intermarriage were all quite prevalent at the time.

Then came the notorious events of 1938. In the name of protecting the German-speaking population of Sudetenland, a Czechoslovak region abutting the German and Austrian borders, which Hitler claimed was the target of persecution and discrimination, the Third Reich demanded annexation.

In what became the quintessential act of appeasement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, in September 1938, agreed to Hitler's terms at a meeting in Munich.

(In 2001, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Western nations, including the U.S., not to "appease the Arabs at our expense ... Israel will not be Czechoslovakia." Sharon's remarks were strongly criticized by the White House.)

In March 1939, the Nazis occupied what were known as the Czech Lands and renamed them the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia, declaring its independence, established a pro-Nazi regime under Father Jozef Tiso. Nazi troops were allowed to occupy Slovakia in August 1939. The rest of the country was also dismembered—Ruthenia was handed over to Hungary, the Silesian region given to Poland.

In other words, by the time the first shot of the Second World War was fired, when German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, what had been Czechoslovakia was already under total Nazi domination.

The war took a terrible toll on the entire nation. One story, perhaps, dramatized the times.

In September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich was named as the Reichsprotektor, the top Nazi in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. (Heydrich was also one of the architects of the Nazi Final Solution.) Eight months later, he was assassinated by Czech resistance fighters. In retaliation, Nazi forces wiped out two entire villages—Lidice and Lezaky. In Lidice, 339 men were murdered, the women and children sent to concentration camps. In Lezaky, 54 men, women, and children were killed. In both cases, the villages themselves were destroyed, including churches and cemeteries. And the reprisals didn't stop there; hundreds of others were arrested and killed.

For the Jewish community, the war exacted a massive toll. There were approximately 118,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, including Jewish refugees who had fled the German-dominated Sudetenland. Of these, 26,000, mostly those with family members abroad or sufficient financial resources, managed to leave. Eighty thousand of the remaining 92,000 Jews were deported to Terezin, a fortress town an hour's drive from Prague that was built by Emperor Josef II in the late eighteenth century. (Incidentally, Josef II, the son of Empress Maria Teresa, was considered a hero by Jews, as he allowed them to leave the ghetto, avail themselves of free education, and practice Judaism without interference.) The town itself was turned into a ghetto and transit camp, first for Czech Jews, later for Jews from other countries as well. In Terezin, 30,000 Jews died, mostly of hunger, disease, and exposure. The rest were eventually deported. Only 10,000 Czech Jews returned home from the camps after the war.

Importantly, Terezin was the camp that the International Committee of the Red Cross visited in 1944. The Red Cross delegates were completely fooled by the extensive Nazi preparations to hide the true nature of the site and to present the inmates as well-treated, with practically all the amenities of a summer camp.

Terezin is where many paintings, letters, notes, and poems were hidden by the inmates in the hope that they would one day be found. Here is an excerpt, displayed at Terezin today, from the poem of a fourteen year-old boy, Hanus Hachenburg, who was killed in 1944:

I was a child once—two short years ago.
My youth was longing for another world.
I am a child no longer...

But I also believe that I am only sleeping,
That I shall see my childhood once again,
Childhood like a wild, wild rose
Like a bell to wake me from my dreams.

And one day perhaps I shall understand
That I was just a tiny creature,
As small as that chorus
of thirty thousand.

The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague lists the names of 78,000 Czech Jewish victims of the Shoah on its walls: Stangel, Tandler, Frankel, Koch, Koppel, Bergmann, Ornstein, Hoffenberg, Kohler, Heilbrunn, Koch, Luria, Grossman.... The names go on and on.

The places where they were sent, twenty-four in all, are listed on an adjacent wall: Terezin, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno, Lodz, Dachau, Mauthausen....

And nearby, there are these words from Lamentations (1:12): "Let it not come unto you, all ye that pass by! Behold, and see if there be any pain like unto my pain."

For three years after the war's end, Czechoslovakia, having become whole once again, sought to rebuild itself under the leadership of its president, Edward Benes. He had succeeded Tomas Masaryk in 1935 and served until the ill-fated Munich agreement in 1938, to then become leader of the government-in-exile, headquartered in London, in 1940.

Benes was best known in the postwar period for the decrees that bear his name and resulted in the expropriation of property and expulsion of more than three million German-speaking residents of the Sudetenland, insisting that all who could not prove their loyalty to the state during the war must leave. To this day, the consequences of those decrees cast a shadow on German-Czech bilateral ties and affect the domestic political life of Germany, since the expellees and their families have organized themselves politically. Similar action was taken against the Hungarian minority, whose members were compelled to leave their homes and move to neighboring Hungary.

At home, Benes presided over a National Front government that included members of the Communist Party. By 1948, the Communists were in complete control, after the president accepted the resignation of the non-Communist ministers, paving the way for a Communist seizure of power, with Klement Gottwald at the helm. It was also the year that Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia's first president and himself a popular foreign minister, was found dead. The Communists claimed he committed suicide; others suspect foul play.

While some Jews stayed, either because of their involvement in the Communist Party or their attachment to their native land, an estimated 20,000 Jews from across Czechoslovakia left for Israel by 1950, after which emigration became almost impossible.

Until 1989, Czechoslovakia was in the hands of the Communist Party. It was a loyal Soviet client state. It was a member of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon, the Soviet-dominated regional economic group. It had its secret police, show trials, kangaroo courts, gulags, listening devices, snitches, censors, jamming of Western broadcasts, heavily fortified borders, and all the other accoutrements of a highly repressive society. The country's prewar cultural and intellectual vibrancy was extinguished in the name of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, its art in the name of Socialist Realism.

Jews had a rough time as well, particularly in what came to be known as the Slansky Trial, when fourteen leading Communist Party members, eleven of them Jewish, were arrested and put on trial in 1952. Rudolf Slansky, the most prominent member of the group, had been the secretary-general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party after World War II. The trial was characterized by historian Meir Cotic as "the first anti-Zionist show trial in the communist bloc." The defendants were accused of high treason and linked to an alleged international Jewish conspiracy involving Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); confessions were extracted from them. All but three were executed. It may well be that this trial set the stage for the infamous Doctor's Plot in the Soviet Union, which took place the next year and had strikingly similar parallels.

Fifteen years later, in August 1967, the New York-based director of the JDC, Charles Jordan, was found dead in Prague. The death caused alarm in the Jewish world and speculation as to its cause, but for years the Czechoslovak government stonewalled. Only recently, files from that era have been opened, at least those files that did not disappear along the way. The longstanding theory that Arab terrorists operating on Czechoslovak soil were linked to his murder was given a boost.

When there was that brief period in 1968 that came to be known worldwide as the Prague Spring and was led by Alexander Dubcek. While never renouncing Communism, Dubcek and his colleagues insisted that its true spirit entailed "socialism with a human face."

Tragically, like spring itself, it couldn't last. In August 1968, the Soviet Union, together with a number of Warsaw Pact allies (Romania refused to participate), sent in an estimated 600,000 troops to crush this challenge to tyranny. Their force was overwhelming. But during a brief window of opportunity, tens of thousands of Czechs, including more than 3,000 Jews, left the country and resettled permanently in the West.

Perhaps the best-known protest came from a twenty year-old student named Jan Palach. As a student at Prague's prestigious Charles University (the oldest university in Central Europe), he participated in demonstrations and strikes against the occupation. When this proved to no avail, on January 16, 1969, after writing a letter intended for publication, he went to Wenceslas Square and set himself on fire. He died three days later. An estimated 500,000 people attended his funeral. One of the slogans scrawled on the Wenceslas Statue before the police removed it read: "Do not be indifferent to the day when the light of the future was carried forward by a burning body."

In the ensuing three months, an estimated twenty-five people sought to emulate his example of suicide to protest the repression; six succeeded.

In 1977, the voices of protest and reform could again be heard. They came in the form of a remarkable human rights statement called Charter 77. But those involved paid a heavy price. Daniel Kumermann was a good example. In a lengthy profile of him in the New Yorker (November 1990) entitled "The Window-Washer," Janet Malcolm wrote:

In 1977, he had a job as a computer programmer on a six-month trial basis, and not wanting to immediately wreck his chances for a permanent position, he had placed himself in a special category of signers, whose names were kept secret. He lost the job anyway and, after failing to find permanent work in the field, openly re-signed the Charter in the summer of 1978. Thereafter, only menial work was available to him. During the next twelve years, he was arrested five times and was taken in for interrogation more often than he can remember....

Kumermann said: "I always had two [interrogators]. There was the one who dealt with the political side of it—the Charter—and the other, who dealt with the Jewish side of it.... They had an anti-Jewish department. They called it the Anti-Zionist Department, actually.... Most of the Charter signers were accused of working with the C.I.A., and I was accused of working with the Israeli Mossad. They thought in James Bond terms. Also, they believed that America was ruled by the Jews.... They really believed it. They had persuaded themselves of these conspiracy theories.

Finally, the Communist scaffolding came tumbling down in 1989. One after another, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe imploded, to be replaced by post-Communist societies. In the case of Czechoslovakia, it was dubbed the Velvet Revolution, and the country's most prominent dissident during the hard times, poet and playwright Vaclav Havel, was elected president. He quickly emerged as one of the world's leading statesmen and moral voices. And in a sign of things to come, his very first overseas trip was to Israel.

Havel, like a number of his counterparts in the region, understood that one of the most despicable aspects of Communist policy was the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic policies of the previous regimes. Under instructions from the Kremlin, countries like Czechoslovakia had actively assisted Israel's enemies by providing weapons, training, sanctuary, and financing to terrorist groups, not to mention active support at the UN and other international bodies for every conceivable anti-Israel and anti-Zionist measure.

Having said this, it's important to acknowledge the special role played by Czechoslovakia in Israel's founding. This would require a separate essay, but suffice it to say that weapons provided by Czechoslovakia to the fledgling Jewish state were absolutely crucial to the ability of the Jews to defend themselves, and that political and diplomatic support was also forthcoming. And rumor has it that, while the government was also willing to sell weapons to the Arab countries at the time, none of the shipments actually arrived, while cash payments were always demanded in advance. Mysteriously, Jewish fighters were able to get wind of each of the planned deliveries and prevent their arrival.

Needless to say, this sympathetic policy changed rather quickly, as the Communist bloc realized that Israel was not likely to become a socialist ally in the Middle East. Czechoslovakia fell into line behind the increasingly pro-Arab, anti-Israel policies of the Kremlin. But Czechoslovak assistance made a huge difference in 1948, a fact that should never be forgotten.

Since democracy's return in 1989, some things have moved at lightning speed.

On January 1, 1993, in what became known as the Velvet Divorce, the country that was put together at the Paris Peace Conference separated into two nations—the Czech Republic, with a population just over ten million and a landmass slightly smaller than South Carolina, and Slovakia to its east and southeast

According to the CIA's World Factbook, the ethnic breakdown of the Czech population is Czech 81.2 percent, Moravian 13.2 percent, Slovak 3.1 percent, Polish 0.6 percent, and German 0.5 percent. In terms of religious affiliation, the Czech Republic may have one of the highest percentages of declared atheists anywhere in the world—39.8 percent. Roman Catholics comprise 39.2 percent of the population, Protestants 4.6 percent, and Orthodox percent.

The Federation of Jewish Communities, with which the American Jewish Committee has a longstanding relationship, estimates that there are 3,000 registered Jews in the country, about half of whom live in Prague. (Prague's prewar Jewish population was about 52,000.) The majority are wartime survivors. Their care and maintenance represent a challenge for a small community. And the younger people are all the children or grandchildren of this Holocaust generation. To meet any local Jew is to know that there is quite a story—or perhaps several stories—that help explain the family's survival, first through Nazism, then through Communism.

And as in Hungary, Poland, and other neighboring countries, there is inevitably a question about how many more Jews there are outside the self-declared community. In some cases, people are only now discovering their Jewish roots, which were deliberately hidden from them by their families in the postwar era, just as Madeleine Albright and Tom Stoppard, both born into Czech Jewish families, did recently. And there are also, it is believed, a few thousand mostly American and Israeli Jews who've settled in Prague in recent years, attracted by the lifestyle and business opportunities.

In 1999, the Czech Republic, together with Hungary and Poland, and with support from the American Jewish Committee, joined NATO. And in 2004, the Czech Republic entered the European Union. In essence, the country had officially moved from East to West—from the Warsaw Pact to NATO, from Comecon to the European Union. The Czech Republic was finally at home. It had been a long journey.

Of the post-communist societies, there's little doubt that, other than Slovenia, the Czech Republic has made the most successful transition. Drawing on its legacy of democracy, advanced economy, and vibrant culture, the country has quickly become a magnet not only for tourists but also for investors from elsewhere in Europe, especially neighboring Germany, which is also by far the Czech Republic's major trading partner. Lower labor costs than in Western Europe and a well-educated work force have been big pluses when it comes to investors. Today, just about all the leading indicators in the Czech Republic point upward, except one. Like many other European countries, it's experiencing negative population growth due to a very low birthrate (1.2 children per woman).

Politics in this country are anything but gentle. During a recent visit to Prague by an American Jewish Committee delegation, the government was, not for the first time, in turmoil, with three cabinet ministers having submitted their resignations and the prime minister, Stanislav Gross, under a cloud of suspicion for alleged financial misdeeds. The immediate future was uncertain, with various political parties, including a surprisingly strong Communist Party (whose base of support rests largely on pensioners and former apparatchiks), angling for advantage. Nonetheless, signs of growing prosperity abound—new and restored buildings, factories, boutiques, upscale restaurants and bars, shopping malls, and an improving infrastructure. Having traveled to the country many times, I find that the changes are clearly visible from visit to visit.

But what's most striking from a Jewish perspective is that the Czech Republic today is one of the top tourist destinations for Israelis and Jews from around the world.

There's a great deal to see, beginning with Josefov, i.e., the Jewish Quarter in Prague, and Terezin.

Moreover, there are few countries anywhere better disposed toward Israel. To hear the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, or foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda, on the subject of Israel is to be reminded of steadfast friends willing to speak out.

In doing so, they carry on a remarkable tradition of friendship first epitomized by Tomas Masaryk. He was appalled by the Czech version of the Alfred Dreyfus affair, known as the Leopold Hilsner affair, which occurred in 1899 and involved a false accusation of ritual murder. He didn't hesitate to speak out vigorously against this blatant anti-Semitic act. Later, as president, Masaryk became the first head of a modern state to visit Palestine and did so specifically to meet with the Jewish community there. No wonder there are a kibbutz and a forest named after him in Israel.

He was followed by Edward Benes, the country's second president, and Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas and foreign minister in the 1940s, both of whom strongly advocated for the creation of a Jewish state. After the communist period ended, President Havel resumed this tradition, immediately reaching out to Israel and frequently speaking out against anti-Semitism.

To understand the uniqueness of this support—can any country match it both for passion and constancy?—consider the words of Tomas Masaryk expressed in 1918:

The Jews will enjoy the same rights as all the other citizens of our State. Furthermore, I wish to stress that we wish to abolish the unmoral Austrian system of oppression by the clerical state which exploits Church and religion for political ends. As regards Zionism, I can only express my sympathy with it and with the national movement of the Jewish people in general, since it is of great moral significance. I have observed the Zionist and national movement of the Jews in Europe and in our own country, and have come to understand that it is not a movement of political chauvinism, but one striving for the rebirth of its people.

Or those of Jan Masaryk, writing in 1942 as foreign minister of the government-in-exile:

Twenty-five years ago, the Balfour Declaration gave the Jewish people hope for the future. None of us could ever have dreamt then what was in store for them. My Government and myself want to assure you of our deep sympathy and understanding. I personally shall never rest till human dignity is returned to those sons and daughters of Israel who will escape alive out of the Teutonic Beelzebub's clutches. Palestine is almost the only star in the stormy sky of present-day iniquity. I hope and pray that the United Nations will succeed in destroying Hitler before his devilish plan of annihilation is realized. There is not a minute to be lost. There are too many graves already.

Or those of President Benes, expressed in 1947 at a conference of European Zionist Federations in Czechoslovakia:

It will, first of all, be necessary to put a radical and permanent end to racism and anti-Semitism. At the same time, your aspirations for an independent homeland should be fulfilled. I regard the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as the only just and possible solution of the world Jewish problem. I promise that whenever and wherever an opportunity offers itself, I shall help promote this solution.

And this principled support for Israel and the Jewish people, as I've suggested, continues to the present day. It deserves greater awareness and appreciation.

Finally, anti-Semitism in the Czech Republic is not seen as a major problem today, certainly not in comparison with some other European countries. To the contrary, visiting Jews generally find a warm reception.

Even so, it's impossible to ignore the gaping hole in the Czech landscape. Where once Jews were counted in the tens and hundreds of thousands, where once Jews were a major presence in the commercial, scientific, cultural, and civic life of the country, and where once Jews argued incessantly over religion, politics, and culture, today the Jewish community, despite its valiant efforts to preserve memory while looking to the future, is a bare shadow of its former self.

By the way, if nothing else, the arguing hasn't stopped. During a recent visit, the community was wracked by conflict, so much so that on Shabbat a fistfight broke out at the synagogue, sending at least one person to the hospital. This was not the first time, either. Depending on the person you're speaking with, the issues seem to involve an allegedly autocratic communal leader who was recently deposed, a rabbi who was dismissed and later rehired, conflict between Chabad and other Jewish groups, Israelis with local business interests, disputes over restitution funds, and personality clashes. And all of this, by the way, has made its way into the general media.

In the final analysis, however, there is something profoundly inspiring about witnessing the rebirth and renewal of a nation that endured the one-two punch of Nazism and Communism. And, even with the squabbling, the reemergence of a Jewish community in the very city where Hitler planned his museum of religious and cultural artifacts of an annihilated Jewish people is testament to the determination of Czech Jewry to continue its proud 1,000-year history.

Oh, I almost forgot. Remember the earlier reference to Daniel Kumermann, who, after signing Charter 77, was subjected to countless arrests and interrogations? Guess what became of him in this new era? He was appointed the Czech Republic's ambassador to Israel and recently completed a wonderfully successful term there. Yes, hope really does spring eternal.

Date: 4/28/2005
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