Two European cities, one shared heritage
Historic Jewish sites in Amsterdam and Prague offer glimpses of the
PRAGUE AND AMSTERDAM — To spend time in Prague and Amsterdam is to luxuriate in the charms of Old World Europe. Strolling along the winding streets or tidy canals, a visitor can soak in as much beauty and art history as could be absorbed in months of gallery tours. These are cities where museums are hardly necessary.
But loveliness is not the only tie that binds these two gems of European civilization. In both Prague and Amsterdam, there is another tale to be told - a sometimes less visible one -and that is the story of the rise and fall of once-vibrant Jewish communities.
Although today the Jewish populations of both cities are only a shadow of what they once were, tracing the roots of Jewish history in Prague and Amsterdam remains a fascinating way of delving into the complex pasts of these cities.
Prague is today a place of dreamy charms, rich in its mix of various styles of European architecture. But it certainly presented a harsher faade to the Jewish immigrants who first began arriving in the 10th century. For generations they lived in poverty and isolation in a small ghetto within their adopted city.
With time, however, the group expanded and prospered, and by the end of the 16th century, the community of Jews in Prague was one of the largest in Europe. The Jewish ghetto was by then a labyrinth of winding alleyways, courtyards, and synagogues.
Few of those buildings survived the 19th century, however, and perhaps the best way to garner definitive information about life then is to visit the city's Jewish Museum. But for those who prefer to absorb their history firsthand, there remain a number of richly atmospheric sites.
Jewish history in Prague
Many visitors say they find the spirit of the crowded, ancient ghetto still alive in the Old Jewish Cemetery, a haunting but highly picturesque graveyard crammed with more than 12,000 ornate headstones dating back to the 15th century. The Old-New Synagogue nearby - which still offers services -is one of Europe's oldest and is infused with a rich, otherworldly charm.
Six other synagogueshave been preserved as museums. One of the six, the Pinkas Synagogue, also serves as a memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews -including 13,000 children under the age of 15 - killed by the Nazis.
A visit to the memorial is a deeply moving experience. The name and age of each victim is written in tidy print on a wall, with families listed together. After a few minutes of gazing, it becomes difficult not to create mental images of what each little family group must have looked like.
These were ordinary citizens who, even a few years before the Holocaust, could not have imagined the events ahead.
By the 19th century, the Jewish population in Prague was highly assimilated into the mainstream of daily life, and many were respected business and cultural leaders. It is still possible to see the site of the old cafe in New Town Square where Einstein, Kafka and other Jewish intellects once gathered to share ideas or to hear Einstein play the violin.
This assimilation, however, ultimately played a tragic role in the events of the 20th century, lulling many Jewish families into a false sense of security and preventing them from fleeing the country before the arrival of Hitler.
A trip to Terezin, a couple of hours outside of Prague, is in many ways a difficult experience, but also a powerful one. There, the German concentration camp known as Theresienstadt has been turned into a museum and memorial. The camp is one of the few in Europe that have not been altered or renovated, and it offers a chillingly accurate view of life in a concentration camp.
The museum tells the story of the town, which the Nazis turned into a propaganda showcase, inviting visitors to see a select group of Jews pretending to live comfortably in a contrived setting. Meanwhile, only yards away, stood the camp.
Today, only about 1,500 Jews live in Prague, compared with more than 40,000 before the war.
Amsterdam: 'Jerusalem of the West'
In Amsterdam - where 120,000 Jews lived before World War II -the story of the Jewish settlers has its own unique cultural flavor.
Montelbaantoren is the ancient tower marking the area once at the heart of the city's centuries-old Jewish community. Some Jews who arrived in Amsterdam by boat -many fleeing persecution in the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century - saw the tower before they touched ground and rejoiced to know they were in the "Jerusalem of the West."
But Jewish assimilation there wasn't easy either. As in Prague, Jews were isolated from mainstream society for many years. Ben Haim, the historic and lovely Portuguese-Jewish cemetery dating from the 1600s in Ouderkerk, just outside Amsterdam, serves as a reminder that Jews were once not allowed to be buried inside city limits.
Eventually though, as in Prague, the Jewish population came to play a leading role in the cultural and economic life of their city. Rembrandt, who lived in the heart of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, frequently drew on Jewish themes and models for his paintings, and that influence can be felt by visiting the museum now established in his former home.
The Dutch culture left its mark on Jewish customs as well, as can be seen in a trip to Amsterdam's beautiful Portuguese synagogue, built in the 1670s. The old synagogue - which still holds services today despite a membership of only 50-has a somber quality that reflects the influence of the Protestant Reformation.
But as in Prague, the comfort the Jews felt here was delusive. While Europe nervously watched Hitler, most of Amsterdam's Jews stayed put, never believing they were in danger.
A number of museums in Amsterdam offer a wealth of information about the Holocaust in Holland. The most famous, of course, is the recently renovated Anne Frank House. The house pays tribute to the courage of the Dutch friends who hid the Franks, while exhibits at The Dutch Theatre and the Museum of the Dutch Resistance tell of some of the Dutch -and in one case, even a German SS guard -who risked their lives to help the Jewish cause.
Today, only about 26,000 Jews are living in the Netherlands. Yet their history, especially that of the Holocaust, remains powerfully imprinted on Amsterdam, with the Anne Frank House attracting more than 800,000 visitors last year.
It's a fitting tribute that this city -known worldwide as a model of tolerance -should also offer such powerful lessons about the dangers of intolerance.
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