I have been working with Lee and Gail Kwait for over a year now to put together this eagerly anticipated Jewish heritage mission to Europe. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and time and making connections to pull something like this off and trying to satisfy a divergent group each of whom has different needs and interests is complicated to say the least. But the Kwaits and I led a mission to South Africa recently which was fantastically successful so on request from people who heard about the South African tour we decided to offer this followup. There are several repeat participants on this mission from our last trip.

It’s been a few days already since we departed Toledo for Europe. Except for a little free time here & there it’s been exhausting so I have had no time to blog unfortunately. When we finally check in at night from long days, as exhausted as I am I work on planning the next day and researching the Jewish components so often I don’t get to sleep till late at night, then the next day I am usually first so I can make sure along with our other tour leaders that everyone is where they are supposed to be…

As a fan of architecture and history Prague in the Czech Republic is a dream. Unscathed and not bombed during World War II everything is intact though over 40 years of Communist rule brought some neglect but it’s been restored to its former glory as one of the most beautiful and great cities of the world with intact buildings dating back as much as 800 years.

Similarly much of the Jewish heritage is also intact making it a great treasure though the reason is sinister and chilling as the Nazis planned Prague’s Jewish area as ‘The Museum To The Extinct Jewish Race!’ Consequently they have the largest Judaica collection in the world and many magnificent synagogues within close proximity to each other. This is very different to for example Poland particularly Warsaw which was a Jewish community many times larger than Prague (350,000 vs 58000 Jews) and Germany where almost everything was destroyed and obliterated.

The 3 experiences that stand out most in my mind are our visit to Terezin Ghetto/Concentration Camp, the many shuls we visited and Friday night shabbat service followed by dinner which I will now describe in more detail. I have visited Auschwitz Birkenau twice for missions so when I mentioned to my mother we were going to Terezin she said compared to the death camps where she and my father were interred in the war, “Terezin was a picnic!”

Although this jarring remark by mother is very realistic I would say that going to any place where our People were concentrated for the eventual purpose of destruction, is an equally sickening and sobering experience. I actually was not planning to go to Terezin and thought I would stay with those of our group who did not want to go and we’d do some fun sightseeing. But when 18 of 19 members of our group signed up to go, I wasn’t go to leave them as I am the spiritual leader of our group so I prepared an appropriate service to conclude our visit, as one cannot leave a place like Terezin without some “separation” and spiritual upliftment.

The sick thing about this sad place is that it’s an old Czech fortress town from which the local general population was expelled to create a “holding” place, a temporary transit point for Jews from the area till its inmates could be transferred to their next “destination” often Auschwitz or other such places, most resulting in death.

I will not report any more on this visit except to say that after 5 grueling hours there, the climax occurred at the end. This was due to careful planning by our excellent guide Luba, a young Jew from the Ukraine who heads Precious Legacy Tours, and myself. I asked her for an appropriate place where we could do our short ceremony I planned for the conclusion and she said she had the perfect place.

About 20 years ago a tiny hidden secret synagogue was found there with beautiful painted biblical quotes of inspiration such as beseeching God to hear our prayers, and Stars of David painted on the walls. It was a secret shul. So we did our readings and chants there including Kaddish, poems by the children of Terezin, and concluding with Hatikvah. I was impressed everyone remembered to bring the service I had Includes in the packs each person had received from me for the trip with all kinds of pertinent materials and articles on all the places on our itinerary etc.

I had texted my wife Jan to tell her we were going to Terezin. Jan who was supposed to go on the trip but had to cancel due to family emergency, texted me an inspirational note I shared with our group during the service, which mentioned that our son Mayron who is a surgical resident in Michigan had just received some prestigious medical awards, and she added, ” they tried to kill your lineage…so as much as they tried to get rid of us we are excelling and achieving!”

Everyone in our group cheered and clapped, it was a deeply emotional moment for us all, specially for me who lost 100s of relatives in the war and a half sister aged 4. As Lee Kwait read the poem I Never Saw Another Butterfly written by a young boy in Terezin who perished, he could hardly finish reading, we were all choked up…but left with the words ringing in our ears of Hatikvah “lih’yot am chofshi b’artseinu….to be a free people in our land…”

PS we have just crossed the border by bus from the Czech Republic into Germany as I write this!!

Concentrated in one small area of Prague where the Jewish ghetto once was, are an ancient Jewish cemetery as well as 6 impressive synagogues and a beautiful building of the Chevrah Kadisha – the Jewish Burial Society which played a vital social services and Tsedaka role in the community. In addition a little further away is the magnificent Jerusalem Synagogue which was not on our tour as its too far but I went there in the morning during free time and am sure glad as its magnificent. It is still in use as are several others although the community is tiny compared to pre-war, a few 1000.

Described in local literature as ‘the most beautiful synagogue in Europe’ is the Spanish Synagogue so called because of its magnificent Moorish architecture. It is very reminiscent of Florence Italy’s synagogue though much smaller but both rank amongst the most beautiful in the world without question. We took lots of photos outside too by the weird statue of Franzen Kafka, the famed Jewish writer about whom Prague jokes ‘everyone’s heard of him no one has read him.’ This saying we learnt from our tour guide from Precious Legacy Tours Luba who was outstanding and deserves special mention as having a good make makes a huge difference on tour.

Also awe inspiring is the Alt-Neu Shul, the oldest in the world in constant use (except during the Second World War) dating from 1270, yes just imagine standing in this holy space where over 750 years our People have continuously davened to Hashem!! By the ark is the 400 year old seat of the great legendary saintly tsadik Rabbi Judah Loew known as The Maharal, So integral is he to Prague history that a statue attributed to him stands in front of city hall. Next to the Altneu Shul is the Jewish town hall with its famous Hebrew clock.

The cemetery close by has 1000s of graves on top of each other as they ran out of room, including the Maharal’s grave.

On all the walls of this Shul are inscribed the names of every Jew from Czechoslovakia who perished in the Shoah some 78000 names filling every corner of every wall including lobby, corridors etc. Other than names the building is deliberately and starkly bare except for an outline of ark & bimah..it is as powerful as visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I am so glad our group had the following experience described in my next paragraphs after exiting this memorial…

We concluded our Jewish experience here with an amazing coincidental climax by returning to the Spanish Shul for Friday night service followed by kosher shabbat dinner at the Solomon Restaurant. We had no idea what to expect at the service ~ I had contacted them and they said they were expecting 1 other group but when we arrived there weren’t many seats. I asked if they could bring out more and they said they thought it would be enough as at that point there were some 50 people which was all they were expecting but the crowd just kept growing with mostly young people and growing till there were some 150 or so packed in and they ran out of chairs and siddurim. We started 20 minutes late. It was a typical Conservative service very similar to Reform so our group were familiar with and able to follow the service and sing along and men and women sat together.

I introduced my group to the service leader who was a regular congregant from Ukraine (I don’t know if they have a Rabbi or Hazzan) and he asked me to sing the various Kaddish prayers which I was glad to oblige as singing there is a hugely emotional experience and honor.

The acoustics were fantastic and I could hear my voice reverberating off the arches of the magnificent structure. When the leader asked people where they were from we were happily amazed to find some young Jews knowledgeable of the service singing at the tops of their voices filling this great Shul with davening from all over Eastern Europe including Warsaw Poland where my family is from, Rumania etc.

Keeping the flame of Judaism alive in these places where it almost disappeared is a real kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name. What a contrast to the ghostly walls of the bare Pinkas Shul we had beheld a mere hour before..the young people’s voices still ringing in my ears Lecha Dodi – Come my beloved…let us greet the shabbat queen…and these young people live where? In Israel? No! In America? No! In Poland, in Rumania, Hungary, Czech…Ezekiel’s dry bones coming to life vision!

Dinner at the Solomon was delicious – traditional Jewish chicken soup, beef over cholent etc but more inviting than heimishe cousine was joining with the group next to us of French Jews as we sang together with great ruach zemirot and Israeli songs and I grabbed one of them & we danced ecstatically at the joy of bringing together Jews with from all over the world in this great place once called by some ‘the museum of the extinct Jewish race…!!

First stop here was Regensburg, a beautiful historical college town well preserved of centuries of history dating back to Rome. I only felt it worthwhile to do these countries so associated with Jewish suffering if we were going to do experience something positively Jewish so I set out during free time to find the Shul which I did with no problem, bumping into Joanne Rubin and Leah Connor exploring the town, whom I took along to find the Shul that was nearby.

It was locked of course, no security. There were 4 call buttons on the gate. I pressed them continually never being one to give up quickly. As Joanne and Leah began to leave a woman’s voice answered. I identified ourselves and our mission and soon the front door opened and a custodian opened for us. We explored the whole Jewish center and took photos. It is in the building that before the War housed the community offices. This survived though the Shul part of the complex burnt down on Kristalnacht. There is a new center which they are going to enlarge as it is too small to accommodate the reemergent community now numbering 1000 with the influx of Russian Jews as all over Germany.

Later as our whole group toured the town, we saw 2 sights of Jewish interest – Oskar Schindler’s home and a Holocaust memorial on the sight of a former ancient synagogue which was revealed recently through excavations. The memorial is by an Israeli sculptor and in the place where the ark stood is a stone with the Hebrew word mizrach – meaning ‘east’ carved, symbolizing the direction of Jerusalem but also meaning to shine as in light shining, the intent being for people to dwell in harmony. It was Sunday, the weather was perfect and the memorial was filled with many young people relaxing and enjoying the bright sunshine…I wonder if they grasp the significance of that once holy place or the word mizrach?.

When I told our group about the Shul some wanted to see it so I took them before retiring to the boat to depart Regensburg.

Two amazing coincidences – in Prague we stopped in the old town for lunch at a small local cafe when a woman jumped up and yelled ‘IVOR’ – it was Judy Gatchell from my former synagogue in Tucson whom I met 15 years ago when she needed a mohel for her grandson. We had reconnected last year when she attended a concert and scholar in residence program I did there. It was emotional to see her here in the middle of Prague – I told her we were going to the Conservative synagogue Friday night so she came too and said how much she enjoyed hearing me singing there…a long way from Arizona…

Second small world coincidence – the manager of our boat which by the way is gorgeous, brand new one month old – is a Hungarian who spent 14 years in Cape Town and married a South African and lived about 12 blocks from my mother in a city of 4 million!

On the boat you dare not miss a meal –
it’s a religious ritual –
Shouldn’t be a problem – I am religious and I know ritual, right?
Wrong – these buffets are chaos –
you can’t find an entrance to the line –
have to push your way in –
like they’re going to run out of food?
It extends round and round – like a wedding ring – no beginning no end
Like a merrygoround.
All 181 people on board attack simultaneously…
my African background should come in handy, that animal instinct of the jungle –
see a target? See food. Haven’t eaten in an hour. Attack! attack! Claw your way Cantor
come on don’t be shy…
thought I’d go in the reverse order but even starting with dessert doesn’t help –
the line extends beyond that too.
Might as well just wait it out
but by then everyone at your table’s all done and you’re left holding the bag…
Tomorrow morning there will be breakfast, won’t there?

Categories: Israel Trip 2013 | Leave a comment

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