The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: Facing the Holocaust

By Livia Rothkirchen | Go to book overview

Prologue
Prague and Jerusalem
Spiritual Ties between
Czechs and Jews

It is the ancient Jewish quarter in the heart of the city of Prague that most authentically bears witness to the checkered history of the centuries-old Czech-Jewish coexistence.1 The echoes of bygone times still reverberate in Josefov, the former Josefstadt, known also as the first district. Countless monuments, synagogues, and the ancient Jewish cemetery with “the multitude of quaint tombs” keep firing the imagination of poetic souls.2

No wonder that from time immemorial Prague has inspired poets, artists, mystics, and travelers. A most imaginative saga attaches to the founding of the neo-Gothic Altneuschul, the Old-New Synagogue, the construction of which was completed in 1270.3 Legend has it that its cornerstone was formed from the ruins of the Second Temple brought to Prague by exiles under solemn oath, as the Hebrew term al-tnai (on condition) implies: once the Temple of Jerusalem is restored, these stones will be returned. It was this unique message of continuity that inspired Theodor Herzl in 1899 to name his utopian novel Altneuland (Old new land).4

Two sculptures created by Czech artists and located in the heart of the Old City symbolize spiritual values and universal greatness. The statue of Moses the Lawgiver, carved by František Bílek in 1937, stands in the tiny romantic park in the vicinity of the Altneuschul.5 Not far away, in front of the New Town Hall, one encounters Ladislav Šaloun's striking sculpture of the mysterious High Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel (Liwa) Loew—the Maharal (c. 1525–1609). The artist portrayed the venerated sage in his death, as described by the poet Jaroslav Vrchlický.2

-1-

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