Even the most casual visitor to Prague senses the melancholy that seeps from its very stones. The beauty of the city intensifies the sadness. The 20th century was cruel to the Czech lands.
Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright, born in Prague a year before Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler that doomed her native land, bitterly charts the despicable sellout in “Prague Winter,” a fine and fascinating book that melds personal memoir with Czechoslovakia’s 1937-48 story. She writes, of the 1938 Munich surrender, and the British prime minister’s inability to recognize Hitler’s evil, that “in Chamberlain’s universe, people might be flawed, but they worried about their souls and did not set out to do monstrous things.”
Flash forward three-quarters of a century, sit in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, and pray that it would be false, false, false, to substitute Obama’s name for Chamberlain’s in that sentence.
Two thousand Jews live in Prague today — officially. Unofficially, there may be as many as 10,000. A large proportion apparently prefer to eschew formal affiliation with the community. Why on earth would they do that, when officials argue that Prague is perhaps the best place in Europe to be Jewish these days?
Part of the answer is written on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, founded by one of my illustrious Horovitz ancestors almost 480 years ago. The nearby Old-New Synagogue is the oldest in Europe — dating back to the 13th century, replete with a wooden, Star of David-topped chair named for the community’s preeminent 16th century scholar and mystic Rabbi Judah Loew, widely known as the Maharal of Prague — and the oldest still in use outside of Israel. They don’t pray in the Pinkas shul anymore. They lament. For on its walls are inscribed the names of 80,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis.
The endless rows of Jews’ names were first rendered in the late 1950s. But after the Soviet Union was allowed to crush Czechoslovakia’s bid to break free of Communist domination in 1968 — the second betrayal — Moscow had the memorial destroyed.
Jews here over the centuries, at the mercy of their national hosts, suffered their characteristic horrors interspersed with periods of relative calm. For more than 300 years, from the early 1400s through to 1787, they were barred from burying their dead anywhere outside the designated Jewish cemetery. An estimated 12,000 tombstones remain in the Old Jewish Cemetery now, including that of Rabbi Loew, but the body count is far higher — perhaps 200,000. Hopelessly short of space, the community laid its graves one on top of the other; ten deep in places. The level of the ground inside the cemetery walls is markedly higher than on the road alongside.
Unique among former centers of Jewish life in Nazi-occupied Europe, Prague’s Jewish ghetto survives to this day in part because it escaped bombing by the Allies, but mainly because the Nazis apparently intended to maintain the site as a “Museum Of An Extinct Race” — a memorial to the proud genocide that finally rid the world of the historical scourge of Judaism.
You visit the cemetery, with its desperate mash of crammed and crumbling tombstones. You read the names of the Nazis’ victims in the adjacent Pinkas shul. You head next to the Ceremonial Hall, which presents in nauseatingly excessive detail the activities of the Prague Jewish Burial Society. You watch the flow of politely interested gentile tourists, and you imagine them thinking to themselves, “Ah, how interesting, so these were the Jews. Ah, I see, this is how they lived.” And you have to suppress the urge to scream that, “No, we’re not all dead. We’re still here.” Still thriving, actually. And still threatened.
The 20th century’s two betrayals resonate, profoundly, in the psyche of the modern Czech Republic, Kraus believes. But 1968 had an inevitability. The US had liberated its third of the former Czechoslovakian Republic at the end of World War II, and gone, ultimately leaving the country under Soviet domination, and Moscow was not about to allow it to break free. In 1938, by contrast, the Czech boasted alliances, treaties, solemn pledges of military assistance. All of which proved empty.
For the reviving Czechoslovakia after World War II, Israel’s insistent 1948 fight for life, such a contrast to their undignified surrender a decade earlier, was particularly admirable. There were also Jews in high places in the new Czech leadership, returned refugees from Moscow and London. Misidentifying modern Israel as a potential Communist foothold in the Middle East, Moscow too smiled upon the nascent Jewish state. All that together helps explain Czechoslovakia’s affirmative response to beleaguered Israel’s War of Independence pleas for military assistance — in the form of crucial fighter planes, arms, spare parts, and the training of pilots.
Decades later, perceived parallels of small gutsy nations surrounded by enemies again help explain why today’s Czech Republic is arguably Israel’s biggest supporter in Europe; it was the only European country to vote with Israel, the US, Panama and four Pacific island states against the accession of “Palestine” to the status of nonmember observer state at the UN in 2012. [.......]
No. It did not require hindsight to realize that appeasement would not stop Hitler. Just the kind of willingness that Chamberlain lacked and Churchill possessed to honestly assess a deeply unpalatable reality. And not only did appeasement fail to stop the Nazis, it also made matters a great deal easier for them. Losing no time and no lives in the conquest of Czechoslovakia, they commandeered the Czech army’s invaluable weaponry, and rolled murderously forward.
Madeleine Albright is not the only US secretary of state to have learned late in life that her origins were Jewish. In Albright’s case, both parents were Jews — later converting to Roman Catholicism — and many of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
As I’m leaving Kraus’s office, and he’s urging me to read Albright’s “Prague Winter,” he happens to mention that the biography of the current secretary of state, John Kerry, is not dissimilar — that Kerry’s grandfather was Jewish, born Fritz Kohn, southeast of here in Moravia. Growing up in increasingly anti-Semitic Vienna, Fritz and his older brother Otto converted to Roman Catholicism and then, in 1901, Fritz Kohn changed his name, to Fred Kerry.
Turns out there’s more to the story. Grandpa Fritz/Fred also married a Jew, a musician named Ida Loewe, and she too converted to Catholicism.
If that family name rings a bell it’s because Ida Loewe was a descendant of the same family as Prague’s luminary Rabbi Judah Loew — buried right here in the Old Jewish Cemetery. So Secretary Kerry can trace his roots to one of Jewish history’s most eminent Kabbalists.
Not all of Ida’s family escaped their religion, or the Nazis. Two of Kerry’s grandmother’s siblings, Otto and Jenni, were killed in concentration camps, just around the period that, at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, Rosemary and Richard Kerry were celebrating the birth of their second child, and first son.
Ancestry on my mind, my wife, daughter and I take the 40-minute train journey from Prague to Horovice. Unlike our previous roots trip two years ago to Frankfurt — where my great-grandfather had founded the Borneplatz Synagogue in 1882, and where it was burned down on Kristallnacht 56 years later — our two sons cannot join us this time. They are protecting their country now, one in the north, the other in the south.
An early 20th century shul building remains, built hundreds of years after my ancestors had moved to Prague. It’s been turned into an Evangelical Church.
We walk south through the Czech capital, on an unremarkably freezing cold December day, to the church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius.
It’s getting dark and it’s easy to miss the memorial plaque above a bullet-scarred section of the church’s outer wall facing Resslova Street. Here is where, on June 18, 1942, hundreds upon hundreds of SS troops attempted to extricate seven Czech soldiers who had taken refuge in the church after assassinating Reinhard Heydrich — the Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the occupied Czech Republic) and prime architect of the Holocaust. (He chaired that year’s Wannsee Conference, which formalized the Final Solution.)
Members of the Czech army-in-exile who had been airlifted in from the UK, the parachutists had killed a demonic figure, beloved by Hitler as “the man with an iron heart,” in an operation of astounding daring as Heydrich was being driven to his headquarters at Prague Castle on the morning of May 27. (The attack very nearly failed, when the submachine gun used by Jozef Gabcik, the principal gunman, jammed; his colleague Jan Kubiš then threw a modified anti-tank bomb at the car, fatally wounding Heydrich.) And the soldier-assassins had ended up here, surrounded and with no means of escape.
Three of them died in gunbattles high in the church; the remaining four killed themselves in the crypt after resisting tear-gassing and flooding, and fighting off the SS troops, for hours.
The bronze memorial lists their seven names along with that of Bishop Gorazd, the clergyman who had earlier asked that the assassins take refuge elsewhere, but told the Nazis he took personal responsibility for their being there. Gorazd was arrested, tortured and executed by Nazi firing squad, along with the church’s priests and lay leaders.
The immediate consequences of the killing of Heydrich were devastating. An estimated 5,000 Czechs were murdered in reprisals ordered by Hitler; the entire village of Lidice, falsely implicated in the plot, was liquidated and razed. But the bullying Nazis’ veneer of invulnerability had been smashed, an incalculably valuable achievement.
That single act emphatically did not turn the tide of the war (though the brutality of the reprisals finally brought home Hitler’s unlimited capacity for evil to some in the international community). But there’s no telling what impact the ruthless, cold-hearted Heydrich might have had in restraining some of Hitler’s increasingly deranged military strategies as the war continued, and thus whether his presence might have prolonged the Nazi nightmare.
The assassination had been approved by the Czech government-in-exile in London — a belated assertion of sovereign responsibility and determination. It was a moment in which the Czechs demonstrably fought back, stood up to their aggressors, and said no to the Nazi emissary who had declared, on his appointment the previous September, his intention to “Germanize the Czech vermin.”
Heydrich had traveled in an open Mercedes convertible because he knew nobody would dare to tangle with him. They dared.