Jared in Prague

Hello world, come on, get happy.

I have been in Prague for the last few days….what a city! I had no idea it was such a gem of a European capitol! I mean, compared to Sofia, Bulgaria, this place is a paradise. But by any standards, the architecture of this city is so profoundly beautiful that I was quite shocked. Around each and every turn, there are myriads of enormous buildings with ornate facades, towers and castles, beautiful bridges, statues, plazas, and squares full of markets, bustling tourists and locals, restaurants, and Bohemian culture (we are really in Bohemia by the way…). I don’t know what to take a picture of, because there are just so many things that are worthy of a picture.

We arrived by train in the early evening and went to the accomodations office in the train station to see about getting a place to stay. Stupid me, I had torn out all the information from my Let’s Go Europe book on the Czech Republic, because I didn’t plan to come over this far…but when I met Elyse in Bern, she said she wanted to come here, and I always wanted to anyway, but just thought it was too far of a trek. So, we had no information upon arrival.

The office set us up with an amazing Pension, but it was a bit of a hike from the center of town. We took a cab and got ripped off, but when we arrived, we found a very clean, new hotel with a beautiful room and a gracious host who helped carry our bags…which is always welcome…believe me, I am so sick of these bags, I am often tempted to toss them over a bridge (and I have crossed many). The hardest part about arriving in a new city is finding a place to stay, and until you do, you feel laden and disoriented, worried about what will happen…and it never gets easier. But once you get a place, it’s like you have a home base from which to explore, and you can store your bags and feel free to roam. So, once again, we set out in a new place to explore.

We bought a guide book that gave some information on the standard sights in Prague. There is just so much history here, and I can’t really get into it (mostly because I don’t know) but it was a major cultural capitol in Europe for a very long time, especially for Jewish life (OH NO, he’s gonna rant about the Jewish stuff again…oy…)….well, what can I say? It’s important to me.

We crossed the Charles Bridge, the main bridge crossing the river from the Old Town portion of Prague to the other side, called the Lesser Town. The view of the city from the bridge is spectacular….rows and rows of beautiful facades lining the river, with many spectacular examples of Eastern European architecture. The bridge is lined with many statues and carvings, and is itself an interesting site – old and made of cobble stone.

There was one interesting statue on the bridge of a crucifix with Hebrew writing surrounding it…not something I have ever seen before. There are many street musicians everywhere, as well as vendors selling the local trinkets. Another thing, there are TONS of chamber music concerts all over. We bought tickets for an early evening performance of a violin quartet, to take place in a medieval church….exciting.

We crossed the bridge and walked around the Lesser town a bit, where I dropped off some rolls of film to be developed (and thankfully they came out ok…pictures of Venice and Dachau. I was really worried that they would not come out, because my camera is a piece of crap and I have lost some pictures because of that). As we walked around, I got the sense that I was in a truly Medieval town with buildings that were so old, and original, that I felt like I was back in time. Of course, that is ruined by the zillions of tourists and the modern trappings, but it’s still incredible. This city rivals Rome in architectural beauty. We walked up the hill of the lesser town to the Prague Castle and had some stunning views and pizza….

The chamber orchestra concert was quite impressive. I had never really heard live music like this before…and even though I am a musician myself, I was quite blown away. Classical music is in a completely different league, and I can’t even begin to understand it. The violinists were so right on, and their performance of the classics was perfect, in a beautiful little medieval church in the center of old town Prague. We spent the evening admiring the views of the lit up old town from the bridge…it looks like Disney World, but it’s for real.

Next day, we were thrown out on our asses, because we could only get the room for two nights. Apparently, everything in Prague was booked…hard to believe. This is a very touristy town. I think there was some holiday in Germany that was drawing all kinds of excursionists. We had to drag our stuff all the way back to the train station and go through the same booking speel we went through when we first arrived…but by the time we found a place, checked in, and rested from the exhausting shlep, it was about 2:00pm and half the day was lost….but we set out again.

This time, we wanted to see the Jewish Quarter of Prague. This city was the center for Jewish life in Europe for a long time, and there is a rich Jewish history here and many old synagogues. We spent the afternoon wandering through them and around the old ghetto area and into the cemetery. That was interesting, the cemetery…fields of grave stones with Hebrew writing looking very ancient…

If anyone has ever heard of the Legend of the Golum, Prague is where that story began. Back in the middle ages, so the story goes, a Rabbi fashioned a human body out of clay and brought it to life using some secrets from the Kabala (sort of like a Jewish Frankenstein) and the Golum lived and served the Rabbi. But one day got peaved about something and started wrecking all kinds of things..so the Rabbi had to put the Golum out of its misery. Bottom line – There’s all kinds of Golum figurines being sold, and I felt it appropriate to buy one. Ahhh, a souvenier.

Tonight, we attend services in the most ancient synagogue of Prague, the “Old-New” synagogue….should be fascinating. Don’t worry anyone, I am not becoming religious, just tasting the history and culture as much as I can.

OK, that’s it…see ya next time…

Jared

Jared in Germany – Part Deux

Whoa…I have been a lightning streak all across this dang continent! Last I wrote to you, I was in Munich, Germany, getting ready to visit some castles and stuff, and I will tell ya all about it.

Right now I am in Prague! Elyse and I decided to make the trek out here…it was an eight hour ride from Munich and we had to switch trains twice…we passed a lot of freaky little towns with really old looking stations, and a lot of train tracks that were overgrown with grass. They brought images of cattle cars and deportation to mind.

For the entire time I was in Germany, I really could not help but be overshadowed by the fact that this is where the holocaust took place. I mean, I tried very hard to see it objectively, and it is very beautiful land – don’t get me wrong – some of the most beautiful landscape I have yet to see, but everywhere I turn, I can’t help but think about the enormity of what happened. In every town I see, I wonder about what may have occurred there…and every elderly person I see, I wonder what role they may have played in the holocaust. Some of you may say that I have allowed emotion to overtake me and ruin the German experience,  but to you, I say this, “Come to Germany and visit Dachau. It’s a concentration camp. Look at the ovens. Stand in the gas chambers. Touch the barbed wire. Then talk to me”.

OK, so Germany was very beautiful. After I left you last, we hopped a train to a town called Fussen, which is close to the Austrian border and the the end of a region called the Romantic Road, a stretch of Bavaria containing much beauty, many castles and medieval towns. Fussen itself wasn’t much to rave about, but it is the base from which to explore two pretty dramatic castles built by Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria in the 1800s.

The castle that we decided to visit was the Neuwenstein Castle, if I can spell that right…and it looks very much like Cinderella’s castle in Disneyworld…in fact, it was the inspiration for it. It’s nestled into the Bavarian hills, surrounded by mountains, valleys, a river, and a waterfall…very dramatic, yet packed with tourists. We had to climb for half an hour up hill to get to the castle, then wait two hours in line to get in. That was pretty frustrating, lemme tell you…no information…no one came out and said, “Hey guys, you will be waiting for a while, so you may want to consider whether or not you really wanna see this friggin castle”. But no, we stood, two hours, and every 1/2 hour the line would move maybe five feet. By the time I got into the castle, I was pretty jaded. It was an impressive, but short tour. King Ludwig was one crazy guy. Check out some pictures on the web.

Two hour train ride back to Munich…fun fun fun. I have been spending so much time on the train…the sight of climbing down from the train and seeing the platform, and walking towards the gate is becoming all too familiar. It’s like I keep re-living the same moment over and over.

Munich is a pretty nice town…most of it was destroyed in the war, so a lot of it looks new, but there are many old buildings that survived the war, giving the city a very authentic, Bavarian feel. The main center of the city is the Marianplatz, a giant church with an extremely ornate facade sporting gargoils and a spire with moving characters that dance several times a day.

We sat in the center of the plaza having coffee and enjoying the view of the church, listening to the many street musicians and watching the tourists pass. We wanted to have an authentic German dinner, so we picked what looked like a local restaurant, and sat down. They serve pretzels instead of bread! Most excellent…but I found out there was no chicken on the menu 🙁  So, I had a choice of pork Weiner Schnitzel, Fish, or Beef. I went with the beef even though I am not much of a slab eater….what I got was exactly that…a big, vein full, slab of beef with two heavy potato dumplings…yum yum…uhhh….yeah. That was the last of the German cuisine. Stuck with McDonald’s after that….no offense to you Germans out there…but…uhh…lighten up on the food.

The next day was perhaps one of the most profoundly saddening days of my life. It was the day we visited Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, and model for some additional 3000 camps throughout the Reich. Dachau is a town located 1/2 an hour outside Munich that is reachable by train. It was most eerie for me to take a train and get off at the stop with a sign reading “Dachau” and hearing the conductor announce “Dachau.” I was overcome with emotion the whole way there.

I have to say, recently, the holocaust and the tumultous history of my people have been in the forefront of my conciousness, so the very thought of what happened was enough to bring me to tears. So, I could not hold them back when I arrived at the Dachau station. The town looked relatively normal, but what can I say? It was Dachau. I don’t know how people can live there.

We took a bus to the Concentration Camp, which is now a memorial with a museum exhibiting pictures and artifacts from the camp. On the way to the camp from the station, we passed many neighborhoods and houses that were just outside the fence of the camp. I wonder how people can open their windows and look out at such a place as that…does it phase them at all?

We got off the bus. We began to walk towards the camp, and the first thing I saw was the guard towers and barbed wire. Tears. Couldn’t hold them back. I was outside the barbed wire that held in over 200,000 “prisoners”, and I was looking in as a free man. They didn’t know if they would live through the day…if they would be shot by a Nazi guard on a whim, or because they went too close to the fence, or some soldiers felt like amusing themselves.

We entered the camp, passing through an opening in the the barbed wire. The whole area was open and covered with stones. In the center there were two barracks that housed the inmates….they were reconstructions….the originals were torn down, because they were so wraught with infestations due to the overcrowding (the barracks were constructed to hold 200 prisoners, but were forced to hold nearly 1600 each).

I entered the barracks. I saw the beds that they were forced to sleep on…nothing more than wooden bunks in which four prisoners were crammed into the space of one twin bed. I took some pictures, in a state of shock. We walked around the perimeter of the barbed wire, passing some guard towers, to the memorial. There were several memorials there, some Christian, and some Jewish. We went to the Jewish one…very sobering. We put a stone on the memorial, a Jewish custom, shed a few tears for the victims and moved on.

Outside the immediate viscinity of the camp is the crematorium, a building housing the gas chambers and ovens. I entered on the left, stood in the gas chambers for a while, trying to imagine what it must have been like to be told you were about to take a shower, then enter a room, have the doors locked and sealed, and see the gas begin to come through the little holes in the ceiling. I imagined the panic that must have been felt, and the chaotic struggle for life that was fought and always lost to Xyklon B.

I passed out of the gas chambers and into the next room, which is where the ovens are contained. Once again, overcome, I stood and gazed at the ovens and wondered how many thousands of people were cremated here. I put my hand inside one of the ovens and felt a shiver as the ghosts of the place surrounded me from every direction. No words can really describe what it felt like to stand in the place where one of the worst crimes in history was committed.

We left the crematorium and made our way to the entrance of the camp where all inmates passed through upon arrival. The gate of the camp has a sign that says “Albeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes One Free.” That’s what they saw as they entered the camp….and I think it was one of the biggest lies in all of history.

After many hours of roaming the camp and experiencing some of the most intensly emotional moments of my life, we left, taking the bus back to the station and the train to Munich. After such a sad afternoon, we decided we wanted to have a  positive Jewish experience and seek out a Synagogue and meet some local Jews who live in the country where millions of their people were murdered.

There are a few active synagogues, and we located one. It was a bland looking building with a very small sign. It appeared, when we arrived, that there was no one there, but I rang the bell and an Israeli man came to the door. It turns out they were about to hold evening services, and we were just in time to attend. He asked to see our passports and questioned us about our reasons for being there…standard Israeli security questions, and I am quite familiar with them…I said a few words in Hebrew, assuring him we were Jews and just wanted to meet some of our people in Germany.

The synagogue was orthodox so we sat separately. The service was chaotic, as most are, but it was very comforting to be there. It was soothing to hear the Hebrew prayers and feel the aura of the place…it was a statement that we are still alive…we go on…even after such a horrible thing as the holocaust, we are still here, and we persevere. I have never been so proud to be Jewish, to be alive, and to be free.

After the service, we spoke to an elderly man, via translator, who was a survivor of Aushwitz, the biggest extermination camp of them all. He was hesitant to talk about his experiences. I would have thought that survivors would want their stories to be known, but I realize now that what we hear about the holocaust, the horror stories and all the events of World War II, are all the story of his life. And if that were my life, I would want nothing more than to forget what happened and try my best to live normally. But to me, this man was a living memorial. After the war, he was a refugee, and no country would allow him in because he had typhoid. So, he was forced to remain in Germany. I couldn’t imagine being forced to live in the place where you were nearly the victim of genocide…every day, walking down the streets where Nazi soldiers once stormed about, dragging Jews from their homes. I am sure he could have given me a more interesting tour of the place.

Sorry if this has been a heavy chapter to read, but I had some heavy experiences, and they still weigh heavy on my heart. So, I am sharing them with you so you may know how it feels to see these things. May the world never forget what has happened here, and may the memory of those who perished live in our hearts for all time.

I am in Prague, though I have just arrived and seen nothing as of yet…so once I get some good stories, I will report back. Thanks for reading. Oh, by the way, I am sorry if I offended anyone in my previous chapter about my experiences at the Vatican. At times, I take it for granted that everyone shares my point of view on things, and I know that’s not necessarily true. I mean no offense.
Thanks,

Jared