A Place Like No Other–Prague’s Jewish Cemetery

The old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in Europe.  It sits in what is considered the best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe, including the Jewish Town Hall and six synagogues. It is a monument to the Jewish Golden Age in Prague.   It was established in about 1439, with the last burial in about 1787.

Unique among cemeteries, the tombstones are so tightly packed that many literally rest one on top of another. The ancient trees wrap themselves around the tombstones as though born from the stone.

For 350 years the Jews of Prague were buried here. It is the resting place of Jews who made Prague their home  when Prague was the cultural center of Jewish Europe.  Especially during the 16th century, Jewish intellectuals throughout Europe gathered in Jewish Town. Many of these greats rest here, in the same cemetery that served the community in times of repression.

The cemetery is surrounded by a massive stone wall, as though the wall alone is sufficient to protect the remnants of this rich culture that extends nearly 650 years into the past.

Madeleine Albright visited this ancient cemetery on a visit to Prague in 1997.  This was not just any trip, but a pilgrimage of sorts.  Within the year, she had learned of her Jewish heritage, a heritage hidden from her family who fled Czechoslovakia in fear of the Nazis and again, years later, the communists.  When she explored the cemetery, she must have learned of the leaders buried here, who, like herself, exercised great power and influence in their times.

Secretary Albright will have been told of the first burial about April 25, 1439, of Avigdor Karo, the “chief rabbi” of Prague, a poet and a scholar of the Kabbalah.  Rabbi Karo lived through the destruction of Prague’s Jewish community in the 1389 Easter massacre in which over 3000 Jews died.  She will have been told of  Mordecai Marcus Meisel, (died 1601), a Philanthropist and leader in Prague, who lived through the persecutions of Jews in the mid-1500’s, financed the construction of Meisel synagogue in 1590-92.  Meisel built a hospital, expanded the cemetery and paved the Jewish ghetto. She will have heard the stories of Rabbi Loew Ben Bezalel, Chief Rabbi of Prague, a significant Talmudic scholar and philosopher,  buried there in 1609. Perhaps she will have been told of Rabbi David Ben Abraham Oppenheim, Chief Rabbi of Prague prior to his death in Sept. 12, 1736. Rabbi Oppenheim, a highly successful business  man, a prolific author and a student of the cabal is said to have had a library of more than  7,000 books.  Many of these books are now housed in Oxford’s library. These are only a few of the 100,00 people buried in these walls.

As powerful as these images must be, with the cemetery symbolizing both life and death, there was more for her to experience. The Pinkas Synagogue sits in the same complex.  Now serving as a museum, the synagogue’s walls identify over 77,000 Czech and Slav holocaust victims.  Among those names are Secretary Albright’s paternal grandparents.  Her grandfather Arnost Korbel, died at Theresienstadt in 1942.  Her grandmother, Olga Korbel, died in Auschwitz in 1944.

My husband I visited the Cemetery and Pinkus Synagogue in 2007.  The list of the dead is a visual testament to those killed in the holocaust.  I  cannot imagine the profound sense of loss that Secretary Albright must have felt, on seeing her Korbel names on those walls. But I wonder, what might happen if I awoke on some future day to learn, as she did, that my heritage was not what I had been raised to believe.  What if I learned I was Chinese, or African,  or Persian, or Jewish.  Would I develop a better understanding of the struggles, hopes and challenges of people of other races and other religions? Can I do that anyway?

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The Mighty and the Almighty–Diplomacy and Faith

In my quest for greater understanding of the role of faith in government and diplomacy, I have focused on two books.  Senator John Danforth’s Faith and Politics and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty.  Senator Danforth is a lifelong Republican.  Secretary Albright has been a Democrat since college.  Both are Episcopalian.  Each served as Ambassador to the UN.  Both advocate that people of faith should be active in government.  Both believe it is essential that there be respect for diversity both within the Christian community and that this respect must extend to those of other faiths and philosophical beliefs.

I focused on Senator Danforth in an earlier post.  Now I will focus on Secretary Albright.  She was born in Czechoslovakia.  Her father was a diplomat.  She was a child when Adolf Hitler was in power.  She emigrated with her family from Czechoslovakia to the United States after communists seized power in her homeland.  Educated at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, she received her PhD from Columbia University.  Raised Catholic, she converted to the Episcopal faith and, as an adult, came to learn of her Jewish heritage.  Appointed United States Secretary of State during President Clinton’s administration, she served with great distinction from January 1997 to January 2001.

Her unique family history and academic and professional experiences give her a unique perspective on the subject of her book, the role of faith in international diplomacy.  Because of her childhood experiences, she also has special insight into what a privilege it s to live in a free and democratic society.

Secretary Albright’s book is dedicated to “those of every nation and faith who defend liberty, build peace, dispel ignorance, fight poverty, and seek justice.”  Secretary Albright weaves this dedication, and her personal family history, into a scholarly but easily readable narrative of the role of faith in the earliest years of colonial America, through the founding of the Republic and through to the challenges of international diplomacy in a nuclear age.

She discusses separately and together the roles of religious belief and morality.  Her definition of what is moral as essentially that which “we associate with good:  life, liberty, justice, prosperity, health, and peace of mind.”  She describes these characteristics as the opposite of “death, repression, lawlessness, poverty, illness, and fear.”

She worries about the dangers and challenges resulting from the increase in religious passions throughout the world.  She shares the wisdom of religious scholars that effective diplomacy requires that government leaders become more knowledgeable about the faiths and cultures of the countries with whom we interact.  She believes such knowledge is essential in our endeavors to work toward reconciliation rather than toward armed conflict.  Even as she identifies herself as an optimist, she worries “the prospect of a nuclear bomb detonated by terrorists in purported service to the Almighty is a nightmare that may one day come true.”

The Mighty and the Almighty is a goldmine for those who want a brief history of the role of religious conflict on the founding of some of the earliest American colonies, about the religious perspectives of our first four Presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Because there is no way to do more than touch the surface of the issues raised by Secretary Albright.  It is wonderful material for further posts.