Prague, Glorious Prague-Charles Bridge

Prague, Czech Republic is truly glorious.  Described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it also has been a cultural and economic center throughout much of European history.  Among the wonders of this ancient city is the Vltava River that winds by Old Town. The river is a source of transportation;  power, supplying much of Prague’s electricity; and also a major source of commerce.
18 bridges span the width of the Vltava.  Most prominent of these bridges is the massive Charles Bridge. Built in the gothic style,  construction began in 1357 and was completed in the early 1400s.  It is offers majestic views of the city and serves as a promenade for locals and tourists.  The bridge is approximately 33 feet wide and provides a venue for artists and vendors of all sorts.
The Old Town Bridge Tower, completed in 1380, is one of three watch towers guarding the bridge.  It was originally designed and built as part of the city’s fortifications to guard the Old Town from invaders.  Now it watches over locals and visitors with more peaceful plans-shopping and celebrating life.
In addition to the commercial, military and tourist uses of the bridge, it also has a significant religious place in the life of the community.  Thirty statues mounted on the Charles Bridge sit in two rows, one row on each side of the Bridge. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Wenceslas, St. John the Baptist and St. Francis Xavier are among those depicted on the statues. An elaborate statue of Christ on the Cross dominates the rest.  This sculpture replaces earlier statues of Christ erected since the 1300s. The two figures depicted here  below the cross are of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
If a visitor to Prague had only one day to spend in the city, the bridge itself would be among the “must see” sites.  Prague Castle, the Jewish Cemetery and Old Town itself would also be on my must see list.  All are easily accessible and within minutes of the bridge.  What are you waiting for?
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Prague, Glorious Prague–Old Town

Until the end of the cold war in 1991, Iron Curtain countries, including Czechoslavakia, were essentially closed to U.S. tourists.  It was more than fifteen years later that we traveled to Prague, the largest city in the Czech Republic. A major European economic and cultural center for more than 1000 years, the city resonates with the power that is its history.  In recent weeks I have learned a bit about Prague and the trauma it’s resident’s have endured through the  last 100 years. I am in awe of what I see and learn.

Totally inconsistent with my expectations, Prague is a vibrant, bustling community.  The old town looks like it is straight from a movie set.  It is colorful, dramatic and gothic. Outdoor cafes make visitors feel welcome and tourists can, for a price, enjoy a carriage ride through the city center.

The hustle and bustle of the city surrounds us.  The mood is happy and upbeat.  The tourist trade significantly impacts the economy and seems to be welcomed by all.  The Powder Gate sits next to the palace in Old Town.  It is of ornamental, not military value.  King Vladislav II placed the foundation stone in 1475.
Everywhere you walk in Old Town you see buildings that appear to be, and often are, the work of centuries. Individual buildings, churches and sculptures date from as early as the 1300s and have survived, against all odds, despite wars and other calamities.  The Old Town Hall gives us a sense of the history of the city that is about more than the expenditure of wealth.  It is the creation of elegance.
The Old Town Hall Tower’s Astronomical Clock is a big tourist draw.  It’s intricate design includes a variety of characters. Images of Death, The Turk  and the twelve Apostles all make their appearance on the hour.
The current home of Prague’s city government is the “Nova Radnice” or New City Hall.  It is situated in Marianski Square.
Perhaps not as colorful as it’s predecessor, it is, nonetheless, a stately center of power.
The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn dominates the Old Town Square. Built in 1365 its unique twin spires and gothic appearance make it popular to tourists and travel magazines. Occupied for a time by the Hussites, it later came under the control of Catholic Jesuits.
Construction on St. Vitus’s Cathedral began in 1344.  It was finally completed in the early 1900s.  Its beauty dominates the skyline.  The tomb of Prince/St. Wenceslas, murdered in 929 A.D., is located in the cathedral.  He is best known to Christians from the Christmas Carol, “Good King Wenceslas” for his acts of charity. The intricate design of the exterior is consistent with the elegance of the cathedral’s interior.
Masterpieces of religious art cover the interiors of churches throughout the city evidencing, yet again, the power and great wealth with which Prague has been graced. The craftsmanship evidenced everywhere around us is second to none.
There is no way to capture the essence of Prague’s majestic art and architecture in a single post, nor in a hundred.  But we hope that these photographs give you a sense of the glory of its past, present and future.

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?