Czech Republic – Day 1
We just got back to the hotel after packed and an incredible day! Michal and I are enjoying spending this time with your children and seeing the excitement on their faces at every turn. We can hardly believe how much we’ve been able to pack into one day so far!
Our trip began bright and early… Scratch that. It wasn’t bright out at all when we all headed to the airport to meet at 2:00 am for our 5:35 am flight to Prague. Despite the ungodly hour, everyone was a trooper with such good vibe energy! The flight was uneventful as we all slept and when we arrived in Europe, everyone seemed ready to hit the ground running.
After dropping our luggage off at the hotel, which is located in the most central area of Prague, close to Old Town Square and the Jewish Quarter, we headed out to explore this beautiful city. Walking towards the river, we all were wide-eyed as we took in the incredible architecture around us. The colors really stood out for many of us. Walking down an average street, apartment buildings in a row could be shades of light colors such as orange, yellow, blue, and green. Reaching the Vltava River, we caught our first glimpses of Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and the unbelievable scenery. After lunch on a riverboat, we met our first tour guide who took us to the electric scooters and led us into a tour of the western side of the river.
The electric scooter tour was SO fun for all of us. This tour allowed us to make our way to some incredible viewpoints to see the whole city. We started in the streets of the Old Town, and as the path wound its way around the river Evan showed off his bike skills riding through jumping and swinging around turns. The scooters we rode are essentially bicycles but with a platform to stand on where the pedals usually are. They are powered by a battery and probably don’t go more than 20 mph, so I can only imagine the cool tricks we all could do on an actual mountain bike!
Moving on from the busy streets and passing through the Dancing Building and the Vltava River, we rode our scooters to John Lennon Wall. Once a normal wall, since the 1980s it has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs. In 1988, the wall was a source of irritation for the communist regime as young Czechs would write their grievances on the wall. Despite several attempts to paint over the wall and stop the graffiti, the wall today is a symbol of ideas such as love and peace.
We continued through the uphills over to the Prague Castle, we made our way past some classical sculptures and architecture designed buildings. A good opportunity to absorb part of Prague’s rich culture. Standing right next to the Castle we gaized over the amazing view of St Nicholas Bell Tower and the neighbourhoods surrounding it.
On our way to the top of Petrin Hill, we got an up-close view of the mini Eiffel Tower which is actually two meters higher than the real Eiffel Tower… if you include the mountain, it sits on as part of your measurements.
From there, we took the road downhill to get back to the starting point but not before we stopped for a last glance at a great view over the city.
As you can imagine, the whole scooter tour was interesting, and really enjoyable to all of us despite the cold.
As we were done with our scooters tour, we headed back to our hotel to rest a bit and prepare for our unique dinner. We stepped back in time and entered a medieval tavern complete with music and entertainment. The sword fighters and the dancers twirling A Snake! had all of our eyes wide open, but I think that the highlight of the show was the moment when two pirates fought over a hat that Lauren kept on her head.
We finished our day by filling our bellies eating Trdelník, or Kiortosh, a sweet cake made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, then grilled right next to our hotel.
In all seriousness, your children are a pleasure to travel with, and they are taking advantage of every moment on this incredible trip abroad.
That’s all for the first day. We all are looking forward to our new adventures tomorrow.
Layla Tov (Goodnight) from Praha,
Czech Republic – Day 2 & 3
I hope you are enjoying your weekend. We had a fabulous one and excited to share with you about it:
We started our Friday by meeting our tour guide David, and traveling about an hour and a half east of Prague to the town of Kolin. During the ride, David shared with us the milestones of Czech Republic and the Jewish community throughout the past few hundreds of years.
We discovered one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in the Czech Lands. The first mention of the Jewish settlement in Kolín dates back to the middle of the 14th century, and the first mention of a Jewish street in Kolín comes from the 1370s, which means that there must have already been an extensive Jewish community in the town by that time.
Of course, Kolín also has a very old Jewish graveyard which we visited. The oldest graves date back to the end of the fifteenth century, which makes it one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia along with the one in Prague. Getting inside the cemetry David explained to us about the Jewish community who lived in Kolin and later on almost ceased to exist after WWII. Some of the survivors came back but the community never recovered. We stopped by the monument for the Jewish people from Kolin who got murdered during the holocaust and on it was written in Hebrew “לזכר עולם”, “In memory of a world”. We mentioned also the sentence “כל המציל נפש ישראל כאילו מציל עולם מלא”, “He who saves one Jewish life saves an entire world”. After a discussion about this scentence, each student had a few minutes to walk around by themselves, think about their Jewish roots and write it down in their own new mini journals for the trip.
We continued our day moving towards Kutna Hora. This town was founded in the mid-12th century and became important due to the wealth of silver which was mined there. There was once a Jewish community in Kutna Hora as well.
Our first stop in Kutna Hora was the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel adorned with human skeletons. The bones of over 60,000 people were used to decorate the chapel. In each corner, there is a massive pyramid of bones and in the center and along the walls are displays of bones arranged artistically to create a crest of arms, hanging chandeliers, and patterned displays. We spent a few minutes admiring the artistry, and then trying to figure out which bones were which (we saw vertebrae, hips, pelvic bones, skulls, jaws, and of course many many arms and legs, plus many other bones we couldn’t identify!) According to the church’s tradition, many hundreds of years ago, a man brought back dirt from the land of Israel and spread it around in the courtyard of the church. Believing that the area was now holy, everyone wanted to be buried there. In the 1500’s the bones were exhumed and piled up and then in 1870, a local man arranged all the bones into the displays we saw today. The sight is really unique, and everyone had a lot to say about the displays.
Moving on from the “Bone Church,” we visited St. Barbara’s Cathedral, named for the patron saint of miners. This church was built in the late 1300’s and is an incredibly impressive site to see. Next to St. Barbara’s we saw the Charles Bridge of Kutna Hora, which isn’t actually a bridge at all. On a pedestrian street, there is a replica of the Charles Bridge complete with statues lining the bridge.
We next walked to the synagogue which once served the Jewish community here. It ceased to operate as a shul during WWII and was used as an organ factory. Later, the building became a church. However, there is a beautiful memorial to the Jews of Kutna Hora outside the building, and Jewish symbols have been restored to the outside of the building as well (Jewish stars and a set of ten commandments.)
Before leaving Kutna Hora, we had the chance to see the beautiful Italian Court and Royal Mint. Here we got in to a courtyard which once served as part of the Palace for the King. In the 1700’s, King Wenceslas ordered all other mints in the country to be shut down and he reformed the process for minting coins so that one unified currency would be used.
On our way back, David our tour guide played for us a few Czech songs, and surprisingly, for one of the songs we all started to mumble the words of “Hatikva”, Israel’s national anthem. The song “Vltava” by Bedrich Smetana caught us by surprise. Following that, when David asked us if being Jewish is also a type of nationality? The whole group were asking themselves am I an Americam Jew or a Jewish American? It was amazing to hear how strongly they are connected to their Jewish identity and how it affects their lives.
We got back to Prague after a long day and had time to rest and prepare for Shabbat. For services and Kabbalat Shabat we joined Chabad and had a pleasant Shabbat dinner through singing, laughing and sharing our Jewish believes and stories from home with the group and the local community.
Our Saturday morning we began with a nice walk over to the Charles Bridge. Midway down the bridge, we stopped for a discussion led by Michal on a particular statue which features a crucifix adorned by a statement in Hebrew cast in gold. The words, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, Adonai Tzevaot” (a statement we say three times a day during our tefillot) were added to the statue in 1694 when a local Jewish resident of the city, Elias Backhoffen refused to remove his hat while walking past the cross. He was fined and the money was used to add the statement to the cross. In 1971, a Jewish tourist visiting Prague saw the statue and fought to have the offensive display removed. Citing National Heritage laws, the government refused to alter the statue and instead added a plaque next to it explaining the story behind it. We had a very enlightening discussion over what statement the Czech government is making by preserving the statue as is.
Heading onwards and upwards, we reached the Prague Castle. Unfortunatly, we couldn’t go inside the castle due to a private event. But we didn’t let it stop us from enjoying our visit. To the sound of the chapel’s bell ringing, the students watched the impressive castle (and took many wonderful pictures)
After that, we spontanuesly went to the “Alchemy Museum” not far from the castle. We had a scary experience reading and exploring about the stories of alchemists from the past. Some are myths and some are not,but we would never now.
As we departed from the muesume we headed to the Klementinum which is a historic complex of buildings in Prague. Until recently the complex hosted the National, University and Technical libraries. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures there, so you can click here to be impressed by its beauty.
In the afternoon, we went on a really informative and amusing walking tour with a local guide named Adam, a student in the university of Prauge. He showed us the Astronomical Clock at 16:00, and the students enjoyed watching the show while it bell. He also shared with us many stories of the Czech Republic.
For the past three days, we have seen pretty much most sites of Prague, but it was still challenging for us to connect all the information pieces we have known already. Thanks to Adam, we are now able to do it!
As Shabbat ended, we had free time for shopping and dinner, and concluded our day by playing laser tag – a sport that Czech young people love! We played two games, split up into teams and played against each other. It was so much fun! I can share with you that Nate got the best score for both games 🙂
Wishing you all Shavua Tov,
Czech Republic – Day 4
Our forth day in Prague was very meaningful and powerful. Our day began with an early morning driving an hour out to Terezin, a garrison town built in the late 1700’s and later converted into a concentration camp and Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. Although the camp was used as a transit camp and not as an extermination camp, tens of thousands of people died there in any event. Some were killed outright, and others died from malnutrition and disease due to the cramped living quarters, lack of hygiene and medication, scarcity of food, improper heating, and other horrendous conditions.
Terezin is divided into two areas – the Small Fortress, which was a prison for political prisons and for Jews who broke the rules of the camp, and the Main Fortress, which housed the ghetto. Walking through the Small Fortress with our guide, we passed through the gate above which was painted the infamous words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (work makes you free). Throughout the prison we saw up close the horrific conditions in which the prisoners held here were forced to live with – rooms with cement floors on which the prisoners were forced to sleep even in the cold of winter, isolation rooms where prisoners were packed in with not even enough room to lay down to sleep, and other rooms which no windows where prisoners were kept in total darkness.
When Terezin was built, over 30 km of corridors (tunnels basically) were constructed to give soldiers a way to move protected through the fortress, with shooting positions to defend themselves, and with escape tunnels in case the fortress was attacked. Although these corridors were never used during the Holocaust for fear of a prisoner escaping, we walked through one which was 500 meters in length and it helped us understand more about the construction of the compound. We then reached the area where the guards conducted target practice and later performed executions to prisoners who the Gestapo decided should be killed. The last group of executions at this site was two months before the camp was liberated when 52 people were shot and killed.
One of the unique aspects of Terezin was the effort made to use the camp as a model concentration camp in order to dupe the Red Cross into thinking that the Nazis were actually taking good care of the Jews. For example, we saw a “shaving rooms” which was constructed merely for show. In this room, the walls were lined with sinks and mirrors, but the entire room was never used. We also saw a propaganda video which was made by the Nazis in Terezin and used to demonstrate to the world that the Jews were being treated well. There were scenes of men playing soccer, with thousands of spectators cheering them on. There were scenes of women knitting. And there were scenes of the ghetto orchestra which was forced to play.
Also unique about Terezin was the artwork which was produced by the children at the camp. In an effort to help the children cope with their trauma, and as a part of the propaganda, many children were given the chance to draw pictures of their experience, their homes which they had been forced to abandon and their dreams for a better future. Seeing the drawings throughout the Ghetto Museum, we truly felt the sting of the loss which we suffered as a Jewish people in this place. Music, plays, and poems were also composed and written in the ghetto. During the tour, we had the chance to read a different poem which was found after the war but written by a child held at this camp. Most of these children later died at Auschwitz. By reading these poems, we were helping the memory of each of these children live on even after they had perished.
As we continued through the Ghetto, we saw the areas where the bodies were prepared for burial, the crematorium, and cemetery consisting of a mass grave. To put things in perspective, the ghetto in Terezin was originally built to house around 7500 people, but during the Holocaust, over 60,000 people were in the camp at one time. The infrastructure did not exist to accommodate such a large group of people.
During the day, our tour guide Pavel shared with us how important was it for the Jews in the camp to keep some of the tradition in order not to lose their Jewish Identity and try as mu as they can to keep routines from the past. As we ended the discussion, we surprised the students with the letters you wrote in advance. ALL of them were in shock and it was such a powerful moment for all of us, thanks to you.
Being in Terezin reminded me of all that we as a people have lost, but also being there with our students reminded me of all that we have to hold on to as Jewish people today.
After a nice rest at the hotel, all of the students have decided they would prefer to sit and eat together than eat separatly. It was nice to see how close the students became to one another. We had a great time in an Italian restaruant playing the game “Good Vibes” suggested by Raya. Everyone needed to write anonymous notes about things they appreciate in others or about different moments from the past few days. We all ended up laughing and bringing each other up.
We had an amazing and meaningful day together and can’t believe we have only one day left in Prague.
Czech Republic – Day 5
Wow! What a day we had today! Lots to share with you, so here we go:
We woke up for breakfast and started our day at the Jewish Quarter. We explored the Jewish Museum of Prague which is spread throughout several synagogues and other important locations in the Jewish Quarter. In the Maisel Synagogue, in addition to marveling at the beauty of the building and it’s aron kodesh, we looked at displays about the history of the Jewish of Bohemia and Moravia. The Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535 and now serves as a memorial to the thousands of Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The names of the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims from Bohemia and Moravia are inscribed on the walls. It is a powerful site to see. Each name, along with their date of birth and date of death is recorded.
We next visited the Jewish cemetery which is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world.
The cemetery was founded in the first half of the 15th century and used for nearly 400 years. Although the cemetery was expanded several times over the centuries, it was still not big enough to meet the needs of the Jewish community and since space was scarce, bodies were buried on top of each other, with graves layered up to 10 deep. There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery including the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal. Next to the cemetery is the Ceremonial Hall which includes displays of various ritual objected connected with death and burial such as tzedekah boxes, combs and nail files used for cleaning and preparing the body for burial, and memorial prayers. Upstairs, in the area which was used as a sort of club house for the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society), I was particularly struck by the display of dishes and silverware which was used for the group’s annual banquet. Dealing with death and loss every day, the banquet was an opportunity for the society members to be joyous and celebrate their brotherhood each year.
Our next stop was the Old-New Synagogue, where we learned about the story of The Golem Of Prague created by Rabbi Judah Leow from the late 16th century. In relation to the golem’s story, we had a discussion about what we wish to bring to our surroudings and we asked ourselves: Do we have to use force to achive that? (Like Rabbi Judah Leow did by creating the golem) In addition to that, we all shared a meaningful moments we experienced during the past few days in Prague.
From there we headed over to the King Solomon restaurant for lunch with the Israeli Ambassador in Czech Republic, Mr. Daniel Meron.
Mr. Meron had shared with us his opinions and ideas and answered every question he was asked. Actually the students asked him so many questions that he had to ask for a break so he could eat his food. We had a pleasant time and learned even more things about Czech Republic society than we already knew.
Our next activity was a Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour. From 1948 to 1989, Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule and through this tour, we saw a variety of sites which gave us a glimpse into this important time period of the country’s history. One notable stop on the tour was the site of a major demonstration during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which ultimately lead to an end of communism in the country, yesterday was the 30th anniversary for this event. Our tour guide was very informative and even shared with us pictures of the streets fulled with 3’000 people. The best part of the tour was the visit to the nuclear bunker. In addition to exploring the bunker, there is a museum set up inside with paraphernalia from the communism era and we even had the chance to try on communist army jacket, arm ourselves with weapons, and put on gas masks…You’ll see in the photos, it was a lot of fun!
We ended our day with dinner and headed straight to the airport. After a short red-eye flight, we arrived safe and sound in Israel and joined back to the program schedule.
Both Michal and I had a terrific time with the group this past five days. It was wonderful getting to know them in a different context and to spend so much time with each other. International travel can be so rewarding as it exposes us to different cultures and people, and this trip certainly did that for all of us. Thank you for giving your children the gift of exploration and for trusting us with their experiences this year.