Ignorance and Invisibility by Ivy Helman


20140903_180423According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia numbered some 357,000 in 1933. By 1950, it was recorded to be 17,000. To be sure, some escaped to Israel or the United States. Yet, within the modern boundaries of the Czech Republic, some 77,000+ perished. You can find the names of the dead inscribed on the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue. The Jewish community here remains extremely affected by the effects of WWII and the lingering legacy of communism.

How much of that did you know? Did you know that Prague is home to what the Nazis once wanted to call the “Museum of an Extinct Race”? Did you know that most of the synagogues in this entire country are boarded up, torn down or used for something else? Did you know that the entire Jewish Quarter of Prague was almost destroyed until someone stepped in and persuaded others to preserve it? Did you know that Western media is saying that Jewish life in Prague is undergoing a grand rebirth, while at the same time, most tourists leave Prague thinking there are no Jews here anymore?

Some of the basics I knew before I moved here.   If you aren’t a history nut, have never been to Prague or aren’t a scholar of this region, I imagine some of that was new. Much of it will be new for my students next semester; I’m teaching a course on the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe at Anglo-American University in Prague. While parts of Jewish history include moments of flourishing and the good favor of those in charge, much of the history is fraught with anti-Semitism, pogroms, forced seclusion in ghettos and always, even in the best of times, an underlying suspicion. It seems fitting that the first time I teach a course on this subject is also the first time I’m living in this part of the world.

Yet, as much as one can capture the historical experience of Jews,  life here and now as a Jew isn’t as easy to figure out.  The community is extremely small so its resources and diversity is likewise limited (The registered numbe20141020_132815r is 5000. Prague has a population over 1.25 million people). The only group to use any of the synagogues in town are Orthodox, while the rest of us meet in basements of multipurpose buildings and people’s homes (I think). Some rarely update their websites or phone numbers so if you don’t know where to go they’d be next to impossible to find. I’ve tried two times to find the only kosher store in town. The first address I visited had become a different store. The kosher store that replaced this one gives two different addresses online and I’m not sure which one is correct. (The website now says the store is temporarily closed. If I kept the strictest form of kashrut, I’d be struggling to eat too.) The four kosher restaurants in town cater to the tourist, charging way more than any local or person living on a local’s salary could ever hope to afford.

I’m convinced that most of Jewish life is something tourists and Czechs only see in museums, a remnant of the past.  Even I, a Jew, has had a hard time finding much by means of community too.  The communities that seem more active also seem to be less egalitarian and queer friendly.  I often wonder as I walk past the throngs of tourists in the Jewish Quarter snapping pictures and visiting the Jewish sites if perhaps I should be on exhibit too.  This does not even scratch the surface on how difficult it is to live surrounded by reminders of extreme anti-Semitism.

Yet, what I’ve found most difficult is the attitude of many Czechs to anything Jewish. Maybe this is lasting anti-Semitism or maybe not. Let me offer one example that really hit home for me.

No one would ever think to schedule a work event for Christmas Day, yet even though my partner and I work at two different plac20141020_132945es, both scheduled events for Kol Nidre. It is the most holy night of the entire Jewish calendar. We both felt excluded by our respective workplaces, especially when it became clear that neither organization even knew October 3rd was a Jewish holiday. When I told my workplace, there was no reaction. At least my partner’s workplace was very apologetic and many wanted to know what Yom Kippur was. My partner fielded questions for days. Here she was, a member of the minority group, educating others about herself.

Ignorance is often defined as the lack of knowledge, understanding, education or awareness. Ignorance, in general, does not necessarily imply that one is wholly responsible for the ways in which one is uneducated.  After all, one cannot possibly know everything.  Most ignorance I would classify as morally neutral, yet there is a line to be drawn here.  In the Czech Republic, people might be able to claim that they’ve never met another Jew.  I’d be willing to give them that, but one cannot claim total unawareness when one walks past Jewish sites every day. I’m pretty sure the average Czech believes what the average tourist does as well – that no Jews live here anymore.  This leaves one feeling pretty invisible if I do say so myself.

So, what does one do? My partner and I welcomed in the New Year and spent Yom Kippur at the Pinkas Synagogue, the Czech Republic’s main memorial to the victims of the Shoah and part of the Jewish Museum.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a place that was as beautiful as it was haunting.  It felt quite different from its everyday role as a tourist destination. What was even more moving was our experience at the Yizkor service when relatives of the victims s20141020_132907tood in front of their family’s names and read them out loud.  The new American Ambasssador to the Czech Republic was at the services and read his family’s names from the wall as well.  The emotions in the room were palatable, the grief almost as visible as the names on the walls.

It felt as if the synagogue came alive again with the memories of the people who used to call this country home.   We prayed with them.  We honored lives taken too soon.  I’m not sure about everyone there, but, for me, as I prayed I could feel a sense of victory that Hitler did not win.   We are still here.  We aren’t invisible.

It is one small experience that changed much about how I approach life here. People will still be ignorant. There will be days when I feel like I’m the only Jew. However, now when I look at the Pinkas Synagogue, I am reminded that I’m not alone.

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently living abroad in Prague in the Czech Republic.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

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Categories: Community, Education, Identity Construction, Judaism

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8 replies

  1. you touched to a sensitive history which is our holocaust. I am speechless!

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  2. Thanks Ivy for your post and for going to the remembrance service for those Jews who were slaughtered.
    It must have been hard to plow through all the remains of that hatred and affirm that you Jews are still here
    and praying together. Thanks for surviving and remembering. May you prosper.

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  3. Very touching and very important Ivy.

    Here in Greece the Jews and the Christians were tolerated by the Ottomans, Europe’s Muslim emperors. There was no attempt to establish a single religion as happened in Europe. However, with the rise of nationalism all over Europe, Greeks defined their state as Christian and denied and then forgot about the centuries when 3 religions and 3 peoples lived together relatively well (though not completely equally in a non-democratic state). I don’t think most Greeks know today that there have been Greek-speaking Jews in Greece since before early Christian times (who was Paul writing those letters to?) or that Salonika was home to a thriving and large Jewish community that had fled from Spain.

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  4. Thanks Ivy, invisible too might be that the poem housed on a plague at the Statue of Liberty was written by Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew, who had been agonizing over the Semitic violence of Russian pogroms in the late 19th century, and when thousands of destitute Ashkenazi Jews were emigrating to New York. At the same time, the poem embraces all “exiles” by way of the loving Mother of Exiles she names, all of us really, because we all have a sense of difference sometimes, of being abandoned somehow, or just not fitting in. The poem was titled: “The New Colossus” —

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

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  5. Very interesting. All I know about Prague, I must confess, is that Rabbi Loeb, who lived in Prague when the city had a large Jewish population, created a famous golem. But that was 400 years ago. (Here’s a link for anyone who doesn’t know this story: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/r/rabbi_loeb.html ) I’ve read about the Holocaust in Mitteleuropa, which includes both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and I once met some Survivors. Maybe you can find evidence of the golem while you’re there?

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  6. Thank you for addressing this important issue. unlike the comment above i dont think the issue is holocaust or hatred, rather the fact that in eastern Europe, people act as blind toward Jews, not really considering there are some still around. Combined with indeed not too many being around. i think one of the causes is there was never any real reconsiliation of WWii crimes. instead, a smooth transition into communist criminalization of judaism, labeled as a subversive ideology. With zero subsequent reconsiliation either. On the other hand, maybe reconsiliation attempts would only feed into peoples’ idea that Jewish people are simply those old survivors of horrible things.

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  7. Having lived in (West) Berlin in the late 1970s and written my dissertation about Nazi propaganda concerning women, your post brought back a lot of memories for me, many of them difficult.The hardest parts for me in living there were the anti-Semitism and racism that was still alive within the German populace and the authoritarian behaviors I experienced. “The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the 3rd and 4th generation” seemed very real to me.

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  8. Hi Ivy, your story makes me want to share some of my own — I lived in Prague from 1990 – 1998 (I’m Canadian). During that time I was part of founding and developing the Prague Gender Studies Centre, the first independent organization to focus on women’s rights since the end of WWII (the communist regime ‘liberated’ women from the top down but suppressed any independent discussion/action on gender equality — not a great move). At first we operated out of the living room of the founder, Jirina Siklova, a former Charter 77 dissident. There was an astonishing amount of absolute denial of women’s inequality, and lots of virulent hatred of feminism, especially of “Western Feminists” who were seen to be on a mission to corrupt Czech women. In the midst of all that the Centre did great work, promoting gender studies as an academic discipline, acting as a general clearinghouse and networking centre, and trying to get discussions about gender out into the media and the culture. It was a very exciting period of my life. There were times when I felt EXTREMELY frustrated by all the denial and dismissal, kind of how I think you might feel sometimes with the anti-semitism and the invisibility of the jewish community. (I am also of Jewish descent and certainly encountered anti-semitism there). It sounds like you are doing important work through your teaching, your participation in the community, and no doubt just by being there and being visible. I wish you deep enjoyment of Prague, with its beauty, powerful history, complexity, challenges and magic. If Tony Ozuna still works at AAC, say hi from me; we were good friends and even produced a literary magazine together. And if you have not yet done so, drop by the Gender Studies Centre, which still exists. I think the only person there who would remember me is Lada, if she is still there. I would imagine that she or whomever is involved in the Centre would be interested in who you are and what you offer.

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