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Synagogue memorial brings home horrors of Holocaust

Prague Jewish cemetery
MinnPost photo by Steve Scott
Crowded gravestones fill this Prague Jewish cemetery like Popsicle sticks stuck into the ground. But for the nearly 80,000 Prague Jews who died in the Holocaust, their only memorial is the wall of names inside the adjacent Pinkas Synagogue.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — Sixty-nine years ago come this Saturday morning, Nazi troops rolled into Prague. Nearly 120,000 Jews lived here then. Within five years, 77,297 of them were dead. Others had fled. Only 10,000 ever returned to Prague alive.

Americans — those who aren’t Jews, anyway — often have to travel far to see remembrances of the Holocaust. The Jay Phillips Center for Christian-Jewish Learning has flown scores of Minnesota college students to Washington, D.C., for a one-day field trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

On the flights to D.C., there is the usual in-flight banter among students, who sometimes gather around professors for impromptu lectures. But on the flight home, immediately after touring the museum, no one speaks a word.

When the horrors of death come so near, onlookers are stupefied.

Synagogue memorial tells chilling story

Here in Prague, where I am visiting for a week, one doesn’t have to look so far. My apartment is just blocks from the Jewish Quarter. It is home to several old synagogues. None are so gripping as the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1479.

It now stands as a memorial, its interior walls hand-inscribed with each of the names of those 77,297. Line by line, reaching from floor to ceiling, the names flow one into another — surnames in red, first names and birth and death dates in coal black.

One has to look closely to let the humanity — or inhumanity — set in. The birthdates are random and scattered; the dates of death are prescribed and chillingly compacted into a few very gruesome years.

“Beckerova, Gita, 1.II.1935-26.X.1942. Beer, Adolph, 4.I.1850-22.X.1942.”

Born 85 years apart. Died four days apart.

Most of these Jews were deported from Prague to the Terazin concentration camp, only 40 miles to the northwest. The Nazis put Terazin on display to the world as a “model” of how they treated the Jews. Deportees were allowed to set up an elite school for their Jewish children, with fine instruction in writing, drama and art.

But it was a facade. Terazin was only a way station. Prague’s Jews were eventually sent on to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

Children’s drawings are only artifact of lives cut short
Inexplicably left behind in suitcases were 4,500 drawings made by schoolchildren. Most of the drawings look no different than what you’d find on the walls at Webster Magnet or Kenwood Elementary in the Twin Cities. Some portray the sadness of leaving Prague behind. But none reveal the horrors that were to lie ahead.

The drawings now hang on the walls of the second floor of the Pinkas Synagogue. They are the only remaining artifacts of children who never grew up.

Evelyn Landova was one of them. Her drawing was actually a penmanship exercise. She carefully wrote:

“Einer für alle, alle für einen.”

All for one, and one for all.

Which is how they died.

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