Visiting Prague’s Jewish Quarter: Five Local Heroes You Should Know About
When life gives you lemons…
The Covid-19 global pandemic has dried up the travel industry and left both travel content creators and tourism-industry brands gasping for air like fish out of water. But as the saying goes, when times get tough, the tough adapt and innovate…or something like that, right? And thus, travel stakeholders have been forced to adapt and innovate in order to survive.
…you make lemonade!
One of the brilliant ways in which destination brands are now showcasing their cities and countries and trying to drum up a travel appetite for “the day when all this will be over” is by hosting virtual press trips. And I was lucky enough to be part of a group of travel media selected by Czech Tourism to partake in virtual travel to the Jewish Quarter in Prague, Czech Republic, in late April. The experience was so legitimately real––and without the hassle and stress of air travel planning and logistics––that if ever I was doubtful about whether this format could work, I am now a full-fledged believer! Sign me up for another virtual press trip, Universe! I’m your gal! Hopefully, other tourism boards will follow Czech Tourism’s lead and similarly adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions by hosting virtual trips (whether for travel press or for regular travellers) of their own!
My virtual press trip to Prague
My virtual press trip to Prague was hosted through the Zoom platform, but it was nothing like a regular Zoom meeting. Our hosts, Radka from Czech Tourism and Michaela from Prague City Adventures, facilitated the experience, while Nikola, one of Prague City Adventure’s wonderful and knowledgeable tour guides, was our ears, eyes, and feet on the ground, walking us vicariously across the Jewish Quarter of the city through live video streaming from her cell phone. It truly felt like we were there on the ground with her!
A little about Prague, Czech Republic
If you’re not familiar with Prague (say, for instance, you’ve just landed in a spaceship from Mars – not judging), here are some nuts and bolts about the city: Prague – or “Praha” in the local Czech language – is the capital of the Czech Republic as well as its largest city. And it is a city of great cultural and economic importance in Central Europe. Prague is also the historic capital of Bohemia, formerly a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently part of the Habsburg Monarchy and Austrian Empire. Interestingly, prior to the 20th century, Prague had a German-speaking majority.
During the virtual tour, Nikola highlighted several persons of importance to the Jewish Quarter, starting with the man after whom it is currently named.
Heroes of Prague’s Jewish Quarter
1. Joseph II of Habsburg
Habsburg emperor, Joseph II, is of notable importance to Prague’s Jewish Quarter because he liberated it in the 19th century, allowing Jews to live wherever they wanted outside of its confines. The ghetto was subsequently named Josefov, in his honour.
2. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an artist living in the Jewish Quarter who, along with her husband Pavel Brandeis, was deported in 1942 to the Theresienstadt (Terezin)––a former military fortress in Czechoslovakia converted by the Nazis into a Jewish ghetto. In her deportation order, Friedl was allowed to take only 1 suitcase with her to Terezin, and she chose to pack it full of art supplies. Once at Terezin, she taught art to hundreds of children and hid their collected works in her suitcase. In an ironic twist of fate, when Friedl’s husband was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, she insisted on going with him. She was murdered in a gas chamber there, but her husband survived and lived for many more years thereafter. After her death, over 5 thousand children’s drawings from her classes at Terezin were found and are now exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Prague.
3. Nicholas Winton
Nicholas Winton was a Brit who, on the urging of a friend, cancelled a planned vacation in Switzerland to rush to Prague in 1939, at the dawn of World War II. There, he helped 669 mostly Jewish children escape from refugee camps in Czechoslovakia and a destiny of Nazi concentration camps to foster families in England. Terrified parents would have had to make the heart-wrenching decision to separate from their sobbing, pleading children and give them up to complete strangers, in order to save them from danger. Unfortunately, 1 of the 8 trains he had arranged, containing 250 children, did not make it out of the country because Germany invaded Poland that day and all the German-controlled borders closed. The children on board were never seen again.
Nicholas Winton was later knighted by the Queen of England and was also rewarded with a long life – he lived to be 106 years old. A movie about his heroism, called Nicky’s Family, was released in 2011.
4. Max Eckstein––a Jew murdered by the Nazi regime during WWII
Max was born in 1896, his stumbling stone states, and in 1941 was deported to Łódź Ghetto, where he was murdered by the Nazi regime. His last known address in Prague was Regnartova 4. He is only one of six million Jews who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. But, in a way, the one represents the all. And all were, in their own right, heroes for enduring one of the worst tragedies in human history.
5. The 8 Paratroopers
In 1942, one of the most daring resistance operations was carried out in Prague by Czechoslovak paratroopers who parachuted into the city in a covert mission to assassinate Nazi Governor, Reinhard Heydrich. Incredibly, after months of studying Heydrich’s movements and planning his assassination, one of the parashooters’ guns jammed at the very moment he pulled the trigger to make the fatal shot, and the other parashooter backing him up threw a bomb that still failed to kill Heydrich. Ironically, Heydrich finally died due to a random case of blood poisoning caused by a horsehair, from the seat of his carriage, puncturing his skin. Hitler exacted bloody revenge on the citizens of Czechoslovakia while hunting for the paratroopers involved. And, after one paratrooper, for a financial reward and the promise of impunity, betrayed his comrades by pointing SS officers in the direction of Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where they were hiding, all the paratroopers ended up being killed by the Nazis. A movie about this mission was released in 1965 until the title The Assassination and remade several times, the most recent remake being in 2016 under the title Operation Anthropoid.
A moving and memorable virtual visit
It was hard not to get misty-eyed during this deep dive into Prague’s all-too-recent murky history of the Jewish Holocaust and Nazi Resistance. And Nikola did a commendable job reminding us of the individual stories behind each life lost during the Holocaust. For it is in stories that we connect with one another on a deeper level to find our shared humanity through shared struggles and triumphs. Of all the press trips I have done this year, this is the one I will remember the most. For those stories touched me and kindled a hunger to learn more about the people and places they concerned and, certainly, to visit in person someday soon.
Thanks to Prague City Adventures and Czech Tourism for hosting me on this very moving and emotional virtual trip to the hauntingly beautiful city of Prague and its Jewish Quarter. If you want to visit Prague for yourself, virtually or in person, be sure to reach out to Prague City Adventures and Czech Tourism to plan your trip!