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11/26/2013

Terezín

Written by Kathy Shield (Tufts University)

To write this post, I really have to start a few years ago: the last time I was in Prague. My grandparents brought our whole family here to explore the city they had been born in, to learn a bit of the family history, to visit Europe, and to have a fun family vacation. Although I was old enough to understand some of why we came, I think I missed a lot of the family history they wanted to share with us, and that is one of the many many reasons I decided to come to Prague.

When we were here, we went all over the city, visiting typical tourist spots, but also Babi’s high school and the house Deda was born in and the park they both played in. We also visited the Pinkas Synagogue, which is famous for the names written on the walls. Not just any names, but names of the 80,000 Czech Jews lost during the war. The Synagogue is dedicated to these people whose lives were lost. Some were lost in the sense that they were killed; some were lost in the sense that the last written record of them are the Nazi deportation lists these names are copied off of. I remember the wall of Prague Jews, the red last names and the gold stars separating families. And I remember Deda standing there, staring at the wall for what seemed like an eternity. I remember the single tear that rolled down his cheek before he hustled us out, saying we’d spent enough time with him showing us around the city, and that we deserved an ice cream.

My grandparents said that they’d always wanted to take the family to Prague and had just been waiting for all us grandkids to be old enough. Maybe that was true. But I can’t help but think that they knew they were reaching the end of their ability to travel across the ocean. They were old enough that crossing the city was a long, slow process, but they were determined to share some history with us. I respect them immensely for that. But I also realize that I witnessed something unique that day. Not just the tear, though it was the only tear I’ve ever seen on Deda’s face. But also that I got to see the last time my grandfather ever visited his mother and brother. Because, when there is no body to be buried, the closest thing family gets to a grave is the name written on the wall in memorandum.

Back to present day. My Jewish history class took a trip to Lidice and Terezin. Lidice is the town completely destroyed by the Nazis in revenge for the assassination by Czechs of SS Officer Heidrich. The Nazis killed every man, and sent every woman and child to concentration camps. They bombed and burned the town to the ground, and even dug up every body in the cemetery. Not a single Jew lived in the town. Terezin is the fortress town the Nazis turned into a Jewish ghetto/concentration camp/transport camp. Nearly every Czech Jew was sent through Terezin on his way to concentration and work camps.

Needless to say, it was an emotional day for everyone that went. Its hard to face the reality of what happened. Even when you know the facts, the emotion of actually being there always hits harder than you expect.

Ever since the aforementioned trip to the Pinkas Synagogue a few years ago, I’ve always looked for my grandfather’s immediate family’s names in lists of names. It doesn’t matter where I am. (even if the list has nothing to do with the Holocaust, I look at the names.) And, honestly, I’ve stopped expecting to see any names I know.

We were walking around a museum in Terezin, filled with stories and pictures the kids drew while they lived in the town. Parents and other adults did the best they could to make life in Terezin as normal as possible, giving children an education and the ability to express themselves and a soccer field to play on when they had the strength. I walked into another room, and am surrounded on all four sides by off-white walls covered in names and dates. The names of children sent to Terezin and their birthdates.

Like any other list, I scan for the names. Like any other list, I expect to see absolutely nothing.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Knocked the wind right out of me, and I literally doubled over. There it was, the name I’d been always looking for but desperately hoping to never see. I was sliding down the wall, gasping for breath, and I heard a comforting voice, but I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t care and I couldn’t think.

 

The next five minutes are a blur. I don’t know what anyone said, I don’t know what really happened. Then we were watching a propaganda movie filmed by the Nazis near the end of the war, as an attempt to convince the Allies that the camps were good for the Jews. There were young boys playing soccer, watering plants in the garden, reading books, playing cards.

May 31, 1928.

He was somewhere around 13, 14, 15 years old when he is in Terezin.

The Rabbi says children were sent at age 14 to Auschwitz; children under 16 were killed upon arrival. Was this his fate?

Young boys of that age were involved in producing plays and publishing magazines filled with poems and stories and drawings. Did he help with one of the many magazines we have seen over the course of the days, on walls of museums?

The able bodied were forced to do hard labor – digging trenches to redirect the river, building Nazi weaponry in underground mines, digging mass graves for their friends and family. Is this how he finished his life?

Thousands of men, women, and children never made it out of Terezin because of the deplorable living conditions and high disease rates?Did he die in his mother’s arms? His father’s? Did they die in his arms?

Did they ever see each other in Terezin?

A few hundred children survived. A tree stands in the Terezin cemetery where the descendants of these children meet annually. We don’t actually know what happened. Would I find distant relatives of mine there?

Since our trip to Terezin, our class has had the opportunity to listen to two Holocaust survivors. One, Pavel Stransky, defied fate multiple times and managed to survive for almost three years in Auschwitz. Both he and the artist Helga Weiss-Hošková went through Terezin. Both survivors had phenomenal stories. They were, quite simply, lucky to survive – neither could truly explain why or how it happened. It seemed, honestly, like neither had even managed to figure out why they had been allowed to live while their friends and family survived. And both told their stories as if it wasn’t something that had actually happened to them, as if they had no personal experience with it at all. I can only assume that they have put their emotions in a box, separate from their memories, in order to share their memories and stories with us.

And yet, somehow, I am hit by the emotion of it while they sit stoic. It is as if they have passed the emotion onwards, in order that the next generation may remember. In fact, Pavel explicitly said that his main job now, as a survivor, is to pass his story on to the next generation so that the stories and memories may live on forever in our collective memory. I only wish that my grandfather could have added his story too. I don’t even know if he knew the story himself; it is possible that he never found out at all.

And even if I do find out someday, I know there is no way to really understand what my family went through. The reality of the history of the Holocaust is incomprehensible, but I know that it is a part of my history that I know nothing about. I don’t know if I want to know, and that’s an issue I’m going to be struggling with for at least the next few months; maybe the rest of my life.

11/05/2013

Too Lucky

Written by Kathy Shield (Tufts University)

Brown boots, knitted sweater, jacket unzipped as the cool breeze blows by. The perfect fall temperature – crisp but not cold. The smell of damp leaves permeating the air and the sound of chestnuts clattering to the ground and rolling down the hill along the cobblestones. Alyssa’s long blonde hair bouncing as she giggles in anticipation of our trip to Turkey in November.

The scents of cinnamon and doughnuts and hot dogs intermingle with the occasional cigarette as I wait for the tram. A scream of laughter from the park behind me. The now familiar station names in the effortlessly soothing automated voice. A good book and my travel mug for company as a light rain starts to fall outside the window.

Children yelling my name as they run over for a hug, little hands grasping mine and pulling me this way and that. Look at this drawing, let’s play that game. Anna is in the kitchen, putting schnitzel on the stove, potato salad ready in the fridge. Traditional Czech beer to drink and freshly picked plums for dessert. Reviewing Emma’s reading homework, getting help on my verb conjugations. Playing nonsense games with Jachym on the floor as Filip watches the news.

Falling asleep to the pitter patter of rain on the window, cuddled under a warm blanket with a book by my side. My door silently closed as Anna wakes to make breakfast for the kids.

I often forget how lucky I really am. Yesterday, as a group of friends and I were talking about traveling, one of  them made the nonchalant comment that they aren’t afraid to travel alone. That comment shocked me, because I realized that there are people my age who are afraid to travel alone. Who have never navigated public transportation in another country (let alone another language) before now. I am incredibly blessed that my parents started letting me travel alone before I even had a sense of any danger (unaccompanied minors for the win!). For letting me travel to Japan for three weeks, twice. For giving me the freedom to learn independence and to test and expand my own boundaries.

I’m so lucky, not only to be studying in Prague, but to have done everything I have done in my life, to have had all the experiences I’ve had. To have parents who were willing and able to pay my way through college, so I can spend the money I earn as I see fit (namely, traveling!). To have had teachers that forced me to push my boundaries until I realized that I have no limits.

Sometimes, I think that maybe I’m too lucky, that too many wonderful things happen in my life. But I think the only way to face that issue is to take advantage of every opportunity I have. To embrace the experiences and make the best out of them all. This weekend, I’m taking that tact, doing as much as I possibly can. I’ll be watching traditional Czech cartoons tonight with a mug of homemade mulled wine in hand, hitting up the Prague Burger Fest and maybe a movie tomorrow, heading to Trebič on Sunday for a cultural experience like no other. Look for photos in my next post, and maybe even some book reviews, as I’ve been reading quite a bit since I got here.

10/01/2013

Clocks and Cobblestones

Written by Katherine Shield (Tufts University)

The last thing on my list of expectations for Prague was to get homesick. I expected to get stressed, to be confused, to feel frustrated. But I did not expect to get homesick. I spent three months in Australia and never felt homesick. I’m a Junior in college – I didn’t get homesick freshman or sophomore year. I didn’t get homesick when I went to Costa Rica; the last time I felt homesick was my very first day of the second trip I took to Japan. I was 16 years old and completely alone.

So last Tuesday, when Anna went to bed and turned on BBC, the sudden wave of homesickness completely shocked me. I was feeling frustrated with the difficulties of communicating in Czech, I was stressed about my weekend trip to Oktoberfest, I was overwhelmed by the sudden onset of homework in my normal classes. But I expected all of that. The longing for NPR, for the San Mateo Farmer’s Market, for the bento box store on the corner. That all surprised me. But there isn’t much to do about homesickness, except to accept it and move on. So that’s what I tried to do.

I decided to embrace my feelings of cizinec (foreigner) status, and played tourist on Friday. I took pictures of Prague castle, of the famous clocks (orlej) around town and the cobblestones covering the sidewalks.

One of the first things I noticed when I got to Prague was the cobblestone roads, and the cobblestone patterns. Everyone talks about the cobblestones. About how hard they are to walk on (Don’t bring heels!, they say), about how annoying they are, about how they ruin your shoes. But for me, honestly, they are beautiful. I love the fact that different streets have different patterns, and that there are new patterns on every corner. I love that sometimes there is a loose cobblestone in the middle of the sidewalk. (Although I’m sure I won’t love that so much when I trip and sprain an ankle on one….) I loved it so much when I got here that I took pictures of the ground, and my fellow students became convinced I was crazy.



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Prague has three internationally famous clocks – the most famous of which is the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square. Prague’s Astronomical Clock is the oldest of its kind still functioning. The other famous clocks are the one in the Jewish Quarter, which runs counterclockwise, and one on St. Wenceslas Cathedral in Prasky Hrad, which actually has two faces – one for minutes and another for hours.

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And then I spent the weekend at Oktoberfest, which was actually perfect timing. I was feeling like I didn’t belong in Prague, so I left for the weekend. I got to spend the weekend with friends from America, kinda. Regardless, we spoke English all weekend, and we wandered around Munich, and we visited the biggest carnival/beer drinking festival/wedding celebration I’ve ever seen. It was a wonderful whirlwind of tourism, and then I took the 6 hour train back to Prague.

And this post comes full circle.

On the train ride home, the first 3 hours is in Germany. All the announcements are in German, all the people getting on and off are speaking German to each other. I sat in a corner and worked on my Czech politics/Czech and Jewish history homework assignments and tried to ignore the fact that I had no idea what was happening around me. When we got halfway through the journey, however, and crossed into the Czech Republic, all of a sudden the announcements were in Czech first (then English and German, which the Germans were not kind enough to provide). And I understood the essentials of the Czech announcements! I knew, before hearing the English announcement, the name of the next stop, and what time the train would be arriving. When we arrived in the main station in Prague, I understood that this was the last stop. And I felt like I was coming home.

I didn’t feel lost or confused any more, and I knew exactly how to get back to my bed, my house, my family. I realized, as I sat on the train from Munich to Prague, that returning to Prague now felt like returning home.

And when I woke up this morning to the sounds of Emma and Jachym playing, I couldn’t help but smile. I was home.

09/25/2013

The Czech language

Written by Sydney Cohen (California University)

My first week in the Czech Republic literally felt like a dream. I had tons of time to explore the city, to discover cool bars and pubs, eat Czech food, and just basically be on a European vacation. I knew coming here, I’d have to study and that Prague would become my actual reality, but I was so not prepared for the grueling battle of learning the Czech language.

Before you call me lazy or say that chinese and arabic are way harder (which they prob are) I am going to throw some Czech words at ya and see if you can guess what they are without using google: zmrzlina, čtvrtek, Německo. Just take an educated guess on what these things mean. The first one to me looks like a pharmaceutical drug....that word means ice cream. Just like take that in for a minute. That crazy word with a total of 5 letters in sequence without a vowel means a delicious, summertime treat. The second word is just the hardest word to pronounce like ever. So difficult that I want to write it phonetically but I have no idea what letters I would use. By the way that is the word for Thursday. The last one is just not intuitive. I would be thinking perhaps a type of nut? A tool for bashing my brains in? Nope that means Germany.

I am a very typical American and I am really only fluent in English. But I took French for 5 years and I have 3 quarters of college level Spanish under my belt as well, so I’m not completely language retarded. I actually understand a lot of both French and Spanish I just struggle when it comes time for me to say an intelligent sounding sentence. Unfortunately for me, Czech is a Slavic language meaning that it shares similarities with Russian and Polish (both of which I don’t know) and the only shared word with English is robot.

Having said that, my Czech teacher is such a chiller. The people in my class may not agree, but I know she is really cool under her elementary school teacher looking exterior. My friend Hannah actually says she looks like Mrs.Puff from Spongebob...the resemblance is uncanny.

She really tries to help us with pronunciation, and I have to say, she is one of the most patient people I have ever met. She has been with us from 9:30-1:45 everyday this week and will be for another week of hellish intensive learning. I just think about sitting in a warm, small basement room with 12 college students who are completely slaughtering your mother tongue for nearly a full day, for two weeks. She’s resilient I’m telling you.

Also the pace at which we are learning Czech makes me feel like my brain is melting. In one day we learned the following:

1) letters

2) numbers up to 100

3) colors

4) foods

5) social questions

6) how to conjugate verbs with the ending -ovat. (emailovat is a verb...)

In addition to learning Czech I have begun grocery shopping because I would rather spend money traveling than eating. Side note: never thought there would be a day where eating wasn’t my financial priority.

Grocery shopping at home is so easy! everything has a section, things are in English, I know how to read indigent lists and nutrition info and there’s peanut butter and hot sauce readily available. You guys have it good! Shopping here if you didn’t figure it out already is the opposite of all those things I just listed. Also you have to bring your own bags or you’re gonna drop some bank. I bought a bag that is much too big. The amount of things I can fit into it makes is a Mary Poppins bad but when it comes time to take it home I’m up a creek without a paddle.

 

That’s the other grocery shopping kicker. My closest grocery store is walking distance down a hill. Meaning I have to walk up hill with my groceries. This walk was the worst the day I bought condiments. Glass jars = me taking the elevator to my floor because I was ruining my sweater and probably my posture lugging that stuff.

Although I can’t say I have taken these in stride and been super mature about them, (no judgement from any of you until you have a Czech quiz on a Friday morning) these challenges haven’t been screwing up my life too badly. Having 200 other people facing the same challenges makes it easier and more fun to complain about.

Theater geek in a theater city

Written by Katherine Shield (Tufts University)

I’m a theater geek in a theater city, and I am trying to take advantage of that as best I can. Last week, I bought $10 tickets to see Madame Butterfly in the National Opera, and this week, we were given tickets to see La Boehme. Then, over the weekend, I took Emma to see Swan Lake at the National Ballet. Unsurprisingly, all three shows were fantastic, and I can't wait to see more theater. There are so many things I want to say about both the ballet and the opera, so sorry if this post is a little discombobulated.

Until this trip, I’d only ever been to one opera. I went when I was maybe 14 or 15 years old with my neighbor, who had an extra ticket. I honestly don’t remember what show I saw, or really anything much about it, except that I didn’t like it very much. It was too hard for me to follow the story, and I didn’t have enough of a sense of the skills involved in performing the music to actually appreciate the talent.

This time, I am a bit older, a bit more experienced. I’ve been to a few (hundred?) more shows, including a number at the professional level. I’ve participated in enough shows to have an understanding of the work that goes into the performance, both visible and invisible, to respect the performance qualities regardless. And it definitely changed my perspective. I’m not going to say that I fell in love with the opera, because that isn’t true, but I could be talked into attending another one…

A big difference, and I think absolutely imperative, was that both these operas had subtitles, in both Czech and English. Subtitles meant I could follow along with the plot of the show, which really does make all the difference. Sometimes I closed my eyes and just listened, but I also often paid as much (if not more) attention to the subtitles as the actors, because I often tried to decipher the Czech subtitles, using my limited Czech knowledge. That was fun, and also exciting to see the difference that just one week of Czech classes made - I could definitely understand more of the Czech words and phrases in the second show than the first.

In terms of the shows themselves, Madame Butterfly was okay. It wasn't fantastic, and I had a really hard time getting over the stereotypical way the Japanese were portrayed. (If you don't know the plot, an American sailor marries a Japanese girl of 15 before leaving for the states. He returns three years later with an American wife and discovers that he has a Japanese son. His Japanese wife (Butterfly) kills herself and gives their son to the American and his American wife.) La Boehme, on the other hand, was fabulous. I loved the casting choices, and the actress playing Mimi was absolutely phenomenal. Also, I had no idea that Rent was based on La Boehme (though it makes a lot of sense, seeing the number of references that get made and all...). And then, of course, Swan Lake was gorgeous. I don't think I've ever seen the ballet, but I know the story, so it was easy to follow. Emma didn't understand the story at all, but she absolutely loved the dancing.

At the opera, we were sitting quite high, which many people may not have liked, but I loved. At Madame Butterfly, I was far house right, which meant that I could see a bit of the technical aspects of the show - I could see the spot ops and the actors' video feed of the conductor, which was fun. At La Boehme, I was sitting directly in front of the booth; though I couldn't see much in the booth, it was fun to see that all theaters, big or small, have the same materials in the booths. In the ballet, though, Emma and I got to sit in the front section, even though I didn't pay that much for tickets. Since Emma is so little, and was so excited, they let us sit somewhere from which she could see. We were in the fourth row center, with not a soul in front of us. It was fabulous!

We were so close that I could tell when the ballerinas were really tired, and I could see everything. It was a fabulous experience.

Perhaps my favorite part of the National Opera was the set designs. The stage has a rotating base, so the sets all rotate between acts. In La Boehme especially, I really loved the way they completely changed the setting of the space by rotating the stage around completely. I don't think many people noticed the design of the stage, but I really liked it.

I can't wait to see more theater, especially the Black Light Theater. But this is all for now!

 

09/24/2013

Jewish town

Written by Sydney Cohen (University of California)

My last few days in Prague have been a complete whirlwind of lectures, tram schedules, and jet-lag. Meeting new friends and learning how to navigate the city have taken up all my waking hours, but when the Jewish high holidays crept up on me I felt like it was only responsible to take some time out of my day to go to services.

High holiday services are something I dread. I don’t feel like I gain a lot of spiritual guidance or new insight on anything and my only joy is spending time with my family in the back of the temple where we can gossip and talk about everyones outfits. Doing the holidays alone I knew would be hard, but not as hard as dealing with the guilt of not going. I rounded up 2 of my new Jewish friends, Sarah and Sammi, and we ventured to the conservative synagogue in Prague’s Jewish quarter.

After wandering between Hugo Boss, La Pearla and Jimmy Choo for much longer than we had anticipated we found the synagogue. We had extra time so the three of us sought out dinner. After dinner we walked to the synagogue and rang the door bell. I had been warned that they would ask us questions so I brought my passport, but I wasn’t prepared for what felt like a Homeland-esque interrogation.

After ringing the doorbell a man with a prominent black goatee walked from across the street and asked how we knew about the synagogue and where we were from and our names, all normal questions. Then he asked what Jewish holidays we celebrated and what temples we belonged to in our hometowns. After that, we were granted entry to a really cold room which had a locked door both ahead and behind us and they told us that service were on the first floor. If you’re reading this and you’re not Jewish let me clarify this is so NOT normal during the high holidays. To put it in perspective my temple at home holds services in a room that is expanded by opening a wall to the outside. Yes that is right the actual out of doors where crazies can enter if they please, but never do.

The services were familiar and surprisingly in English. When it came time to do tashlich, the act of throwing bread into a body of water symbolizing getting rid of your sins, we went down to the Vltava River. I later described this to my parents as the coolest Jewish thing I’ve ever done. The sun was setting and from where we were standing we had a perfect view of the Prague Castle. If it hadn’t been such an inappropriate time to take photos I would have and made it both my Facebook profile picture and cover photo that’s how pretty it was.

The combination of the tunes I’ve grown up hearing in Hebrew school with the grander of this beautiful city where I will be living for the next 4 months (doesn’t seem like real life) actually made me see how important these traditions are. It’s not just about renewal for yourself. It is about the renewal of a global Jewish community. Once the site of German occupation and the enslavement and execution of thousands of Czech Jews, the Czech Republic now has a Jewish Community, although apparently under threat evidenced by the extreme security, that can grow into something thriving and robust.

This new year has a lot in store for me, and I hope you all can follow along on my adventures through this blog where I’ll try to post my most interesting tidbits as not to bore you. No pressure, but like if you read it and hate it maybe don’t tell me, but if you do like it this is where you can find me.

Shana Tova to where ever you are in the world and I hope this year is full of good luck, happiness, adventures and health.