Pinkas Synagogue

Prague’s old Jewish quarter is one of few that mostly survived Nazi occupation. The Old Jewish Cemetery dates to the fifteenth century, packed with stones, graves layered according to religious law when more land could not be purchased. I wanted to see the stones crammed and leaning under the shade of trees, roots and graves underfoot.

I wasn’t prepared for Pinkas Synagogue though, the first building we walked through. Panels of lists of names are painted onto the walls of each room, recording the Jews from Prague and surrounding communities who died in concentration camps. It took me a moment to know what I was looking at and then I read the dates following each name. I remember visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling a similarly slow absorption of how great a loss was suffered. Name after name after name.

Photography is not permitted inside Pinkas Synagogue. This image is pulled from Flickr.


Pinkas Synagogue also featured an exhibition of artwork done by children at the Terezin or Theresienstadt Ghetto, a transit camp for Czech Jews run from 1942 – 1945. The room was small, displaying a fraction of the art created by the thousands of children moved through the ghetto, but the pieces showed a range of subjects: life before, places left, holidays, transport trains, family, fairy tales, Bible stories, life in the ghetto. A small placard next to each painting or drawing gave the name of the child, their birth date, the date they entered Terezin, and for the majority, their death date and the camp at which they died. Only a handful of the works had a placard ending with Survived.

I read a short explanation of the purpose behind art classes for the children. Elders in the ghetto recognized that children were as susceptible to depression as adults and saw art and poetry as expressions that could give children ways to remember their former life and think about their present reality.

I will write about this more, in my WP. I am a little too scattered to post more than first thoughts now – art, expression, permission. I stood still, looking at drawings on cream paper, thinking about the wisdom of handing a child a pencil, telling them to draw what they may not be able to say in words.

This collage is by Ruth Gutmannova. She was born in 1930 and died at Auschwitz in 1944. I bought a reproduction of one of her watercolors. This collage pulled from the blog The Delights of Seeing.

Running Prague

I like to run the city I travel. This summer is the first in three years that I’m able to start my mornings with a long outdoor run. Here, I’m doing out-and-back runs with branches off to see neighborhoods or parks.

I begin at the edge of Charles Park and run downhill to the Vltava River. I follow the river past the Charles Bridge and take a slope down to a cobbled dock. I run early enough to see the orange and blue suited sanitation workers sweeping up last night’s party near the bridge, but the dock collects a few empty wine bottles too. Before starting their sweep of the dock, a man and woman recline in an old Volvo, smoking. Their two little dogs are nearby, sniffing along the wall.

I am not on the dock long. The riverboats are quiet. I see a couple on a bench; he woofs at me and she doubles over in laughter. A few men are at the edge of the dock, fishing and talking, not bothering to glance up at passersby. There are some other runners out, but mostly bikers whooshing by on my left and dog-walkers on my right.

I find a trail. Crushed rock cutting through a wide field of tall grass and short trees. Other paths break from the main, weaving their way toward a busier street of office and apartment buildings. Homeless sleep in the field at night and we nod at each other in the morning – an old man carrying a back and rolled mat steps out from the weeds and I am one of many striding by in the day, seeing a tree as a tree rather than as a roof.

The trail is short. I pretend I’m in the middle of nowhere because that is where I’d like to run one day. The crushed rock is a break for my legs. The rest of the my run through Prague is on tiny square paving stones, cobbles or asphalt; all of it uneven, sloping or crowned. The trail is a flat, forgiving surface. I hold my gait but there is less work to my running: no curb to hop or stairs to climb. It is  perfect, boring trail.

I run back the way I came. Commuters are on their way to early shifts. Trams are fuller. There are more cars at the intersections. I learn which blocks are busy and skirt them. When I reach my landmark, I walk, sweaty, ready for the day.

Two People

Yesterday morning I went for a run along the Vltava River in Prague. It was an early Sunday morning for me and a late Saturday night for a number of others along the river. On my way back to the apartment I passed a tram stop. An old woman was holding on to the bench, her ass in the air and her face bent close enough to kiss the cold metal bench. On the ground, one of her black wedges. She was hanging on and swaying. I thought I could help her sit on the ground, or maybe lay down until she sobered.

We didn’t share a language. We barely shared a consciousness. She was wasted. She wore cheap sweats and a tee-shirt, an old cardigan over top. Her hair dyed yellow and her skin tanned orange. Her fingernails and toenails were painted hot pink. One of her toes was cut where her shoe had rubbed. The soles of her feet were filthy.

She had giant eyes, the lightest blue irises. I spoke to her gently. I patted the ground. She started to sit, tipped and banged her head on the glass shelter. She moaned. She started snoring. I wondered if I should finish what I started, to make her more comfortable and safe until she sobered. I saw a man watching us from across the way. I felt like an idiot, kneeling and rubbing this woman’s back and whispering, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” She looked up at me with those giant eyes, tears dropping.

That’s why we don’t go close. Really.

I spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes with this woman. I finally left her in much the same way I found her.

Later, I saw another person we don’t go near. I saw a young man on his knees, forehead to the ground, his hat turned up in front of him. He blocked part of a walkway, the current of tourists stepping around this stone of a man. I was out with my family and told Justin to wait. I watched this man. He took a few coins from his hat, pocketed them, put the hat back, his head to the ground.


Not even playing an old violin.

I watched him a moment longer. I wondered why he was here. Sometimes I strip the adult away and wonder who a person was as a child. I always want them to be loved as a child. I want them to have kisses on the forehead and hugs. I want them to have a mother and father waiting.

I took a coin and knelt. “Here,” I said.

He turned his head, startled, scabs on his face. “I no English,” he said.

“That’s okay,” I said. Something turned inside me. I want a better language.

He nodded, turned his face back to the ground. I went to Justin. I said to him, “I have to stop doing that.”

“What?” Justin said.

“Giving coins.”

It isn’t enough. That man with scabs on his face. He probably picks them when he’s high. And I give him a coin. He suffers under a weight I can’t see and I speak to him in English. If that same young man were standing, he’d be a grungy backpacker on summer break, bunking in hostels and eating street food in the shadow of cathedrals. I saw a woman take a photo of him, like he was something to show people back home.

Some people have so much nothing they prostrate themselves and don’t look up when coins fall.

Enough is a hard measure.