Tag Archives: Judaism

Granada: Albaicin, Archaeology, and Astrolabes

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

January 2, 2019

We dedicated today to the exploration of the Albaicin, a residential area that has been continuously inhabited for more than 2000 years. Medieval Muslim communities frequently followed the pattern of palace or fortress (alcazar), city center (medina), and residential area (in this case, the Albaicin).

Going up!

Most cars would not prepared to drive our street.

Our lodgings fell just inside the Elvira Gate, a massive 11th century structure that was once part of the medieval wall. Our journey took us east on our street, which in our case also meant upwards! Our street rose in altitude so quickly that it mostly consists of cobblestone steps. We were both huffing and puffing, much as I had experienced in Lesotho or Heidelberg. We zigged and zagged on some roads at the top, and we were rewarded with a stunning view of the city below us.

The Albaicin is well above the main tourist districts.

Unfortunately, we met with disappointment at the first site, Palacio Dar al-Horra, and others we had planned. Four sites were jointly managed as the “Monuments Andalusies” for World Heritage. The four sites use particular machines to distribute tickets, and the machines refused to execute purchases on my credit card or on Natasha’s. At a stroke, the premier sites for our tour of the Albaicin were eliminated from our day’s schedule.

It’s an iconic shot, but it’s the wrong time of day!

We pressed on to our second site. Helpfully, Mirador San Nicolas never closes! It’s a plaza offering a brilliant view of Alhambra, sprawling across the next ridge. I had seen suggestions to visit it at sundown, and I soon understood why; just before noon, the sun appears low in the sky above the palace (our visit was near the winter solstice), adding considerable glare. I tried my best to capture some images of Alhambra anyway.

If you are fascinated by medieval waterworks, don’t miss this aljibe, a cistern created during the Nasrid emirate!

Courtyards and balconies

This courtyard has lost two walls over the centuries.

Casa del Chapiz was a very nice spot to visit, albeit being positioned at the extreme eastern edge of Albaicin. This pair of homes, built in the early sixteenth century by Muslims who had converted to Christianity (they were not given much choice in the matter), features a lovely pair of restored Moorish patios. The wood work was splendid, and Natasha and I were further hooked on the idea of a home that encloses an open-air patio. Behind the home, though, is a massive formal garden, much longer than it was wide. Its views back toward Alhambra were pretty stunning, and Natasha was delighted to see a persimmon tree, though its fruit was out of reach!

If the garden is this green in mid-winter, what does it look like in spring?

We had heard bells ringing over at Alhambra for some time before we realized that the noise was not going to stop. We suspected that tour guides were making a bell rope accessible to a never-ending queue of children. Three rings, pause. Three rings, pause. This figure overlaid our next several hours.

We tried to visit Casa Horno del Oro, but the ticket machines for the World Heritage quartet continued to pose a barrier. I felt discouraged. Our path, though, became simpler. Instead of climbing and descending cobblestone “stair streets,” our path descended to Carrera del Darro. This beautiful street runs along the bank of the Darro River for its remaining uncovered stretch. I was less happy about the uptick in tourists around us.

A tidy starter museum

The Castril Palace (1539), home to the secretary of the Catholic Monarchs, how houses the Museum of Archaeology.

I had hoped the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography would measure up to the ones we had enjoyed at Cordoba and Madrid, but its three chambers held relatively few exhibits. We liked some of the Iberian and Roman pieces, but our attention was more captured by the astrolabes we saw there. We were surprised to read that we were seeing one of only nine medieval astrolabes remaining in the world that was inscribed in Arabic. Astrolabes represented one of the key technologies that differentiated the “Golden Age” of Islam from the “Dark Ages” of Christian Europe.

An Arabic astrolabe from 1481.

The climb to the second floor was rather nice, though. The stairs had lovely embedded tiles. How old might they be? Natasha and I gingerly stepped upward, trying to rest our feet only on terracotta. At the same time, a teenager careened down the steps at high speed. We sighed. The Renaissance structure of the museum is lovely, as befits the building’s origins under Ferdinand and Isabella.

The late 14th century House of Zafra followed the familiar courtyard theme

Our walk to the Casa de Zafra took almost no time. In many ways, this would have been the ideal first stop on our tour of the Albaicin. The little museum walks visitors through the different phases of occupation for this area. I liked a map showing different color regions relating to the different waves of population in the Albaicin over the centuries (see below). Natasha loved a timeline that contextualized the major historical events in the Iberian Peninsula against events in the world at large, such as the construction of the Leshan Buddha (begun in 713 A.D., nearly the same time as the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula), the completion of the Forbidden City (1420 A.D., a bit before the assault on Granada), or the discovery of America (Columbus sailed the same year Granada fell)!

Natasha and I were ready for some refreshment, so we paused at the Teteria del Banuelo. We pulled up a table on the open-air patio with an outstanding view of Alhambra (three rings, pause, three rings, pause). Natasha enjoyed a Jordanian tea (black tea with mint), and I selected an Albaicin specialty pairing green tea with orange peel and blossoms. Yum!

Palace of the Forgotten

Our last target for the day was El Palacio de los Olvidados. At first, I was glad to see from the guide book that the Jewish community of Granada had its own museum, even if the Sephardi population had concentrated to the southeast of Alhambra rather than the west! As we entered the museum, however, we realized that the museum was tiptoeing down the line of sensationalism, with the most comprehensive collection of torture and execution devices that I have ever seen (purportedly because they had been used by the Spanish Inquisition against the Jewish / Converso population). The second floor of the museum had a pretty great collection of Jewish artifacts (such as a 15th century Torah and cover and a 16th century bridal chest).

It is hard to believe this Torah cover was likely embroidered around the time of Columbus. The Jews were expelled from Spain soon thereafter.

I was really happy to see a Hebrew astrolabe that echoed the Arabic one we had seen earlier in the archaeology museum. Unfortunately, we had to wade through an awful lot of metal and wooden devices for contorting the human body, along with woodcuts depicting their use.

Hey, Astrolabe. What’s your sign?

There were, however, some useful facts about the Inquisition within the displays. The Jewish Interpretation Center in Seville alluded to a conspiracy among six prominent Jews in 1481 that led to widened operations against the Converso / Jewish population. That story was amplified at Granada, revealing that the discovered conspiracy had been used to motivate Inquisition proceedings at Cordoba, Jaen, and Ciudad Real over the next two years. The museum also offered useful information on the process under which the auto da fe (“declaration of faith”) ceremonies took place. Just the order of arrival would take a while to execute. Apparently these ceremonies announcing verdicts from the Inquisition were frequently all-day affairs! The other detail I appreciated was a series of statistics describing how many people were victimized by the Inquisition in each king or queen’s reign from 1481-1808.

Catholic Monarchs
Carlos V
Felipe II
Felipe III
Felipe IV
Carlos II
Felipe V
Fernando VII
Carlos III
Carlos IV
This statue of Judah ibn Tibbon, sometimes called “The Moor Hailing a Taxi,” remembers a man famed for his translations from Arabic to Hebrew.

We stepped into the afternoon light, glad to clear our lungs of such human suffering. We lingered for a bit in Plaza Nueva. It was a very busy place, with hawkers and street performers everywhere and Santa Ana church standing over it. The vitality of the plaza helped us to see Granada in the glory of today rather than brooding over horrors from its past.

At last the sun was in the right place!

Seville: We find the Spanish Inquisition

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 27, 2018

Doesn’t everybody go in search of the Spanish Inquisition when they visit Sevilla?

Arriving by train early in the day, we were gratified to learn that the Hotel Alcazar was literally across the street from the back gardens of that fortress and that they would happily store our bags until the room was ready! After a bit of planning with the map, we were off to lunch at a restaurant she had learned about in a celiac forum for Sevilla. We started by walking up to the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Blanca (formerly a mosque and formerly a synagogue). From there we passed through a bewildering succession of Iglesias, Plazas, and Calles to satisfy Google Maps. We came to rest quite near Plaza Nueva and munched our toasty sandwiches on gluten-free bread quite hungrily.

We started at the right and ran in a big, counter-clockwise loop.

Would every walk between sites be so crowded with people? Would every path dodge back and forth among so many streets and alleys? Already, we knew Sevilla would be less laid-back than our experience in Cordoba.

He’s a king! He’s a saint! He’s a statue!

We re-emerged at Plaza Nueva to see an equestrian statue of Ferdinand III of Castile. I have mentioned him previously as the Christian king who reclaimed the cities of Cordoba and Sevilla; the latter became the new capital city for Castile. He was canonized as a saint two centuries later. It is not entirely surprising, then, to find a statue celebrating him in Sevilla, especially given that city hall is at the same plaza!

We continued from there to Puente (bridge) de Triana, which offers a lovely view of the riverside docks that would once have served the voyages of exploration to the New World.

Yes, an ocean-going vessel can come upriver to Sevilla!

My attention, though, was fixed on the other end of the bridge, near which one can find the Centro Tematico de la Tolerancia del Castillo de San Jorge (the Tolerance Center of the Castle of Saint George). This name might seem rather obscure, so I’ll put it more plainly; the Castle of San Jorge was the center of operations for the Spanish Inquisition for almost 300 years.

Why did the Inquisition come to Spain and linger so long?

As the Chrisitan kingdoms reconquered the Iberian Peninsula, they found themselves inheriting a diverse and cosmopolitan population. The Jewish community of Spain had been persecuted under the Visigoths, and some Jews actually worked with the Muslims to encourage their invasion from North Africa. Living in a Muslim state worked out well for many Jews, though they did have to pay a yearly tax because they were not Muslims. After the fall of the Caliphate, al Andalus devolved into small taifa city-states, and the Jewish experience was more uneven. The Almoravids and Almohads both came to the Iberian Peninsula with deep suspicion of other religious groups, and Jewish schools and synagogues were closed or destroyed.

At some points in history, it seemed that Jews would be able to find a modus vivendi with the Christian kingdoms. The rules of Fedinand I of Castile and Alfonso VI showed promise, with Jews sometimes being afforded nominally full equality with Christians. By the time of Ferdinand III of Castile and James I of Aragon, however, segregation was back with a vengeance. Jews were compelled to wear yellow badges on their clothing. By the 14th century, the relationship between Christians and Jews had degraded so far that outright massacres took place. A good relationship had formed between the Jewish community and Pedro I (“The Cruel”) of Castile. Pedro’s half-brother Henry of Trastamera, however, rebelled against Pedro (ultimately becoming king in his place), and he massacred Jewish populations in several areas during 1366 to curry favor with the Christian masses. Ferrand Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija, also exploited this popular prejudice, and he persisted for decades to foment hatred against the Jewish community until his influence was felt in a variety of cities throughout the peninsula. On June 9, 1391, the people of Sevilla mobbed the Juderia district of the city, killing approximately 4000 people. This scourge then jumped from city to city.

As the Christians conquered cities from the Moors, then, they suddenly controlled many new citizens who were Jewish or who were Muslim. When Ferdinand and Isabella married, they gained the title “Catholic Monarchs” because of many actions to ensure that their kingdoms would be Catholic (not merely Christian). They completed the Reconquista in 1492 by taking Granada; it was the first time in more than 700 years that a Muslim kingdom no longer ruled any part of Spain! Queen Isabella took this opportunity to declare that no Jews would be allowed to remain in the Christian kingdoms. Any Jew who wanted to remain in Spain became a “Converso” by converting to Christianity; the expelled Sephardic Jewish community was spread to the four winds. Some Conversos, however, secretly retained Jewish practices at home. Similarly, Muslims were heavily pressured to become Christians, becoming “Moriscos.” The Christian kings, however, were inclined to distrust former Muslims and their descendants. Many Moriscos were expelled from Spain during 1609-1614.

If I may summarize this complex situation badly, Queen Isabella wanted the help of the Catholic Church in imposing religious conformity on the people of Castile and Aragon. In 1478, the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition answered that call. It would not be disbanded until 1834. What resulted was a profound injustice that should never be forgotten.

Our visit to San Jorge

Because the Castillo de San Jorge was razed in the early 19th century, the Center mostly guides tourists through the ruins (only recovered in the 1990s) to highlight the various ground-level structures. I was very glad that they included a scale model of the castle from its more operational days. The tour reminds us that the Spanish Inquisition had to manage day-to-day affairs like its mule stables and its bureaucracy (nuncio and notary). I responded strongly to the description of the “familiares,” who worked to convince their fellow citizens to cast suspicion on their neighbors. It seemed reprehensible to pay people to convince others to name targets of inquiry.

This model represents San Jorge during its use as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.

I found the following outline on the inquisitorial process particularly helpful. The museum used the fictional example of a young woman trained in herbs who had been accused of witchcraft to walk through the steps.

  • Edict of faith / grace: This period allowed for voluntary confession and for implication of others.
  • Qualifying and Accusation: This phase required something like a “grand jury” of theologians to decide whether the evidence of heresy was compelling.
  • Clamosa: Detention was accompanied by confiscation of worldly goods. Interrogation was not limited to the “crime” but included one’s forebears and family members
  • Hearing: Immediate responses to charges were required, with no lawyers present. Defenses usually rested on showing that the accusers were known enemies, that the judges were predisposed against the victim, and establishing one’s character through witnesses.
  • Torment: Torture by the rack (stretching by ropes at wrists and ankles) was common, but the Inquisition had a wide variety of options.
  • Sentence: Inquisitors, the bishop’s representative, and legal experts reached a conclusion for each case.
  • Auto de fe: An all-day ceremony would publicly announce the sentences for heresy, with victims frequently dressed in “sambenitos.” The condemned who were sentenced to death on a pyre were burned at a special site called the Quemadero.
The stables, with space for five mules

The stories of two prominent inquisitors, Diego Rodriguez Lucero of Cordoba and Fernando de Valdes, were explained in some lighted panels. The former seemingly was heavily motivated by the wealth of his targets. His trumped-up charges were exposed when previously Jewish Christian converts testified that they had been required to teach the targets of the Inquisition Jewish prayers so that their “students” could be convicted! Even so, Lucero burned to death more than one hundred people in 1500 A.D. and again in 1504.

Fernando de Valdes

Valdes, on the other hand, was known as a stubborn, prickly noble even before he was named to the Inquisition. His behavior as an Inquisitor was such that his peers sometimes forced his recusal from the trials. He created an Index of banned books in 1559 and then wrote a book of his own that reorganized and reformed the process of the Inquisition.

I was glad to see that the museum could end on a more uplifting note. A display on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights helped to remind us of the real progress civilzation has made since the times of the Inquisition.

After the heavy content of the museum, Natasha and I wandered in the market at Triana. It was lovely to see so many people laughing over delicious-looking displays of cheese and sausage in a place that previous been home to horror. We both had sore feet, so we began our walk back to the hotel through the neighborhoods west of the Guadalquivir.

Real Parroquia de Señora Santa Ana

I stopped for a moment in the plaza next to Real Parroquia de Señora Santa Ana. The museum mentioned that the plaza had sometimes been used for the auto da fe ceremonies. Today’s Plaza Santa Ana is filled with tables and chairs from the cafes that line the square. The tower and facade are very pretty, with lively blues and reds accenting each. How could such a lovely place also have been home to such painful humiliations?

Torre del Oro

When we recrossed the river at Puente de San Telmo, the afternoon sun made everything seem a bit brighter. We marveled at the excellent view of the Tower of Gold (completed in 1220 A.D.), now serving as the Spanish Maritime Museum. A few more yards north brought us to a large fountain at the corner of the elegant Alfonso XII hotel.


This parade once held the “burning place” of the Inquisition.

In one of my last acts at the city of Sevilla, I took a walk to the Prado de San Sebastian, quite close to our hotel. This parade was home to the Quemadero, a platform with four statues at which many victims of the Inquisition were burned to death. It was originally constructed in 1481, and it remained in place until 1809. Today the Prado San Sebastian is a beautiful park, with rides for children. I paused for a moment in memory of the people who met terrifying deaths there.

According the best authorities, from 1481 to 1808, the Holy Tribunal of Spain burnt 34,612 persons alive, 18,048 in effigy, and imprisoned 288,109, the goods and chattels of every one them being first duly confiscated.

A tour with Cook through Spain, a series of letters, by Sir John Benjamin Stone

Prague: a millennium of Jewish community

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

The Jewish community of Prague gives one of the best glimpses of the city’s rich history.  The Jewish Museum in Prague uses the community’s most historic buildings to tell the story of Judaism in Bohemia. The architecture and exhibits reveal a community in long dialogue with the gentiles of Bohemia.

Since I visited many parts of the community in the course of my day, I will start with a list of the sites, along with their dates of construction and the exhibits at each.

Site Founding Exhibit
Old New Synagogue 1270 (none)
Jewish Cemetery 1439 Graves spanning 350 years
Pinkas Synagogue 1535 Memorial of the Shoah
Maisel Synagogue 1592 History of Bohemian Jews I
Klausen Synagogue 1694 Jewish Customs I
Spanish Synagogue 1868 History of Bohemian Jews II
Ceremonial Hall 1906 Jewish Customs II
Jubilee Synagogue 1906 (none)

Maisel Synagogue

My first stop on the tour began telling the history of Jews in Prague.  Their part of the city was frequently given the named “Josefov.”  Jews first came to Prague during the tenth century from the Alps to the southwest, or from Byzantium.  Their history in Prague was an uneven one.  After initial settlement below the castle in the “Lesser Town,” Jews began consolidating the “Old Jewish Town” at the bend of the Vltava River during the 13th and 14th centuries, partly because of physical attacks from gentiles.  To see how extensive this community became, I suggest you look at this 1804 map.  As I had seen previously in Berlin, the Jews of Prague were key to financing the kingdom, either through personal loans or through taxes imposed on its wealthiest citizens.  Persecution and pogroms damaged the community, as in other cities.  In 1577 and later, Emperor Rudolph II made living conditions for Jews in Prague much better, turning some of the verbal protections for the community into laws.


This model of Prague, containing >2000 buildings, was constructed of pasteboard by Antonin Langweil (1791-1837).


A statue from the Maisel of Rabbi Loew, meeting death

The Maisel Synagogue now features a large TV to showcase a 3D computer animation of Prague that highlights historical buildings in Josefov.  The animation has been based upon an enormous paper model of Prague that is now on display in the Prague City Museum.  The Maisel is also helpful in understanding other sites on the tour.  For one, the oldest tombstone from the Cemetery (dating from 1439) is exhibited there.

I was particularly glad to see that some figures that were equal parts history and lore were included in the Maisel display.  I had encountered Rabbi Loew before in a special exhibit on the Golem.  The historical Rabbi lived from 1525 to 1609, and his Talmudic writings and mentoring were quite significant in shaping Jewish thought.  The legends surrounding him, however, are other-worldly.  He was said to have brought a statue to life through his wisdom, but when he failed to give it a day of rest on the Sabbath, it went out of control.  He disabled it and then hid it in the attic of the synagogue.  He was rumored to have escaped from Death by snatching away the list with his name on it.  In the statue shown here, Death catches up with him by hiding in a drop of dew on a rose given to the Rabbi Loew.

Pinkas Synagogue

I was not altogether sure what to expect as I entered the next building.  The second-oldest surviving synagogue in Prague has been entirely given over to a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (sometimes called the Shoah).  80,000 names of citizens from Czech and Moravian Jews have been painted in fine script on the walls.  It is a very somber walk.


The scale of loss is hard to countenance.

I looked up toward the vaulted roof for a respite.  The building was really beautiful.  When I climbed upstairs, I encountered a small art gallery.  It featured “Art in Extreme Situations,” a presentation of art works by children who were learning the stories of children deported to the Terezin ghetto in 1941-1944.  I was glad to see that the Czech education system is reminding this generation of the atrocities committed through the hatred of minorities.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The exit from Pinkas leads directly to the famed Jewish Cemetery.  Graves were located in this location as early as 1439.  The area is absolutely crammed with graves; more than 12,000 are packaged into the area.  Apart from three and a half centuries of use, this cemetery grew as other Jewish graveyards were closed; the community was compressed into an ever-smaller area.


A place of peace

The clouds had enclosed Prague all morning, but the sun peeked from the clouds as I walked around the cemetery.  It was a needed moment of uplift after the Pinkas Synagogue.  When I reached the tomb of Rabbi Loew, I paused for a moment to admire the rampant lion atop his marker.  It felt good to put a pebble on his tomb, like I had touched a figure from deep in history.  This tomb was erected just two years after Jamestown was founded in Virginia!

Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall


The beautiful vault of Klausen Synagogue


The Ceremonial Hall is a lovely structure.

The exit of the cemetery leads directly into the next part of the museum.  The Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall both exhibit materials associated with Jewish tradition.  I really liked the Klausen displays.  Since I grew up as a Southern Baptist, I did not get a thorough grounding in Jewish tradition.  I appreciated a document that explained the relationship between aspects of the Jerusalem temple and the synagogues.  Why, for example, are the ends of the wooden rollers on which a Torah is wound frequently modeled after pomegranates?

The adjoining Ceremonial Hall may be a much more recent construction, but its beautiful building seems like it comes from an earlier time.  The exhibited materials emphasize funeral rites for the Jewish community.  I liked a set of diagrams that showed the most common symbols from gravestones and their interpretations.  The lion I had seen on Rabbi Loew’s tomb, for example, implied a connection with the tribe of Yehuda (Judah).  Throughout the hall, though, I was continually distracted from the exhibits by the lovely artistry of the floors, arches, and windows.


For just a moment, nobody was walking on this mosaic!

The Old New Synagogue


I was glad for a moment in this sacred space.

My next stop was not part of the museum, but anyone interested in Jewish history would visit it.  The thirteenth century synagogue was not the first in Prague, but it is the oldest still standing.  One legend has it that the Jews were led to this spot by an elder, who told them that God would provide the community a synagogue.  The Jews dug into the ground and uncovered this building, ready for service!  Perhaps this story accounts for its odd name.

Because it is still used for services, I was required to don a kippah (sometimes called a yarmulke) to cover my head.  The men’s prayer hall has retained an ancient style for its structure (women listened from another chamber).  A central well is surrounded by an inner ring of wooden seats, and the walls are ringed by another set  of wooden seats.  The outer walls have bronze candle holders with reflectors to guide the light downward.  An odd metal framework extends out from the central area.


The men’s prayer hall


13th century architecture looks somewhat out of place in its current surrounds.

The Spanish Synagogue and the Jubilee (Jerusalem) Synagogue


Looking toward the vaulted ceiling

Today’s Jewish community in Prague is quite diverse.  The site of the oldest synagogue in Prague was taken over in 1868 for the construction of the Spanish Synagogue.  Its design may reflect the influence of Sephardim.  The ornate interior is something from another world.  The seating on the synagogue floor was blocked off, presumably for services.  The upstairs, however, had considerably more information on the history of Bohemian Jews.  In particular, it features information on Jewish involvement in publishing and the arts.  I was glad to see Franz Kafka getting credit for his work.  A statue right outside the Spanish Synagogue also stands in tribute to him.

Another synagogue is not included on the tour for the Jewish Museum in Prague, but it should not be missed.  The Jerusalem or Jubilee Synagogue was built at the same time as the ceremonial hall above, but its style could hardly be more different.  Its facade is distinctly Art Nouveau, simply popping with bright colors!  The lines, on the other hand, are more Moorish in architectural influence.  Sadly, the building was closed for a couple of months around the time I visited; apparently the space was quite challenging to keep heated during winter months.


It’s almost like a piece of wedding cake!

I was very fortunate to get this tour of Jewish history while visiting Prague.  I appreciate that you took the time to read my account of it!

Pebbles for the Warsaw Ghetto

I was walking next to the Ogród Krasińskich park when I saw something that sent me back to memories twenty-four years in the past.  Of course, when one wanders Berlin, he or she expects to see a marker showing the former location of the Berlin Wall.  The wall commemorated by this marker in Warsaw, however, is less well-known:


Trigger warning

One of the first classes I took at the University of Arkansas was the honors colloquium in the Literature of the Holocaust.  Professor Mark Cory transformed my knowledge of the Holocaust from “Hitler killed a bunch of Jews” into a much fuller understanding.  I will not forget books like Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird or Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  My final class paper, however, covered the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.  I had just stepped on a memorial to the reality behind that paper.  Right behind me I observed a memorial column that showed the area covered by the Ghetto.  Previous visitors had placed pebbles atop the structure.  I found myself a pebble and added it to the top.  I knew I needed to tug on this thread of memory.


Where would this marker lead me?

I consulted my tourist map and saw that a museum from the Jewish community lay nearby.  I walked in that direction and soon found the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  Prominent banners showed that it had been named European Museum of the Year for 2016!  Just outside the museum, two monuments have been raised to the memory of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.  The one placed there in 1946 is easy to miss, a disc of rock with metal lettering; pebbles appeared here as well.  The other memorial is impossible to miss.


Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, 1948

I entered the museum and visited some of the research areas.  The museum offered a tourist map of Warsaw; this one was specific to sites of Jewish memory.  It would come in handy during the following days.  With that, I moved into the permanent exhibition.

Like the Berlin museum, the Polin Museum was good at portraying the history of Jews within Poland.  I enjoyed large wall paintings of medieval cities, each with quotes discussing the involvement of Jews in the towns.  The first mention of Jews in Warsaw dates to 1414, when Jews accounted for about 5% of the population.  Because Christians were threatened with damnation for collecting interest (usury), Jews frequently occupied this economic niche.  The community, however, frequently suffered from exclusionary policies.  This text, coming from the 1267 synod of Gniezno Archdiocese in Wrocław, reminded me that Apartheid has a very, very long history:

We hereby order that the houses of any Jews living in the Gniezno Archdiocese be next to one another or joined, so that Jewish and Christian homes be separated by a fence, wall, or ditch.

I really enjoyed a large reconstruction of some of the medieval cities of Poland.  A projector played video from above onto the white models.  I thought I recognized the skyline of Krakow in one of them!


Do I spy Wawel Castle?

I believe the pièce de résistance for the museum was its recreation of a highly decorated synagogue from 17th century Gwoździec.  Intricately painted wooden synagogues could once be found all across Poland, but these priceless artifacts were mercilessly burned by Hitler’s death squads.  The one at the museum was recreated from old photographs and architectural drawings.  The bimah (altar) was created a full scale, while the roof was made at 85% of its original size.  You can see all kinds of designs in the art, from zodiac to surprising animals!


Such joyful colors!


…and then I looked up!

With a step into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history moved from one of a growing community to a group under attack.  By the time the Nazis held Warsaw, regressive laws had compelled the Jews to live in overcrowded conditions in just a few neighborhoods.  The large ghetto and small ghetto were linked by just one pedestrian bridge across Chłodna Street; correspondingly, the museum breaks its exhibition into a larger build-up of the historical pressures, a bridge, and then a smaller area devoted to the bloody uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.  The pressures this community came under were intense:

We are imprisoned within double walls: a wall of brick for our bodies, and a wall of silence for our spirits. –Chaim A. Kaplan, Scroll of Agony (1942)

As was commonly the case, the Nazis in Warsaw sought out members of the Jewish community that they could exploit as collaborators.  Abraham Gancwajch and twelve others formed “the Thirteen” of the Office to Combat Profiteering and Speculation– Jews serving the purposes of the Nazis.  In the end, these individuals were killed by either the Germans or by the Jewish underground.

The Germans had developed their plan for the “Final Solution” at the 1942 Wannsee Conference.  Correspondingly, they began inducing people living in the Ghetto to board trains for “resettlement,” for example by promising bread and marmalade to volunteers.  The Jews began developing plans of their own.  The Oyneg Shabes Archives began placing archives of special texts into metal boxes and milk cans.  Their first archive was buried in a school cellar in August of 1942.  I was moved to see some of those boxes on display in the museum along with this quote from 19-year-old David Graber: “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground… I would love to live to see the moment when the great treasure is dug up… Neighboring street besieged.  We are all feverish. We prepare for the worst. We hurry.” This community expected only death. Tellingly, the display of the Archive boxes appeared at the bridge separating the display area.

In July of 1942, the Jewish Fighting Organization was established in response to the increasing deportations.  Along with the Jewish Military Union, these individuals did their best to mount an armed response to the Germans, especially after the Nazis entered the Ghetto in force in April of 1943.  This poem by Władysław Szlengel helped to capture the bravery of these fighters in the midst of incredible despair:

Hear, O you German God,
How we Jews pray in our ‘barbaric’ homes
With crowbar or pole in hand.
We ask you, Lord, for a bloody fight.
We beg for urgent violent death.
Before we die, let our eyes not see
The railway track receding,
But give our arms a precise aim, Lord,
To bloody those blue-grey uniforms,
Before our throats give out their final,
Silent cry, let our eyes see
In those brazen hands, fists holding whips,
Our own so human, ordinary fear.
Like purple, blood-brimming flowers
From Niska Street, and Miła, and Muranów
Our rifle muzzles blossom fire.
This is our Spring! Counter-attack!
The heady wine of battle intoxicates!
These are our partisan forests–
Back alleys off Dzika and Ostrowska Streets…
Our battle cry– six letters– blazes red,
A word, a battering ram: REVOLT

The Germans were not expecting this level of resistance when they entered the Ghetto. After initial fighting, the Nazis changed tactics, burning the buildings of the Ghetto one by one. On the eighth of May, 1943, the fighting came to an end with the discovery of the bunker where the commanders of the Jewish Resistance. The leaders all committed suicide rather than face capture. Approximately 13,000 Jews died (in addition to thousands of others who had already been shipped to concentration camps).  As many as three hundred Nazis had been killed by the resistance.

October 22, 2016

On my final day in Warsaw, I decided to add two last visits to honor the bravery of the fighters.  I wanted to visit two sites denoted by the map of Jewish sites in Warsaw.  My journey was hindered by two factors.  The first was my large roller bag, bumping over the cobbles and pavers.  The second was the gloomy cold rain, which had escalated with each day in Warsaw.

I started by walking southwest on Senatorska, and soon the road became Elektoralna.  It seemed quite a long time before I reached Chłodna, but then I reached sidewalk markers for the Ghetto wall.  I reached a marker of my own height, along with four end-posts to mark the positions of the footbridge suspensions.  I particularly liked a modern feature; each post had a “ViewMaster” stereoscope that would let one alternate through four different historical views of the bridge connecting the two Ghetto areas.  The museum related that these bridges were exploited by Nazi sympathizers to catcall and otherwise humiliate the captives of the Ghetto.


This bridge now honors those who were humiliated before.

I also wanted to visit a remnant of the original wall.  I trudged another kilometer in the rain.  The map gave the entrance as being at 62 Złota Street.  When I passed through the transom there, I was quite shocked when a fit young man stood in my way and began asking very pointed questions about my identity and motivations.  I asked to see his identity card, and he flashed a card from his wallet that implied some vague sort of official status.  He calmed down once I showed my passport and explained that I was headed to the train station next.  The Jewish community has learned to be vigilant in response to many vandals and terrorists who defile their heritage sites.


Imagine being walled off from the rest of the world by this.

The pictures I had seen of the Ghetto wall had understated its size.  It stretched upwards thru two complete stories.  A group of high school students stood inattentively as a guide explained the wall’s significance.  I saw a few bricks had been replaced after they had been removed to Jewish museums as far away as Houston.  Soon I had a moment to myself at the wall.  I reached out to touch the wall, remembering those who had been isolated by it.  On the way out, the security guard was far friendlier.

Berlin: wearing a hair shirt

How can a nation atone for the atrocities of its past?  Germany certainly has many charges to answer from the 20th century.  Where South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reconcile itself from the agonies inflicted by Apartheid, Germany has produced a concerted effort along several paths in changing its course from that of the Nazis.  When Germans use the term “genocide,” they speak with uncomfortable knowledge of this crime against humanity.  My final day of tourism in Berlin was an emotionally trying one as I visited several memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of oppression, both during and after World War II.  These “hair shirts” remind Berliners every day of past horrors committed by their nation.


How many cities have a memorial for the soldiers who defeated them?

My first stop was quite close to the Brandenburg Gate, though I had passed near it several times without noticing.  The Soviet Memorial in the Tiergarten is the final resting place of 2000 soldiers who died in 1945 during the battle for Berlin.  The site looks very little like Arlington National Cemetery, though; the soldiers were buried as a group rather than individually.  The soldier atop the pillar stretches out a hand to the fallen, his rifle slung in peace.  The pair of T-34 tanks flanking the memorial on plinths look down on the road that approaches the Brandenburg Gate.  The Tiergarten park was west of the Berlin Wall, and yet the Soviet Memorial retained its pride of place.  Not far away, a statue embodying grief was constructed, “The Crier.”

I marched south from the Brandenburg Gate, reaching the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  It is quite hard to miss, extending several acres.  The “Field of Stelae” comprises 2711 concrete slabs, ranging in height and forming a grid of aisles.  An information center can be reached by stairs, descending into the ground.  The names of three million Jews Holocaust victims can be found there.  I felt a barrenness infect me as I looked across the site.


The memorial is stark.

Close by, I found a rather different place.  The site of Adolf Hitler’s final days has been immortalized in a scene from the movie “Downfall,” then popularized in a hundred variants with new subtitles via social media.  In person, it is an incredibly ordinary spot.  In an example of German good taste, Berlin has changed this site into a parking lot.  A signboard supplies a map of the original structure and a newspaper article from a few years after the war from a journalist who visited the ruins.  By comparison, the nearby sculpture giving the profile of a man who attempted to assassinate Hitler gets far more of a spotlight than the place Hitler died.  As I walked to my next site, I enjoyed a bit of socialist-era artwork at the Ministry of Finance.


Family values, DDR style

My primary destination for this day was the Jewish Museum of Berlin.  I had read great things about the place.  I arrived during a special exhibition devoted to the Golem, a Talmudic legend of a statue brought to life by mystical words.  The legend was brought back to life by Gustav Meyrink in his 1914 novel.  The movie released in 1921 by Paul Wegener produced some of the iconic images associated with the myth, so much so that they were visited again in The Simpsons.  I was fascinated by what I saw, though my stomach turned when one of the first exhibits included a hat from the Donald J. Trump campaign.  The plaque beside it compares the way in which the Golem escapes the control of his handlers to the behavior of the Republican candidate: “Trump seems to gather power with every TV appearance and every crackpot speech.”


This building is merely the entrance hall; the main exhibits are in the modern structure behind and to the right.

The Jewish Museum of Berlin is profoundly unsettling.  Again, one must descend below ground to get to the main exhibit.  The lower level is constructed on three hallways intended to capture three axes: Exile, Holocaust, and Continuity.  The hallways, however, do not meet at right angles, neither are they level.  One can explore “voids” in the space.  The two most notable are the “Fallen Leaves” exhibit by Menashe Kadishman, in which one walks on a variety of faces sculpted in thick metal plates, and the “Holocaust Tower,” which is a parallelogram-shaped tower extending to the roof, with only a slit to the outside through which muted light enters.


The sound of each step was a clank and a grind.

To reach the permanent exhibition, visitors mount eighty-two stairs from the lower level.  By contrast, the upstairs is bright and beautiful, telling of the emergence of the Jewish community in Germany.  I learned quite a lot; I had not realized that every complete Jewish community includes a bath house, a cemetery, and a synagogue (see examples in Tarnow).  The exhibits focused on three communities that featured large numbers of Jewish inhabitants: Speyer, Mainz, and Worms.  I was particularly delighted that the name of Worms relates to a myth about a dragon!  I liked the video presentation the museum had assembled, but I was disappointed that the English subtitles covered only about 10% of the content.


An interactive exhibit asked museum patrons what they wished.

Jews were frequently the victims of malicious rumors, spread by their enemies.  When dead children were found in the woods during the Middle Ages, someone was sure to raise the claim that Jews had re-enacted the crucifixion using the child (sometimes claiming the blood was used for Passover).  A painting of Saint Werner of Oberwesel (whose sainthood was later revoked) remembered a sixteen-year-old boy who was believed to have perished in such a ritual.

The stories of prominent Jews in Germany frequently revolve around those who produced special services to the court.  I enjoyed reading of Isaac Daniel Itzig (1764-99), a surveyor and financier whose services to Frederick the Great paved the road from Berlin to Potsdam.  His effort to provide the French Republic with horses in 1797, however, led to his financial ruin when the government refused payment.  He died two years later.  This pattern of prominence and betrayal was a pretty common one among the “Court Jews.”  I was glad to see that the museum also remembered the Jewish peddlers who were so crucial to people who lived away from town (as celebrated by a plaque I saw in Graaff Reinet).


That wood frame adds some weight!

Since the last places I visited in the Jewish Museum were the tilted Exile Garden and the Holocaust Tower, I felt quite emptied out.  I went on a long walk toward the center of town.  My attention had been drawn earlier by a monumental building near Museum Island:


The Neue Wache has an austere look to it.

The plaque at the building had these moving words:

The Neue Wache is the place where we commemorate the victims of war and tyranny.
We honour the memory of the peoples who suffered through the war.  We remember the citizens who were persecuted and who lost their lives.  We remember those killed in action in the world wars. We remember the innocent who lost their lives as a result of war  in their homeland, in captivity, and through expulsion.
We remember the millions of Jews who were murdered.  We remember the Sinti and Roma who were murdered.  We remember all who were killed because of their origin, homosexuality, sickness, or infirmity.  We remember all who were murdered, whose right to life was denied.
We remember the people who had to die because of their religious or political convictions.  We remember all those who were the victims of tyranny and met their death, though innocent.  We remember the women and men who sacrificed their lives in resistance to despotic rule. We honour all who preferred to die rather than act against their conscience.
We honour the memory of the women and men who were persecuted and murdered because they resisted totalitarian dictatorship after 1945.

The statue inside, of a woman holding an emaciated corpse, took away what emotional reserves I retained after such a day.


It is peace, but it is anguish, too.

On my walk back to the hotel, I took a moment to reflect at the pool that stands in Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism.  The sky wept a few tears to match my mood.  Berlin is a city that lives each day with the memories of its traumatic past.  May we all learn from its painful history.


A peaceful pool lent its tranquillity to my day’s end.