The former seat of the Czechoslovak parliament (1918-1938) is now the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
If this doesn’t look much like a medieval ghetto, that’s because most of the Josefov (“Jewish Quarter”) was bowled in the late 19th – early 20th century to make way for new, Parisian-style architecture. A smattering of synagogues, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the old town hall are all that remain to remind us of its history.
And its famous monster.
Josefov is the birthplace of the Prague Golem, an amorphous lump of power and rage. According to legend, the late 16th century saw a spike in the persecution of Prague’s Jews. The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, had demanded inhabitants of the ghetto be driven out or slaughtered.
To protect his people, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, better known as the Maharal, stole down to the Vltava in the dead of night and molded a creature from river clay. Deprived of Dr. Frankenstein’s electrical methods, he brought it to life with a series of incantations and mystic rituals.
In the final step, a shem – a combination of letters forming any one of the words of God – was written on a piece of paper and placed in the Golem’s mouth. The Maharal named his new baby, “Josef.”
For a while, Josef behaved himself. He summoned spirits from the dead, made himself invisible, did his job. At the end of the week, before Saturday’s Sabbath, the Rabbi removed the shem. Every Sunday, he resurrected the ghetto’s protector.
Then, disaster. One Friday night, the Maharal forgot to remove the shem. Loosed from his bonds, Josef went on a murderous spree, wreaking havoc through the old city. (In other versions of the story, he simply hares around the streets.) Only a last ditch effort from the Rabbi, who pulled the shem out in front of the synagogue, spared the citizens.
Nazi-occupied Prague, an aspiring SS officer, a simple job – what could go wrong? In Jiri Weil’s black comedy, Mendelssohn Is on the Roof, the answer is, a lot.
Julius Schlesinger’s orders are simple. His Nazi superiors wish him to remove the statue of the only Jewish composer on the roof of the Rudolfinum, the famed Felix Mendelssohn. No problem. He orders two Czech laborers to get on with the job.
But then, a snag. None of the statues are labeled, the laborers complain. So which is which?
Aha! Schlesinger has remembered his studies on racial science. The one with the biggest nose will be the Jew.
So off the laborers go to locate the statue with the biggest nose. They find him with ease – a hulking man with a beret – wrap a rope around his neck and heave.
Schelsinger appears just in time to see Richard Wagner, Germany’s rabidly antisemitic hero, toppling to the ground.
The real tragedy is that this story is based on a real-life event. All in all, the Holocaust claimed more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews; by the end of the War, only 15,000 remained in the country.
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