18 June 2021
Mendelssohn and the Golem
defied Nazi plans In Prague
I have taken a week off for a much-needed break, and I have been staying in Dingle in Co Kerry, and Skibereen and Glengarriff in Co Cork, visiting the Great Blasket Island and some of the other offshore islands in this corner of south-west Ireland.
I have also taken some reading with me, including Fergus Butler-Gallie’s new book, Priests de la Résistance! (London: Oneworld, 2021), a humorous but pungent account of ‘the loose canons who fought fascism in the 20th century.’
There are 15 portraits of a variety of figures, for, as he writes, ‘Wherever fascism has taken root, it has met with resistance.’
The 15 people he portrays range from Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who took bullet for a frightened schoolgirl, to Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, who saved Greek Jews with fake IDs. There are 15 people in this book, but not all are priests, nor are they canons or ‘hard-drinking, chain-smoking clerics’ as claimed on the cover, but all were willing to risk their lives for what they believed.
They include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Prince Philip’s mother, Mother Superior Alice Elizabeth, Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, and Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the ‘Sacrlet Pimpernel of theVatican’ who died in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry.
The combination of humour and pungent alacrity is introduced at the very beginning in this book as Butler-Gallie recounts the Nazi occupation of Prague, and the Czech undoing of the Gestapo director Reinhard Heydrich, who arrived in 1941 as ‘Protector’ of Bohemia and Moravia, a story that is an appropriate reflection on a Friday evening:
‘A key part of Heydrich’s programme was to demonstrate the superiority of the Reich’s Teutonic culture over all others – but especially over the ‘degenerate’ Slavic and Jewish cultures, both of which were in abundant evidence in the city of Prague.
‘As befits the birthplace of Don Giovanni, Prague is home to myriad opera houses, musical theatres and concert halls. Perhaps the grandest of these is the Rudolfinum, … its roof ringed by statues of the great composers …
‘Heydrich, so the story goes, became aware that among these inanimate virtuosi there was a stone Mendelssohn, a composer despised by the Fuhrer on account of his Jewish birth. Consequently, the Reichsprotektor ordered the removal and destruction of the offending sculptor. A group of soldiers were dispatched to the concert hall accordingly, only to be met with tight-lipped silence as to which statue was, in fact, Mendelssohn from the building’s curators …
‘Frustrated, the soldiers … sourced a tape measure with which they proceeded to measure the noses of each of the statues. Having established which symphonist had the most sizeable conk, they began to have it removed, only for an onlooker to shout up that the figure they were in fact removing was Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer.’
The real tragedy is that this story is based on a real-life event. In all, more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and only 15,000 had survived by the end of World War II.
Jews first arrived in the Czechlands before the ninth century, and Prague eventually became the home of one of the largest Jewish community. The former Jewish Quarter is a Unesco World Heritage site, and the Old New Synagogue is the oldest working shul.
Prague is the city of the Golem, and the city where Hitler planned to turn into a ‘Museum of Extinct Race.’ Historians now see inter-war Prague and Czechoslovakia as keys to unlocking many aspects of modern Jewish identity. But this is also a community that almost ceased to exist due to the Holocaust and Communism.
On Sunday evening (20 June 2021), David Kraus is giving an online presentation, ‘In Golem's Shadow: The Jews of Prague between Reality and Fiction.’
David Kraus was born in Prague into a Jewish family that was settled in Prague before the 14th Century. He was a leading youth activist in Czech Jewry in the late 1990s and the 2000s, and chair of the Czech Union of Jewish Students. He has been a lay leader of the Czech Jewish Community for over a decade, co-ordinating a number of projects in the Czech Republic.