Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe: A Travel Guide & Resource Book to Prague, Warsaw, Crakow & Budapest

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The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe: A Travel Guide and Resource Book to Prague, Warsaw, Cracow, and Budapest is the most comprehensive guidebook covering all aspects of Jewish history and contemporary life in Prague, Warsaw, Cracow, and Budapest. This remarkable book includes detailed histories of the Jews in these cities, walking tours of Jewish districts past and present, intensive descriptions of Jewish sites, fascinating accounts of local Jewish legend and lore, and practical information for Jewish travelers to the region. The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe is much more than a tour guide. It is a rich storybook filled with illuminating gleanings from all aspects of Jewish culture in the region: inspiring legends from the streets of Jewish Cracow; a secret glimpse at the former facade of a Prague synagogue; strolls atop a buried Medieval synagogue in Budapest; a virtual reality tour of Warsaw's former Jewish quarter. The author combines experience in several disciplines to elucidate all aspects of Jewish history in these cities, from architectural history to religious symbolism. The entire history of Jewish life, including local traditions and contemporary anecdotes is covered. In addition, The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe is also a practical sourcebook essential for the Jewish traveler, containing information ranging from kosher restaurants to the prayer times and service descriptions of active synagogues in the region. Whether it's an ancient legend or a description of a kosher restaurant, Eli Valley describes the topic in a style that is both enthusiastic and easy to read. The author's years of experience in the region give him an insight into the local Jewish communities rarely seen by the outside world. In spite of the renewed accessibility of Jewish sites, local tour guides are not well-versed in the history of Jewish compatriots, and guide books include only sparse, misleading information about the Jewish sites. The unfortu

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Valley, an experienced tour guide, takes readers through the sites, history, and cultures of cities important to European Jewish history. Close to 100 pages for each locale, in-depth itineraries focus on history and present-day culture, adding some lodging and dining recommendations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765760005
  • Publisher: Aronson, Jason Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/1/1999
  • Pages: 538
  • Product dimensions: 6.59 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.39 (d)

Meet the Author

Eli Valley, the son of a New York City rabbi, moved to Prague after graduating from Cornell University in 1992. There he became the first American Jew to be fully integrated into the local Jewish community since the fall of communism. Over the course of the next five years, Eli Valley worked in sundry capacities for the Prague Jewish Community and served as the first program director of Bejt Praha, the nascent Jewish cultural and religious organization in Prague. His activities included organizing Jewish cultural events, planning religious services, lecturing on Jewish history, preparing children's carnivals, and participating in productions of the Jewish Community Theater. Mr. Valley worked with the younger generation of Czech Jews in events ranging from Passover seders to youth seminars in eastern Slovakia. He has written extensively on these experiences and has been published in newspapers and magazines in Central Europe and the United States. Throughout his years in Prague, Mr. Valley also worked as a guide and lecturer in the former Jewish Town for thousands of visitors from Europe, North America, and Israel. It was this experience that inspired Mr. Valley to write a comprehensive visitor's guide to the Jewish communities in the region.

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Read an Excerpt

Today's visitor to Prague encounters one of the richest Jewish museum collections on the entire continent. No less than three synagogues and a ceremonial hall have been converted into sprawling showcases of objects depicting Jewish history and tradition. Because of the enormity of the exhibition, one is tempted to credit the museum's origins to Jewish prosperity in Bohemia or to the charity of a great philanthropist. In fact, almost all the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague were assembled from 1942 - 43 by the infamous "Museum of an Extinct Race," administered by the Nazis. This is why Prague's former Jewish Town escaped destruction during the war. It was to be both playground and exhibition center of a post-war museum. Thus while the Nazis destroyed the physical landmarks of Judaism throughout Europe, they actively guarded the synagogues and cemetery in the Josefov district of Prague. Due to their methodology, the sites, if not the people, were to be protected and saved in Jewish Prague.

The "Museum of an Extinct Race," as it was later called, has been blanketed in mystery since its origin. There has been no definitive history written on the topic. However, the major outlines of this most bizarre period in Prague Jewish history are known. When large scale transports to death camps began in 1942, a wealth of Jewish property was left behind. It occurred to several Jewish scholars to save all specifically Jewish objects from theft or destruction through the creation of a special Museum in Prague. The new museum would continue the work of the original Jewish Museum founded in Prague in 1906. Of course, operating as it was in the eye of the Holocaust, the museum's priorities were unique: it would focus on collecting and cataloging the sediments of Jewish life. It thus became the mandate of the wartime museum to preserve as much as possible of Jewish civilization even as that civilization was being destroyed.

It was when the scholars presented their idea to the Nazis that the Jewish Museum became a perverse partner to genocide. The Nazis accepted the proposal, on the condition that they would dictate the orientation of the Museum. They had no intention of creating a memorial to Jewish life, but rather an exhibition to justify genocide: After the war, the collections of Judaica culled from Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and elsewhere would form the core of a Museum that would illustrate the supposed barbarism of the Jewish people. Here the visitors would silently rejoice over the progress of civilization. The Czech Jewish writer Jiri Weil, who worked for a short time in the wartime museum, later described it as follows: "The museum was supposed to be a victory memorial, for the objects displayed here belonged to a race scheduled for annihilation. Nothing would remain of that race but these dead things." (Jiri Weil, Mendelssohn Is On The Roof) The exhibits would be situated in the former synagogues in Prague, thus maximizing the contextual experience intended for the visitors.

As envisioned by the Nazis, the Museum would work like this: Aryan tourists, on vacation in Prague, would be able to step into the world of a long-exterminated people. From the ancient Jewish cemetery to the sundry synagogues in Prague, the visitors would wander through a caricatured microcosm of that which had been destroyed. The streets of Josefov would be converted, once again, into a teeming "Jewish Town" that would feature tourist entertainment mixed with historical artifact. In this way it would resemble the colonial village at Williamsburg, Virginia, or an Epcott Center of Jews, or - more precisely, since the Jews would be extinct - the Jurassic Park of Judaism. According to one account, the Nazis even planned to hire Czechs to dress up as Hasidic Jews and to walk the streets of Jewish Town a la Mickey Mouse, making the experience all the more tangible for European tourists whose only glimpse of Jews would be in picture books.

As the war progressed and more and more Jewish homes and synagogues were emptied of their inhabitants, the collections of the Central Museum flourished. Even after most of the curators were murdered toward the end of the war, thousands of ritual objects continued to flow into the Central Jewish Museum. By the end of the war the Museum had expanded from one Jewish community building to eight. It housed more than 30,000 objects and over 100,000 books from all over Europe, but particularly from the 153 decimated Czech-Jewish communities. More than 50 warehouses were filled with the inanimate objects of Judaism.

In 1950, the Jewish Museum was nationalized; it was only restituted to the Jews in 1994. Nonetheless, the Museum continues to be haunted by its past legacy. Today, the Jewish Museum possesses six priceless Torah curtains for every registered Jew in Prague. As you walk through today's synagogue-museums in Prague, it is important to keep in mind the tainted origin of the otherwise luxurious items. The dual-perspective of this museum - on the one hand, the objects are treasures; on the other hand, they are stained with blood - creates a murky trial for today's visitor to Jewish Prague. Where relevant, I have given a brief account of each synagogue's wartime exhibition.

In the years following the demise of Communism, Prague's Jewish Quarter has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. One wonders why these tourists seem starved for a glimpse of Jewish civilization. Perhaps the visitors come from cities whose Jewish quarters have long since been destroyed; perhaps they are moved by guilt pangs for the crimes of an earlier generation. Regardless of the reason, it has become a bizarre irony of history that the "Museum of an Extinct Race" is flourishing today.

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