Josef Himmelreich

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My recent trip to Europe resulted in many a museum visit (there’s just so many of them worth visiting), and there’s a reason that this one will keep a strong place in my mind. On October 19, I visited the Jewish Museum in Prague – a sobering collection of six venues clustered around the beautiful Jewish Quarter in the Old Town.

Two names are etched in my memory after this visit. Josef Himmelreich and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A visit to Europe for me usually means at least one trip to a WWII memorial. I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn to the history of this unthinkable tragedy – one which I simply struggle to understand how it ever happened in the first place. (Having said this, it seems similar atrocities still occur today, albeit not at the scale of devastation seen in WWII, but you could debate this when you look at the current plight of Syria and its seemingly never-ending crisis). I think I want to understand what led to this war and how (or if) it can ever be avoided again. History has a habit of repeating, but this simply can’t repeat. It also strikes me that this isn’t some distant atrocity that can be put down to the Dark Ages – this occurred a mere 75 years ago. There are survivors who can tell harrowing stories to the rest of us, but I’d understand if they’d prefer to not revisit those stories. The impact of these times feels palatable when I visit a memorial such as the one I did this day in Prague.

The Jews began settling in the Prague area during the tenth century. There are numerous occurrences of mistreatment throughout their history in Prague (as in other parts of the World too), but it all pales into insignificance the moment you step into the Pinkas Synagogue.

There are three large rooms. 12 walls. Some of these walls are at least three metres high. On each wall, there are names inscribed in small text painted in black, surnames in red, with a gold star painted between each name. There are 77,297 names here. This is the number of Jews murdered during WWII from the Prague area. Entire families, young and old. Beside each name is their date of birth, followed by their date of death where known. The number of people in their twenties, thirties and forties really stands out. Initially sent to the Terezin ghettos, then sent onto those hell-on-earth camps.

As I solemnly make my way to each wall to read the names, the number of children start to get my emotions going. I was also feeling very sick in the stomach. Then, an uncontrollable grief takes over as I stand in front of one wall that has the name Josef Himmelreich on it. Born 8.IV.1942. Died 18.IV.1942. Josef lived ten days. Ten days. I find that incredibly difficult to comprehend. You might think that at least Josef didn’t really know what was going on and that he possibly didn’t suffer much, but Josef had as much right to live a fulfilling life as the rest of us do. I had to take a long pause here to collect my thoughts and ponder how the human race can be so unbelievably cruel to itself. I then remembered all the current examples where we continue to be cruel to each other and moved on to the next wall. I decided that it would be disrespectful to take photos inside this memorial, and I wish other visitors were doing the same. In fact, I think this Synagogue should enforce a rule to ban photography in there – it just doesn’t feel right. Thankfully though, there wasn’t a selfie stick in sight.

I then made my way upstairs to an exhibit of children’s paintings, all made possible by one amazing woman – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. An artist and a school teacher, Friedl helped the children of the Terezin ghettos find an outlet of positivity and hope, in utterly unimaginable circumstances. Friedl gathered whatever materials she could find, any scraps of paper, paints, whatever could be used to allow the children to draw what they looked forward to. What they dreamed of. I find it incredible that children in this circumstance could ever think of something positive. Looking at their drawings was equally uplifting as it was totally devastating. Most of these children did not survive their experience in the camps, but thanks to Friedl who went to great lengths to conceal their work from those who would destroy it, we are able to visit this Synagogue and get an insight to their thoughts amidst the terror they must have seen on a daily basis.

It’s said that Prague remained relatively untouched by the horrors of WWII due to Hitler’s affection for it, but this obviously doesn’t apply to its citizens. The Jewish Quarter was to become a museum of a past people. I’m thankful that instead, it is a beautiful memorial that will forever tell the story of a people’s spirit that remained strong to the end, in utterly tragic times.

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