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Chapter X

The Rabbi in Prague


On the left is Elfan Rees, UNRRA representative in Prague,
Rachel Sternbuch Vaad Hatzala representative in Europe, and Rabbi Herzog


Traveling under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog and his son, Yaacov, left Paris aboard an UNRRA plane and headed to Prague. At the time, transportation in Europe was still limited to military personnel, except for groups like UNRRA that had permission and means to shuttle people around Europe. On July 25, 1946, Rabbi Herzog arrived in the Czech capital where he met Elfan Rees, a former British health official in Palestine sympathetic to the Jews, and now the UNRRA representative in Czechoslovakia. Also present was Rachel Sternbuch, representing the European Vaad Hatzala, and some Czech officials dealing with repatriation and leaders of the Jewish community. The rabbi and his party were taken to their hotel to rest a bit. Meanwhile, reports came from Poland that the expected number of orphans and yeshiva students for the transport had rapidly declined. As mentioned above, the rabbi expected about 1,250 orphans and yeshiva students. The number dropped to 1,000 and would continue to drop because the orphanages or yeshivas feared that they may be left behind and decided to take the first opportunity out of Poland, namely with the Brichah. Apparently, some orphanages had also exaggerated the number of residents in order to get larger allocations of food and money while others had sent groups of children with the Brichah without waiting for the special train. Below is pictured a group of Polish Jewish orphans at the Czech camp of Nachod.


Polish Jewish children transport arrives at Nachod camp


Rabbi Herzog also thought of a solution to his lodging problem. He would ask the Czech government and the Czech UNRRA office to provide temporary lodging for the transport of children until facilities were completed in France and Belgium for their absorption. He knew that it would be a very difficult struggle because the Czech government had limited transit papers to only a few days. Now Herzog was contemplating an extensive stay and a large transport. Herzog was determined to sell his plan of the transport to the UNRRA and Czech officials.

The rabbi then met UNRRA and Czech government officials who asked about the numbers of children that the transport would carry and where the transport would be heading. The rabbi informed them that about 1,000 children and yeshiva students would be on the train, a lower figure than previously discussed. The train had to be large and capable of traveling long distances. The Czech officials asked the rabbi for the transport's itinerary. He replied that the train would leave Poland, head to Prague, where the children would be removed from the train, and placed in a camp for about six weeks until the French and Belgian lodging arrangements were completed. The Czech officials grew livid. They knew of no such agreements. The children could remain in Czechoslovakia for a few days, they said, but certainly not for six weeks. UNRRA's representatives were equally unenthusiastic about the children's long stay in Prague. Heated discussions followed, the meeting broke for consultations with various people, reconvened and continued. Rabbi Herzog rose to the occasion with reasoned and logical arguments, sometimes passionate, sometimes pleading mercy with an enviable oratorical flair. Each objection the Czechs raised, the rabbi met with a convincing solution. The Czechs reluctantly accepted the rabbi's position. The children would be allowed to stay in Czechoslovakia for the necessary six weeks, but not in Prague. The Czechs were firmly against trains carrying Jewish refugees, adults or children, coming anywhere near Prague. The Czechs were nervous about publicity. They were concerned with the possibility of a native backlash that might arise should the Czech public, especially the ultra–nationalists, learn that scarce resources were being used to house Jewish refugees. The Czechs also tried to avoid British, American and Soviet attention to the fact that they were helping Jews flee Poland.

The rabbi stole some precious moments to visit Prague with its Jewish monuments and synagogues. The city once had a large Jewish population of 92,000; two–thirds of the Jewish population perished in the Shoah. Many of the synagogues were destroyed. Prague was now a shadow of its former status, with a small Jewish community. The city maintained many Jewish historical places and synagogues. Prague has a rich museum dedicated to Jewish artifacts that the Nazis robbed from all over Europe to bring them to Prague where they were catalogued and stored.


Hebrew–faced Clock (Prague)


The oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe (Prague)


Altneuschul or Old–New Synagogue (Prague)


Prague has many beautiful historic synagogues, and there are three regularly functioning Orthodox synagogues in Prague: the Altneuschul (Old–New Synagogue), the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. The Old New Synagogue or Altneuschul Prague, Completed in 1270 in gothic style, it is one of Prague's first gothic buildings. A still older Prague synagogue, known as the Old Synagogue, was demolished in 1867 and replaced by the Spanish Synagogue. The Old–New Synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue and later, when newer synagogues were built in the 16th century, it became known as the Old–New Synagogue. Another explanation derives the name from the Hebrew עַל תְּנַאי (al tnay), which means “on condition” and sounds identical to the Yiddish “alt–nay,” or old–new. According to legend, angels brought stones from the Temple in Jerusalem to build the synagogue in Prague and would be returned to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes.


The Interior of the Old–New Synagogue


The synagogue follows orthodox custom, with separate seating for men and women during prayer services. Women sit in an outer room with small windows looking into the main sanctuary. The framework of the roof, the gable and the party wall date from the Middle Ages.

Legend has it that Rabbi Jehuda Löwa ben Betzalel created a monster called the “Golem” in the 16th century in Prague. The purpose of the Golem was to protect the Jews. Suddenly the Golem went wild and the rabbi terminated his existence. The Golem lies in the attic of the Old–New Synagogue where the ‘genizah' or storage place for old and torn books and papers of the Prague community were kept.[ Supposedly during World War Two, a Nazi agent approached the genizah and died. The Gestapo did not enter the attic during the war, and the building was spared during the Nazis' destruction of synagogues.[7] The lowest three steps of the stairway leading to the attic from the outside have been removed and the attic is not open to the general public.

Meanwhile, the Czechs refused to grant the transport permission to stay in Prague. Very few Polish Jewish transports reached the city. The city had a huge international refugee camp called Repatrianci Tabor Dablice but the Czechs only sparingly allowed Jews to enter the camp. In his discussions with Czech officials, Rabbi Herzog persisted in his demands and used every argument that favored his case. He even used local, well–connected Czech Jews to push for his proposals.

Perhaps the stress of the negotiations or the fear of failing the children drained Rabbi Herzog's last reserves of strength. And he collapsed. Physicians were called in to examine him. The Czech doctors who rushed to his side demanded that he stop all activities and urged him to go immediately to the hot springs of Karlovy Vary or Carlsbad for a much–needed rest. The rabbi complied reluctantly and went off to Carlsbad or Karlovy Vary.

Karlovy Vary is a world–famous spa center where there are many hot water springs and the necessary facilities to cater to people. The rabbi needed an extensive rest and found it at the Karlovy Vary spa.

The Karlovy Vary community had a sizable Jewish community and a long Jewish history.

In 1823, it was the site of probably the last gathering of Jakub Frank's followers. In 1869 about 100 families lived within Karlovy Vary. In the following years, a rabbi was hired, a Jewish school was opened, and a Jewish hospital was opened. In 1925, the community contained/consisted of 2,900 Jewish persons. Carlsbad became popular among Jews as a resort and a rendezvous of matchmakers and as a meeting place for rabbis and communal leaders from Eastern Europe. The 12th and 13th Zionist Congresses were held there in 1921 and 1923.

In 1938, Karlovy Vary and its surrounding areas were annexed to Nazi Germany. The Great Synagogue, dating from 1877, was torched in 1938 and torn down in 1939. Nearly all of the town's Jewish residents fled into the Czech interior, while the rest were interned. After World War II, the decimated Jewish community was reestablished, mainly by new settlers from Eastern Europe. A postwar prayer hall was damaged in 1946 through an act of arson. The rabbi attended services at the prayer hall and encouraged the participants to have faith.

Rabbi Herzog had too many things on his mind, namely the children transport to stay at the spa. After only a week, he returned to Prague. The Czechs gave permission for the transport to stay in Prague. Before leaving for Poland, Rabbi Herzog was successful in setting up a British organization to raise money for his quest to bring the Jewish orphans out of Europe. The organization was called The Chief Rabbi's Religious Emergency Council, named after the recently deceased Chief Rabbi of Britain, J.H. Hertz. Rabbi Herzog was worried about his son Yaakov's trip to Poland, so he arranged an official letter from Britain's Chief Rabbi's office stating that Yaakov Herzog was a rabbi.


Letter stating that Yacov Herzog was a rabbi


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