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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twelve: Prague and Terezin

Michael Palin - New EuropeOne of the things most Eastern and Central European countries have in common is the disappearance of their Jewish communities as a result of persecution. Prague had a particularly strong Jewish community numbering hundreds of thousands. Now there are perhaps 7,000 in a city of over a million.

Many, like the family of Norbert Auerbach, whom I talked to yesterday, emigrated before the Second World War. Of those who stayed, very few survived the Nazi genocide. Even fewer still are inclined to talk about it. One woman who did, and does, has agreed to meet me today.

Lisa Mikova was in her teens when the German invasion of Czechoslovakia began a sequence of events that led her eventually to Auschwitz. Her experiences are quite beyond most people's comprehension, yet here she is to greet me, a short, composed eighty-six-year-old, very much at ease with herself. Her white hair is perfectly cut and she's dressed with quiet good taste in a stone-coloured coat and silk scarf over a blue cardigan and a crisp white cotton blouse. Her eyes, big and moist, are her most expressive feature. It's as if everything she's been through can be read in them.

Lisa and I walk through the old Jewish cemetery. The gravestones, in weathered sandstone, stand at odd angles, tipping this way and that, crowding every inch of the gently sloping mounds as if about to burst out of the earth. Some are broken and their inscriptions indistinct but they're being restored at the rate of a hundred a year.

Lisa came from an affluent Prague family who thought of themselves as Czechs first and Jews afterwards. They spoke Czech and German fluently. Despite rumours of what was happening elsewhere in Europe, they felt safe in their reasonably well-off, well-educated democracy where Jews were happily assimilated. As soon as the Nazis arrived and started to apply the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws everything changed, and changed very fast indeed. Her father's business was confiscated, and he and Lisa's mother lost their jobs.

'We had to leave our schools. We couldn't enter a swimming pool or a cinema or a theatre. Doctors were not allowed to work in the hospital and lawyers could not appear in court. We always thought it can't be worse, and it came always worse, and worse and worse.' She tells me this carefully, with no trace of bitterness or self-pity, but when we go into the Pinkas synagogue which borders the cemetery she finds it harder to keep her emotions in check.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twelve: Prague and Terezin
  • Country/sea: Czech Republic
  • Place: Prague
  • Book page no: 260

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