In 2018, both Czechs and Slovaks will celebrate 100 years of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. But will they celebrate their anniversary together?
That’s the question many Czechs are asking, as a petition circulates to hold a referendum on reuniting the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, which split in the so-called “velvet divorce” of 1992.
Regardless of the outcome, visitors to this Central European country will find a wealth of festivities in 2018. Centennial events will highlight the interwar period, from the giddiness of liberation to the darkness that settled over Europe beginning in 1939.
With the clarity of history, those years were a bright spot of optimism, industry and aesthetic flowering before the ensuing Nazi and Communist eras.
Nowhere is that spirit more evident than at the exhibition “Made in Czechoslovakia 1918 to 1992 — Industry which Conquered the World” at Prague’s National Technical Museum. Celebrating the heyday of Bohemian innovation — from Škoda automobiles to children’s constructor sets — the show was co-curated with Slovak, Hungarian and Polish partners.
Czechoslovakian identity is not the only historical recuperation taking place in Czechia (pron. CHECK-ee-uh), which officially changed its English moniker from the clunkier Czech Republic a few years ago. (The name change has yet to fully catch on.)
More successfully, an effort to restore and unite the region’s Jewish historical sites has resulted in a cross-country Jewish heritage route. Known as the “10 Stars Project,” it is one of numerous cultural initiatives that invite travelers to venture beyond Prague and survey the breadth of this relatively small country.
Both the National Museum and The Jewish Museum in Prague, for example, are not single buildings, but collections of historically significant sites that form a cohesive itinerary.
The Jewish Museum — one of the country’s most popular destinations— comprises several synagogues, exhibitions devoted to the Holocaust, and the distinctively vertical Old Jewish Cemetery. Travelers should plan to reserve tickets online and spend a day navigating these treasures of Prague’s historic Jewish quarter.
On Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the flagship structure of Czechia’s National Museum is undergoing renovatioin and will re-open in October 2018 with an exhibition commemorating the independence period (the show will later be exhibited in Slovakia).
Meanwhile, delve into Bohemian culture at the National Museum’s many smaller venues, in and outside the capital. In a region known for its folklore, current exhibitions are devoted to Czech wedding and fairy-tale traditions; music fans should explore the Czech legacy at house-museums devoted to Dvorak, Smetana and other composers.
Bohemia’s melancholic, magical harmonies are always ubiquitous in Prague, where classical concerts are as popular as soccer games. For the centennial year, the Czech Philharmonic is planning a series of summer concerts; a staging of Janacek’s opera “The Little Vixen” in both Prague and New York; and an exhibition of Smetana’s “Má Vlast (Homeland),” the romantic-nationalist orchestral piece whose melody is widely thought to have inspired the Israeli anthem, “Hatikva.”
In the small city of Olomouc, just north of Brno (and a short ride east of Prague), a lavish, Moorish-style synagogue was the heart of a thriving Jewish community around the turn of the last century, until both temple and people were destroyed in the war.
That history is remembered in a major exhibition, “The Olomouc Synagogue,” at the Olomouc Museum of Modern Art, which also plans a 2018 program showcasing of the aesthetic movements in Central Europe a century ago.
As compelling as Prague is, traveling outside the capital is essential to get a feel for the country’s fairytale landscape. Central Europe is an agreeable balance of rolling, forested countryside, folkloric villages and delightful small cities; towns of any size tend to feature red roofs, Baroque spires and compact, historic centers.
No place is more than a few hours from anyplace else, which makes possible an itinerary like the 10 Stars Project (you can, theoretically, drive the whole route in about 12 hours). Inaugurated several years ago, this route unites the significant Jewish historical infrastructure — restored synagogues, schools, and other community buildings — in 10 towns and cities around the country.
Each site hosts a permanent exhibition that spotlights some aspect of Czech Jewry, and most also host concerts of Israeli and Sephardic Jewish music; lectures on Jewish history; photography and art shows; and other cultural events that remind (the almost exclusively non-Jewish) visitors of Czechia’s sorrowful, proud Jewish past.
The value of taking in so many different Jewish places in one trip cannot be overestimated. When you walk into a synagogue, you might appreciate the architecture, note what’s distinctive, consider the people and history behind the building. But the experience, while meaningful, is static.
When you tour a half-dozen or more synagogues, however, a narrative emerges. The numbing repetition of tragedy — the expulsions of Jews, the forced ghettos, the restrictions on Jewish liberties, and the many, many fires that compelled Jews to start over — is far more powerful, collectively, than any single landmark.
It also gives visitors a sense of Czech Jewry’s historical diversity. In Brandýs, a mostly poor enclave of leather tanners, factor workers and small-scale traders coalesced in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Contrast that with Jičín, where the filigree-walled synagogue and Jewish school are relicts of a prominent community that included financiers and scribes, singers and physicians, tailors and butchers. The Jičín restoration included the surrounding houses; a permanent exhibition illuminates the vitality of 19th- and 20th-century Czech-Jewish literature (Kafka being only the most famous writer featured).
The 10 Stars route is also a journey through the varied landscape of Czechia, where old, poorly kept rural highways lead to the grand urban boulevards and elegant plazas of erstwhile Austro-Hungary.
The historical region of Moravia was a particular prize for successive empires, as evidenced by the museum at the restored synagogue of Boskovice. The city was among Moravia’s most important Jewish settlements; in the 1850s, a full third of its residents were Jews.
Today, Boskovice’s rebuilt Jewish quarter features a model of a matzah bakery on the site of a historic bakery, as well as a restored synagogue ceiling originally painted with Hebrew texts by 17th-century Polish refugees.
In bitterly cold Central Europe, where wooden construction and winter heating are a perilous mix, nearly every synagogue on the route burned down at least once. Most were rebuilt numerous times before their recent restorations; many are the best-preserved structures in forlorn, faded towns.
One striking restoration is the vertical pink-and-gold façade of the Nová Cerekev shul, a one-building skyline amid modest, low-slung houses. In the village of Mikulov, a 1550 Jewish temple was rebuilt in Baroque style 200 years later, and today houses a museum, concert hall and educational center.
You may notice how many of these Jewish buildings housed not only places of worship but also schools of one kind or another — a testament to the literal centrality of education in even remote Jewish communities. (In Úštěk, the Moorish-style synagogue has a gallery dedicated to the history and variety of Czech Jewish schools).
The vast majority of these towns no longer have any Jews at all. Pilsen, one of the larger towns on the 10 Stars route, is one of the few with living Jewish residents, though only one out of 10 survived the Holocaust. A memorial garden, with stones bearing the names of local victims, was planted amid the ruins of Pilsen’s auxiliary synagogue, while the Romanesque shul has been restored for what remains of the community.
Like the country itself, and the region for that matter, Czech Jewry is a poignant mosaic of eras bright and dark. As Czechs raise a toast to the next hundred years, that history is on everyone’s mind — and in 2018, on travelers’ itineraries as well.