PRAGUE — Joined by senior White House aides and members of the tribe Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, first lady Michelle Obama toured Jewish areas of the Czech Republic today: the Pinkas Synagogue, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Old New Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter. They were joined by Secret Service agents wearing disposable felt yarmulkes.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, more than 250,000 Czechoslovakian Jews perished in the Holocaust, with more than 60 synagogues destroyed. The reason the Jewish area of Prague remains is because Adolph Hitler decided to preserve both the Jewish Museum and the entire Jewish Quarter as the "Museum of an Extinct Race."
The Virtual Library says 356,830 Jews lived in the country before the Holocaust. In 2006, the Czech Republic was home to an estimated 6,000 Jews.
Michaela Sideberg, the visual arts curator of the Jewish Museum, led the first lady on much of the tour, which was described as being rather somber. On the walls of Pinkas Synagogue are inscribed more than 77,000 names of Holocaust victims from the area.
The first lady also entered a room displaying art by Jewish children created between 1942 and 1944 in Terazin, a transit station for Jews who were being sent to concentration camps. Approximately 12,000 gravestones are in the Old Jewish Cemetery, though some estimates have 100,000 people buried in the space. First lady Obama made several stops along the way, including at the oldest gravestone of Avigdor Kara (1439), who lost his entire family in the Prague Pogrom of 1389.
The most famous grave in the cemetery is that of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, an important Talmudic scholar and Jewish mystic who created the mythical tale of the Golem, whom you may know from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The tradition is for visitors to leave on Lowe’s grave a small piece of paper on which is written a secret wish, and Sideberg says Michelle Obama followed tradition.
"She had it prepared," said Sideberg. "And I think it’s a secret."
Afterwards, at the Old-New Synagogue, Michelle Obama greeted several dignitaries — František Bányai, president of the Jewish Community Prague, and Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon — and was given a glass Kiddush cup.
"It’s beautiful," she said. "It’s wonderful, thank you."
Later, Sideberg said of the first lady’s visit, "Every single moment was a moment to cherish. She was very interested in every aspect of Jewish faith and Jewish tradition."