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Jewish Studies Program - Field Trips and Excursions

The study program is enhanced by field trips to several of Central Europe’s most beautiful cities, including Krakow and Warsaw.  During their time outside of Prague, there is no formal classroom.  Instead, local scholars at cooperating institutions and during tours of museums, galleries,churches, and other historical landmarks give lectures.

Two-week Trip to Krakow

Once considered the Mother of Israel, the city of Krakow offers invaluable insights into how Jews lived for several centuries.  Like the Jewish quarter of Prague, the Kazimierz district of Krakow houses several synagogues and a cemetery within a span of several small blocks.  Unlike Prague, Krakow was not the focus of a slum clearance at the turn of the twentieth century.  The result is that in addition to its synagogues and cemetery, the Kazimierz district has preserved practically all the streets, homes and squares that comprised the totality of Jewish experience for several centuries.  It is a priceless district that served as the inspiration for countless legends known throughout the Jewish world.

Students will explore the many facets of Jewish history, legend and life in Krakow.  During our trip, we will try to explore the ways in which Krakow’s Jewish life was similar to Prague’s, and the ways in which they differed.  Starting with the Altschul, the oldest extant synagogue in all of Poland, students will study the ways in which Jews adapted Christian architectural styles to Jewish tradition.  In addition, we will explore the many similarities between the Krakow’s Altschul and Prague’s Altneuschul, and the supposition among some historians that Krakow’s synagogue was actually built by a local colony of Bohemian Jews.  We will also explore the Rema Synagogue, named for the famed Rabbi Moses Isserles, and the Old Jewish Cemetery, which contains the graves of several centuries of Jewish spiritual luminaries.  We will visit and discuss the architectural, cultural and social significance of several other synagogues in Kazimierz the Popper Synagogue, the High Synagogue, the Isaac Synagogue, the Kupa Synagogue and the Tempel.  We will also explore the New Jewish Cemetery, where we will learn about Jewish intellectual and cultural achievement in the modern era.  Throughout our visit to Krakow, we will focus on the countless legends that have given Krakow its undying allure in Jewish mythology to the present day.

From Krakow, we will take one or more day trips to Auschwitz, where we will learn the history of the Holocaust at the site of the largest Nazi death camp, concentration camp and slave-labor camp.  Approximately 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz, ninety percent of them Jews.

Three-Day Trip to Warsaw

A trip to Warsaw is essential to apprehending the extraordinary contribution of the Polish Jewish community to Jewish civilization.  Although most of Warsaw was destroyed in the Nazi bombardment, the city contains invaluable reminders of what was once (after New York) the second largest Jewish community in the world.  First, there is the cemetery, an enormous expanse representing all strata of a once-flourishing community.  Here we are reminded of Ludwik Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto; Y. L. Peretz, a giant of Yiddish literature; and Esther Rachel Kaminska, known as the Mother of Yiddish theater.  The Jewish cemetery is also the site of mass graves of Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation.  In all, the Warsaw Jewish cemetery is one of the most moving Jewish burial sites in the world, a testament to both the triumphs and tragedies of Jewish life in Europe.

Since post-war urban planning bore little resemblance to the prewar streets, exploring Jewish history in Warsaw is sometimes similar to a hunt for buried treasures.  Nonetheless, if you know where to look there are countless reminders of the city’s illustrious Jewish past.  The Nozyk Synagogue, for instance, the single remaining place of prayer for Warsaw’s Jews.  Nearby Prozna Street is a rarity: the single street from prewar Jewish Warsaw that still has buildings on both sides.  The street is so precious that it has been placed on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List of 100 Endangered Sites.  The Jewish Historical Institute contains a museum and archives of Polish Jewish history.  Next door, a giant skyscraper stands on the site of Warsaw’s great Tlomackie Street Synagogue, dynamited by the Nazis in 1943.

Warsaw is also known for its compelling memorials to the Holocaust.  Located at various parts of the former Warsaw Ghetto, the Memorial Route of Jewish Martyrdom and Struggle includes Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument, the Jewish resistance command headquarters at Mila 18, and the memorial at Umschlagplatz, the site from which 265,000 Warsaw Jews were sent to their deaths at Treblinka.  In our visit to Warsaw, we will explore the evolving ways in which the Holocaust has been enshrined in Polish memory, both during the Communist period and today.

From Warsaw, we will take a day trip to Treblinka, where we will learn the history of the Holocaust at the site of the second largest Nazi death camp.  Treblinka was designed exclusively for mass murder.  Over 800,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, were murdered in Treblinka.

Three-Day Trip to Budapest

Budapest, which includes the three districts of Buda, Obuda and Pest, encapsulates every major era of Jewish existence in Central Europe.  A visit to Budapest is a reminder of Jewish longevity in the region as well as the proud accomplishments of Hungarian Jews in the modern world.  First there is the Castle Hill of Buda, which once contained a thriving Jewish neighborhood for several centuries.  Walking through the Castle grounds, we can still see glimpses of a community that settled the area in the 13th century.  The oldest Jewish district was located near the Buda Castle Palace; later, the Jewish community was concentrated around the Small Synagogue and the Mendel Houses, named after the most powerful Jewish family in Hungary in the late fifteenth century.  Across the street is the site of the Great Synagogue, an edifice that once rivaled Prague’s Altneuschul and Krakow’s Altschul.  Destroyed in the pogrom of 1686, its remains exist under a large mound of earth, awaiting excavation to this day.

Across the river, Pest heralded the entrance of the Jew into modern Hungarian society.  Several synagogues in Pest pay homage to Jewish cultural achievements in Hungary, most notably the 19th century Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, and the Heroes Temple, built as a monument for Jews who had died fighting in the Hungarian Army in the First World War.  Nearby, the Rumbach Synagogue, built in the 1870s, was the first major work of the famous Viennese architect Otto Wagner.  The Kazinczy Street Synagogue continues to serve Budapest’s Orthodox Jewish community.  Part of the excitement of Budapest today is visiting one of approximately twenty active synagogues located throughout the city.  Students will be encouraged to visit services to participate in the living history of Jewish Budapest.

Budapest is also the site of Holocaust memorials and a Martyrs’ Cemetery located in the former Jewish Ghetto during the Nazi era.  In addition, the Hungarian Jewish Museum tells the inspiring story of Jews in Hungary from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Trips in the Czech Republic

Cities alone cannot give a full picture of Jewish life in Europe.  Jews also lived in towns and villages in the countryside, and indeed developed a culture in many ways distinct from that of the Jewish communities in major urban centers.  Bohemia and Moravia are home to countless cities, towns and villages that create a mosaic of Jewish life in the heart of Europe.  In some cities, Jewish life ended in the Holocaust, while in others there continues a small but tightly-knit Jewish community to this day.  Visits to townships throughout the Czech Republic will give students a better understanding of Central European Jewish history and culture from the Middle Ages to the present.

Bechyne, 90 km south of Prague, was the site of a Jewish community since the 17th century.  Siroka Street was once the site of Jewish Street, the heart of the Jewish neighborhood.  Jews were not enclosed in a ghetto wall in Bechyne, and the houses have been preserved.  On Siroka Street we can find a synagogue, currently a fire museum, and a former Jewish school.  The cemetery includes beautiful tombstones from the 17th century until World War II.

Hradec Kralove, 100 km East of Prague, contained a Jewish community since the end of the 14th century.  Jews were expelled from Hradec Kralove in 1542 but returned by the 17th century.  On Rokytanskeho Street we can find the former rabbi’s house, in which was once found a prayer hall.  A beautiful Art Nouveau synagogue, from the beginning of the 20th century, remains.  Currently the interior houses a Science Library.  Outside the town center lays the Jewish cemetery, which continues to be used today.

Mikulov, known to many Jews by its German name Nikolsburg, was once the center of Moravian Jewish life.  For much of its history, Mikulov boasted the second largest Jewish Community in Bohemia and Moravia, after Prague.  Located near the Austrian border, Mikulov was home to Jews since the 14th century.  In the 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew, the influential spiritual leader and legendary creator of the Golem, presided over the Mikulov community.  Luckily for today’s visitors, some houses from the ancient Jewish ghetto, in addition to the 16th-century Altschul synagogue, are preserved.  Mikulov is also home to a cemetery with tombstones dating from the early 17th century.