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Day 9 – Prague, Czech Republic Continued

We started our day discussing the Roma people and the long history of discrimination they face. For most of us, this culture was one we learned about during the trip. We discovered that the Romas are originally thought to come from central India although they are now spread out all throughout Europe and often share a nomadic lifestyle. They do not follow a single faith but they describe themselves as “many stars scattered in the sight of God”. The Romas have a reputation for settling in the margins of society and having limited integration within communities outside of their own groups. When we spoke later in the day with the US Embassy, the human rights officer spoke of many Roma issues still being prevalent today. For example, high rates of high school drop outs, illiteracy, unemployment are among the main concerns. In addition to these factors, Romas are considered to be some of the most disliked minorities because of their reputation for stealing and living off of social welfare and the discrimination is a lesser known part of the holocaust as they represented one of the groups that the Nazis were trying to eliminate.

For our first full day in Prague, our tour guide, Alena, led us through another city tour which included spending time in the Jewish quarter. She started off the day with an overview of the Czech history and answered our many questions. We wanted to know about the existing industries that provide opportunities in the country. Their main industry is not surprisingly tourism. Next is their IT technology/software followed by automotive production.

We touched on their transition from communism to democracy although we will discuss this further tomorrow during our museum visit. One of the interesting takeaway we learned is that there are some people remaining who may be disappointed to no longer be in a communist society. These are likely the older demographic who are just accustomed to those parameters or people who are lower class and do not consider the opportunities to be worth pursuing. Alena made the comment that communism is like “living without being responsible for your own actions”.

During the city tour we visited a number of synagogues. Alena explained that Prague was a popular city with the Nazis so it was preserved to a certain extent and they used the synagogues as a location to store stolen arts and goods. This means that a good amount of the ancient history in this neighborhood was restored following the war. 

Our first stop was the Pinkas Synagogue which in 1955-60 was turned into a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah from the Czech lands. It was one of the earliest memorials of its kind in Europe and features the names, dates of birth and dates of death or transport of all known victims.

There is an exhibition which features the children’s drawings from Terezin that were done between 1942 and 1944. We learned that this concentration camp was meant to portray an image of a humane camp that housed Jews in stark contrast to the reality in order to convince Red Cross visitors that things were not as horrific as they were. The vast majority of the people in Terezin perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau following the visit. For context, the Czech Republic has a population of 120,000 jewish people before the war and only 5,000 survived.

Following this we visited the Old New Synagogue which is Europe’s oldest active synagogue and was completed in 1270 in gothic style. This location featured a traditional cemetery which has not been altered and we learned about the tradition of laying stones as a symbol of respect for the dead. 

We stopped for lunch at the restaurant U Drou Velbloudu where we enjoyed salmon, salad and a European staple – potatoes. 

The afternoon agenda was filled with a visit to the US Embassy where we met with a panel of representatives from the FSA as well as the Economic and Human Rights divisions. We learned that a humans rights officer is tasked with tracking and monitoring refugee, immigrants, LGBTQ, children and women’s issues. The economic specialist shared that his role boils down to helping the US businesses and US people to be successful. He gave an example of working with local governments to help them understand how the US business would be a good fit for their needs and as a result he helped create 200 jobs back home.

The Agriculture Specialist share that the amount of agriculture in the Czech Republic is comparative to the size of the state of South Carolina. Approximately half of their land is used for farming and it accounts for a mere 2% of their GDP. Their average farm size is 329 acres which is huge in comparison to other EU countries likely as a result of reconfiguring the land back to privatization from communism. It results in a lot of farmland being rented out rather than farmed by the owners. 

After the embassy we visited a statue dedicated to author Franz Kafka and the site of the Velvet Revolution. The Velvet Revolution began 9 days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was in protest to the communist regime.

Following a delicious dinner, a highlight of our trip was the concert performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons held at the St. Kliment Cathedral. St. Clement’s Cathedral represents one of the most important examples of Baroque architecture in Prague. Today it is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. St. Clement’s is known for its excellent acoustics, making the church a fine venue for classical music concerts. These run throughout the year, and feature the original 18th century Baroque organ.

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