By Vicki Boykis
In an essay that no longer exists on the Googlable internet, Michael Chabon convinced me that Prague was my destiny. He had been in Prague with his wife, researching for the book that would later become his bestseller, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The city, according to Chabon, was a breathy dream, starting with its Czech name, Praha, like an exhale. The streets were cobblestoned. Prague Castle loomed above everything with Gothic spires that harkened back to a more genteel time.
Chabon walked through the Jewish cemetery and felt the wisps of his ancestors in the gravestones, the quiet of the early morning fog, and the romantic desolation of a vanished empire.
I found his essay when I was in college in Central Pennsylvania and desperate to leave. The writing gripped me. I started yearning for Prague. I wanted that same kind of melancholy and artistic experience. I wanted to walk through the fog, hands intertwined with my boyfriend. I wanted to think serious thoughts about how thousands of years of history went into sculpting the city of Prague.
Finally, we were out of college, working our first jobs, making our first money. The world was ours to see, together. There were hints of engagement. ”Where do you want to go on vacation?” my boyfriend asked me. I thought about where it was most romantic to be proposed to.
“France,” I said breathlessly. We checked prices for hotels in Paris. “Prague,” I amended, quickly. We were employed, but not Paris-rich. Besides, Prague was super-close to Paris. And if it was good enough for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, it was good for Penn State graduate Vicki Boykis.
We arrived in the Vaclav Havel Airport on a bright May morning full of promise. I was hoping to see mist over the Castle and the Vlatva, twinkling, winding its way through the heart of the sleeping city. But the cab driver heard that we were former USSR oppressors (Russian-speakers) and intentionally took the long way to the hotel, winding his way through semi-industrialized regions of the city. “Look,” I whispered, “The street litter and graffitti here is the same as in New York!”
We arrived at our hotel. “We’re in Prague,” I said, looking around the mall attached to the Clarion for signs of Dracula and Eastern European mysteriousness. A frowning man wearing a gold chain and matching tooth tried to sell us a cell phone. We ate dinner at a place where the waiter asked if we wanted fries with our goulash. We went to bed watching CNN International, broadcast from Atlanta.
The next day, in the Old City, we walked through throngs of British tourists who were talking loudly and throwing Starbucks cups on the road. A sign pointed alluringly 50 meters to TGIFriday’s. A man standing outside a pub tried to sell us a Budweiser.
I continued to hope for the Jewish quarter. It had to be as Chabon had described it: a small, left-alone place with just a couple hundred Israelis and New Yorkers coming every year to walk among the graves.
It turned out that the Jewish spirit of Prague had sold out big time. There are three really old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. All three of them were making brisk business of the Holocaust. We found ourselves in a long line of tourists regulated by very methodical Czechs taking our money and letting us in one by one, like a theme park ride.
Inside the synagogue, we saw all the names of all the dead written on the synagogue walls, not in a deferential way, but in one that was trying profit from our survivors’ guilt.
Here was bimah where the Jewish rabbis suffered. Here was the name of Rachel Hayyah Liebowitz, who died in Auschwitz, and here was Moshe Zalman whose family was killed by Gestapo officers fighting in the Czech resistance movement, and here were 80,000 other names, written out to show the maximum impact of the suffering.
Here were the walls. They were peeling. Coincidentally, the synagogue need money to repair them. Here, at the bimah, was a clear acrylic box full of the dollar bills of other American Jews who had been here and felt really, really bad.
If visitors missed the opportunity to give money here, they could go through the cemetery, where, instead of misty graves, there were dozens of other people, going through a waiting line not unlike the one for Disney World rides, being shoved through the plots, one by one. Look, the signs said, the cemetery is dilapidated too, so don’t forget to leave some spare change on the way out.
Next was the synagogue gift shop, where you could get a map of the ghetto. For a couple korunas, guides eagerly pointed out some other Jewish sites you could go to, either by yourself, or with a tour guide, also for a couple korunas. There were hundreds of tchotchkes that have pictures of the Star of David on them, or mezuzot, or dreidls, sold by hawkers who shouted above the quiet of the quarter that no longer had any Jews in it.
The image of Prague I’d had in my mind was shattered. Michael Chabon had tricked me. The City of a Hundred Spires was as crass and commercial as the rest of Europe. There was nothing sacred. We had been in Prague for five days and everything sucked. And people were selling Jewish Quarter keychains near the cemetery.
Every day was like the previous. There were hordes of tourists everywhere in the city, eating American food, talking loudly and distilling the essence of what Chabon had written about, silencing out the echoes of the past that made Prague Prague.
But then, on the day before our flight back, my boyfriend woke me up early. “Let’s go,” he said, eagerly, quietly. “Where,” I asked. “Back to the Jewish Quarter, before the crowds come back,” he said.
Curious, I followed him. The light was soft and golden, and only older European women wearing headscarves and heels clicked their way across the cobblestones. The breeze blew softly and the trees whispered. There were no people, and, for the first time, I could hear Prague.
He led me into the Spanish Synagogue, the last of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter that we hadn’t been to. There was no entrance fee. The sunlight reflected quietly off the stained glass windows as we walked to the front, the bimah where the Torah sat. My boyfriend became quieter and quieter, and all of a sudden, he was down on one knee and he was saying words I couldn’t process and can’t remember anymore. In the synagogue, there were no tourists, no cameras, no recordings, only us, and if He was awake, God.
Yes, I said, in the same building where the Germans stored property taken from Jews, the same building that had seen the fall of Prague and the rise again. Yes, I said, trembling, holding back tears. Yes, I said, again, as he got up. I no longer had a boyfriend, but a fiance. The spirits and the mists converged around us and shadows whispered, and the city was still ancient, but my life was new and Michael Chabon was right after all.
Vicki Boykis was born Jewish in Russia and raised guilty in America. She works in Big Data, is doing her MBA, and in the other three spare minutes is working on her first novel. She lives with her husband in Philadelphia-ish. She blogs at blog.vickiboykis.com and is on twitter @vboykis.