I have recently been teaching some ideas from two great Rabbis of Prague, the Maharal and Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Noda BiYehudah). Prague was an extraordinary center of the Jewish community and Jewish learning. In Prague, the Altneu Shul, has been the main Synagogue of Prague and has hosted services almost continuously since about the 14th century. In that shul one can see the chair in which the Maharal sat and the symbols of the Jewish community and a cover for the ark that date back to 1400. There is a very strange plaque on the wall of the Altneu Shul, which declates that at a certain date “nislabnu hakoslim – the walls were whitewashed,”
The backstory to this plaque is that in the 14th century there was a horrific pogrom in Prague. The Jews were accused of stealing a wafer from a church, and desecrating the wafer. This libel is known at the desecration of the host libel, involving a claim that the Jews would steal the wafer (the host) used in church ceremonies from the church and would desecrate and torture the wafer which was believed by Christians to be the body of Jesus.
The horrific libel occurred in Prague and the Jews were massacred by a Christian mob. Jews took refuge in the Altneu Shul because it had thick walls, and was built in a fortress-like manner, as many synagogues were, in order to provide protection during a pogrom or riot. However, tragically, the synagogue did not protect the Jews and the mob burst in and massacred people right there in the Altneu Shul. The blood of the victims was splattered on the walls, and the Rabbi of Prague, the Maharal forbade the community to whitewash the walls. He cited the verse in Lamentations: “Eretz al techasi dam – don’t let the earth cover the blood [of the victims]” based on which he proclaimed that people should see the blood and know what was done to the Jews in that holy place. Apparently a number of years after the death of the Maharal the community decided to whitewash the walls and cover over that blood – hence the plaque.
Whenever I visit Europe, it is always with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do enjoy the architecture, the artwork, and the culture. I appreciate the depth and details of Jewish history in Europe. However, as a Jew it is impossible for me to not keep having thoughts of Hitler on the beautiful balcony in Vienna, of rabbis cleaning the sidewalks in Berlin, or whitewashed walls of the Altneu Shul. To a great degree much of the suffering and persecution of the Jews has been whitewashed in Europe both literally and figuratively, and I sympathize with the sentiments of the Maharal, “Let not the earth cover the blood of these holy martyrs.”