Whitewashing History

I was just looking at some pictures of a tour that I lead of Prague, Vienna and Bratislava; three places that were extraordinary centers of the Jewish community and Jewish learning. In Prague is found the Altneushul which has been in almost continuous use since about the 14th century. That is absolutely amazing to contemplate the fact that Jews have been praying and learning in this place for about 700 years.  It is also fantastic to see the chair in which the Maharal sat, flags of the Jewish community, and the curtain of the ark that dates back to 1400.

Of course in Europe there are always reminders of the horrific anti-Semitism and the suffering of the Jews.  I remember admiring the architecture of one of the magnificent Hapsburg palaces in Vienna and thinking that it looked familiar. I asked the local guide and he reminded me that the balcony of the palace was where Hitler (may his name and memory be erased) gave a famous speech, which, if I remember correctly was a prelude to the November pogrom, Kristalnacht. It was a classical European contradiction – beautiful artwork on the one hand, and brutal savagery on the other.

In the Altneushul in Prague there is a strange inscription marking the month and year when the walls of the synagogue were whitewashed, sometime in the 18th century. My revered teacher, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro offered and explanation for this. In the 15th century there was a horrific pogrom in Prague which was sparked off by a desecration of the host libel.  Many Jews were massacred during the pogrom although they took refuge in the Altneushul because it had thick walls, and was built like a fortress.  The Christian  mob burst into the synagogue and massacred people right there.  The blood of the victims was splattered on the walls, and the Maharal, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, forbade the community from whitewashing the walls. He cited the verse in Lamentations, “Oh earth, do not cover the blood.”  It was only after he passed away that the community whitewashed the walls, and marked the date with the inscription.

Another synagogue in Prague had the names of Holocaust victims written on its walls. When the communists came to power, they painted over the names. President Vaclac Havel, a poet, dissident and great humanitarian, had the names restored.  Unfortunately, there has been much whitewashing of history, and the whitewashing continues today. Terrorists are described as militants, dictatorships are described as democracies, bloodthirsty mobs are described as protestors etc., etc., etc. I fully sympathize with the community’s desire to whitewash the walls of their synagogue and not have to look at bloodstains every time they entered the Altneushul. However, given what I know about history and current events, I think that I understand the Maharal’s insistence on not whitewashing even better.

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