FIRST PERSON: Tulips, inner turmoil and missing Jews on my trip to Europe

Many trips to Europe are filled with exhilarating tours of castles and cathedrals, museums and moats, art and architecture. I love these trips, but during my most recent travels in March, I got stuck on two troubling topics.

The first: Where are the proudly proclaimed markers of Jewish life in the great European cities? Why are they — we — erased or at least largely invisible from the tours and guidebooks?

Second, for all the glory and achievement, why hasn’t humankind learned to respect or, at minimum, tolerate religious, ethnic and cultural differences?

These questions quickly bubbled up as my husband and I began a five-country trip.

In Split, Croatia, within a 3rd century Roman fortress stands a tiny synagogue, one of the oldest Sephardic houses of worship still in use. Built in the early 1500s, the Split Synagogue somehow has managed to survive, much like the vines and shrubs that cling to the walls of the ancient fortress.

Accessed via security camera and buzzer, the combined shul/community center is the focal point of worship and solidarity for Split’s 100-plus Jews. It also is a symbol of endurance. On the wall to the left of the bimah is a plaque with the names of 150 Jews killed in the Holocaust. Around the corner is another plaque recalling Split’s own Kristallnacht when Jewish businesses were ransacked and shopkeepers beaten.

In Split, we toured the former mausoleum of Roman emperor Diocletian. In life, Diocletian persecuted Christians. After his death, Christians took revenge, emptying his tomb and that of his wife and converting the mausoleum into a cathedral. The attackers missed the combined tiny tomb of his two daughters. It still sits high atop the cathedral’s entrance, a lonely reminder of parental love and hatred between rival groups.

We next traveled to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where 2,000 people died in religious-secular wars as Yugoslavia unraveled with communism’s collapse in the 1990s. Today that city is rebuilding. Yet the scars of war — bombed-out buildings and shrapnel-pocked roads — are everywhere. Also, everywhere are the calls to prayer at mosques and the pealing bells at churches.

As for the Jews? We saw only an empty lot with a Star of David and a menorah on a fence — remnants of a synagogue destroyed during World War II.

In contrast stands Prague’s robust Jewish Quarter in the Czech Republic. Prague’s Jewish community is one of Europe’s oldest recorded, dating back to at least 965 CE. Before WWII, the city’s Jewish population was estimated at 92,000. At least two-thirds of them perished in the Holocaust.

Today while just 2,000 Jews live in Prague, there are synagogues of all denominations, a home for seniors, a kindergarten, kosher restaurants and a hotel with a kosher kitchen. Among the more memorable and humbling sights are the Old Cemetery, which dates to the 15th century and the Pinkas Synagogue, which lists the names of 77,297 Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Outside of Prague is the city of Terezin and the concentration camp with gates that 150,000 Jews walked through. The guide at Terezin kept calling it a “transit site.” This insistence was unsettling, disturbing, a soft-pedaling of the atrocities that occurred there.

In the Netherlands, we spent a joyous few days seeing tulips galore, 290 Van Gogh paintings, Rembrandt’s home/studio and seven Vermeer masterpieces. Then, we plunged back into our explorations of Jewish history, touring Anne Frank’s hiding place, the just-opened National Holocaust Museum and the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a theater the Nazis used as a deportation center.

More happily, we visited the 17th century Portuguese Synagogue, still an active house of worship and site of one of the world’s oldest Jewish libraries.

After three weeks, we flew home. We had seen the best and the worst of civilization. Tulips and turmoil. Art and anguish.

Unpacking, I continued thinking about my initial questions. Generally, I understand why Jews, along with other non-Christian religions, are not the focus of the “story” of Europe. We are not the majority, not the main interest of most tourists.

It makes me grateful that there is now a thriving industry of Jewish-themed heritage tours. Still, I wish there was greater religious, ethnic and cultural inclusivity in all tours.

Of course, the problem of “uncomfortable” truths also challenges the telling of Jewish and other peoples’ stories. Antisemitism, racism, colonization, the Holocaust … the list is long.

As for my second query about mankind’s failure to constructively engage with one another and peacefully manage conflict, what can I or anyone say?

Still, it occurs to me that my seemingly unrelated questions are connected. If we all learned more about our unique — and simultaneously shared — histories, maybe we would be more tolerant of our differences. And perhaps, someday, that tolerance could foster greater respect and reduce hatred and violence.

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