When I think of a zoo, I usually think of a crowded sweaty place packed with yelling kids (aka the Houston Zoo). This was not the case for the Prague zoo. The Prague zoo was like no other I’ve ever been to before. It was tranquil and peaceful. The zoo was spread out across many acres that mimicked a natural habitat. My favorite section was the giraffe area. The outer surroundings held many tall trees and hills with a few Czech style houses in the background. The calm atmosphere made me almost forget that I was at a zoo.
Another surprising aspect about the Prague zoo was its huge size. My handy iPhone calculated that we walked 6 miles that day. Each animal’s area looked completely different from one another and it was spread out far from the next section. Some areas were not only giant in length, but in height. For example, the mountain goats had tall rocky hills to walk up. Also, there were many exotic animals that we had never seen before in America. I saw a toucan with four beaks that looked like a bunch of bananas. We saw strange monkeys that came up to the fence to say hello to all its visitors. Overall, this was an enjoyable weekend activity set at a good price. There was a nice shaded eating area with inexpensive hot dogs, gelato, and yes, even beer. We had such a relaxing time at the zoo that we wanted to stay all day!
A picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve always been familiar with this saying, but I never realized the true complexity of a picture until I visited Terezin. Terezin is a town that was turned into a concentration and transit camp that housed thousands of Jewish prisoners. Within Terezin we visited a museum that held artwork from artists living within the concentration camp. When I entered the museum, I learned that the Nazi’s had a drawing room in which imprisoned artists would create propaganda. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s forced the artists to draw the concentration camp in a positive light. The SS wanted outsiders to believe that Terezin was a nice spa-like working camp. While gritting their teeth, the artists had to lie and pretend the horrible place where they lived was a lot better off than reality. First picture below is an example of the forced propaganda artwork.
“Gardening” by L. Haas
While the SS believed that the artists were always busy drawing beautiful pictures of Terezin, the imprisoned artists were creating secret masterpieces. In the draft room, the artists would draw the actual depiction of their concentration camp and ghetto surroundings. Photographed above is one of the art pieces that shows Terezin as it truly was, a dark place filled with sickness and death. Often the artists would try to smuggle out these real art pieces to show the public what terrible conditions they actually lived in. However, the artists were caught and accused of spreading “propaganda of horror”. They were sent to a Gestapo prison and did not survive. Since hundreds of their art pieces are displayed within the museum, their artwork luckily lives on and still sends a powerful message. The pictures that the daring artists risked their lives for are worth a thousand words by showing all the wrong that was behind the concentration camp gates.
155,000 people passed through the Terezin concentration camp. However, 35,000 died within the camp and over 80,000 died after being sent to extermination camps. Our class was lucky enough to meet with a survivor of Terezin, photographed below. We also went on a tour of Terezin. As one can imagine, this was the saddest place that I have ever visited.
At the beginning of our study abroad trip, we were introduced to Alfrons Mucha, a very famous artist from the Czech Republic. The first time we viewed his artwork, we visited the Obechi Dum to look at a special exhibit that displayed his lithographs. We visited two rooms that showed almost all his original advertisement posters for various events and people. The collection was owned by the tennis player Ivan Lendl and it was a rare event to see almost all the pieces in one place. Mucha seemed like a visual genius. His use of symbols and hidden meanings within his artwork made the posters so captivating and interesting. After the exhibit, I was excited to find out that we were going to Veletrzni palac to see Mucha’s most legendary exhibition, the Slav Epic. The Slav Epic is a series of paintings that convey the journey of Slavic and Czech history. Before coming to Prague, I had never heard of the Slav Epic, and I was happy to find a class of young children learning about the Slav Epic in the art museum. We never learned anything like that in my art class in elementary school! I walked around the class to notice the details of the children’s reactions to the paintings. I realized all the children were eager to ask questions about the giant artwork in front of them. Many were raising their hands and jumping up in down in excitement. The Slav Epic paintings were gigantic and overpowering. I can’t imagine how tall they seemed in the little children’s’ eyes. I was glad to see the small class learning more than simple finger painting and crafts like I did in elementary school. Instead, the Czech children were learning about their country’s history in a very unique way.
Yesterday’s tour consisted of visiting five synagogues in Prague. To get a feeling of sense of place in the Jewish quarter, I will tell you what stood out to me from the long tour. First our tour guide explained the history of the Jewish population in Prague. During the Nazi rule, many synagogues and Jewish buildings were destroyed. However, the Nazi’s decided to keep the Jewish Quarter untouched in order to create a museum of an “extinct race”. As twisted as that may be, our tour guide was still happy that many significant parts of Jewish history in Prague were saved. After visiting such beautiful buildings and historical pieces, it was not surprising to find out that Jewish Museum is actually the most visited Jewish Museum in the world.
The first synagogue we visited was the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest lasting synagogue in Europe that is still in use today. It’s name comes from being called “New” compared to its past buildings that did not survive. The building had an interesting layout because the site is so old that it was created when women were not allowed to join in prayer at synagogue. Later on, women and men were allowed to pray in the same synagogue, but a women’s section was always created to separate men and women to avoid distraction.
One of the most touching sites we visited was the Pinkas Synagogue, a memorial to those who did not survive past the Nazi occupation. The walls contain names of over 180,000 Jews with their names, dates, and place of birth. The vast number of names surrounding you is overwhelming and devastating. There are literally names wall to wall in the building. The names were handwritten on the walls and you could even still see the pencil marks from the writing. I thought the handmade design gave it a more real and personal feeling.
Another fascinating site was the crowded Old Jewish Cemetery, with the oldest tombstone dating back to 1439. The cemetery had five layers of bodies beneath the surface in a “bunk bed-like” fashion, as our tour guide put it.
Before our tour of the Jewish Quarter, I couldn’t tell you much about Judaism. This tour meant a lot to me because I have always wanted to know more about the common religion of Judaism. The tour was a great opportunity to learn more about the religion, especially from someone who practices the religion herself.
Similar to Austin, in the Czech Republic, being weird is completely normal. However, after visiting the museum of Egon Schiele Art Centrum in Český Krumlov, weird is an understatement. The exhibits inside this museum of modern art are bizarre and sometimes extremely disturbing. The first display included fascinating black and grey portraits made out of cremation ashes. The craziest exhibit was art pieces made out of pubic hairs. Other pieces of art were videos, but as I could guess, they were also nowhere near normal. The first video was about two mice that ate away at their mini house made out of food, while often attacking each other. Another video included puppets that unwrapped decapitated animal heads. Nevertheless, I think we all enjoyed the exhibits because art is supposed to create a reaction, even if it isn’t a pleasant one. My favorite part of the museum was a room that unleashed your inner childhood, coloring all over the blank white walls.
After the art museum, we walked next door to experience two mazes made out of mirrors. I didn’t have high expectations for the mazes, and was surprised at how fun it could be. At times we all panicked a little while wondering if we were ever going to find the end. It was unexpectedly difficult to figure out what was an illusion and what was reality. Over here, our freaky Friday might have appeared to be abnormal for us, yet for others this is just a ordinary day. It’s crazy to think about the artists that devote themselves to this expressive lifestyle and to think about both the maze and museum workers that also experience this everyday.