Click here for a general narrative of my Europe trip

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 1997 22:11:27 -0700 (PDT)
From: Richard Isaac 
Subject: Report from the East
Hello and Shana Tova to all,

I'm recently back from my trip to Eastern Europe with my friend Julie, who is also Jewish but not gay, and I thought I'd share some of my experiences for those who might be interested.

On our first day in BERLIN, we went to the Jewish community center (Fasanenstrasse off the Ku'damm) where we had lunch, and looked at their displays of Jewish ritual objects in the lobby and their quite extensive library. There was also a Jewish bakery and quite a good bookstore not far away (Joachimstalerstrasse). Security was very tight at all Jewish locations, with policemen stationed outside and metal detectors inside most places.

PICTURE: At the Jewish Community Center

I went to services at a Reform congregation on Pestalozzistrasse, one of five functioning synagogues, all "Reform" or Orthodox (though ostensibly Reform, women sat separately on the sides or balconies) in a lovely synagogue restored since its destruction in Kristallnacht. (I was allowed to keep my Swiss army knife at Shabbat services since I spent 10 minutes talking to the security guy in Hebrew, and besides they couldn't find a bag to put it in.)

I saw a few other synagogues in Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg (Rykestrasse) from the outside, and visited the Jewish Museum in the Neue Synagoge. It was saved from destruction by a German officer on Kristallnacht (he is profiled in the museum), but eventually fell into disrepair and was partially razed in the late 1950s. Recently it has been renovated and the striking gilding on the cupola can be seen far and wide. There are several Jewish restaurants (Oren and Beth Cafe) nearby as well as the new Jewish cemetery, which is empty of gravestones (except for Moses Mendelsohn's) and is simply a park now, with a few memorials to the Holocaust on the edge. Though it was a lovely sunny day, one odd thing did happen while I was standing by Mendelsohn's grave: a sudden gust of wind brought a number of heavy tree branches crashing down not a yard from my feet. Quite a shock!

The old Jewish cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg was really quite fascinating and sad: it was quite large, very lush with a heavy tree-cover; thousands of graves I would guess, some of them quite lovely and dating from the 1700s, but a very large fraction of them were toppled over or broken, vandalized by the Nazis and only now a little bit of restoration is occurring. I spent a good long time walking through the place. There was a group of German teens taking a tour through it, and I had a very long chat in Hebrew with the guard, an immigrant from Baku (Azerbaijan) by way of Israel. One thing I remember is how he commented about how he wished he could wear a Magen David as freely as I did. We did not really encounter any antisemitism though.

I don't think I need to mention gay life in Berlin, which is quite robust, except maybe for rainbow flags I saw in apartment windows in Prenzlauer Berg, which surprised me in this working-class East Berlin neighborhood, and the Israeli I talked to for an hour in Hebrew while standing in a crowd outside one bar. The Magen David came through again! (not what you're thinking) Unfortunately, I did not manage to call Yachad Berlin, the gay Jewish group there, which I regret (same for Keserge in Budapest).

On to PRAGUE, which was just an exquisite city. The Jewish Quarter was quite lovely, and unlike Krakow, seemed to be lively, well-preserved and well-promoted. There are several functioning synagogues, and the Alt-Neu Shul (late 1200s) is encased in scaffolding, undergoing renovation but we could go in and see its interior and the historic banner of the Prague Jews. The clock on the High Synagogue/Jewish Town Hall has Hebrew letters and runs counterclockwise. The Klausova Synagogue housed a terrific museum of beautiful and ornate ritual objects used throughout the Jewish calendar, as does the Maiselova. The Pinkasova is a fascinating and touching tribute to the Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Holocaust: all 70,000 names are inscribed on the walls inside the synagogue, covering nearly every empty space, upstairs and downstairs. Other than a few objects, the synagogue is otherwise empty. It lies next to the cemetery, which dates from the 1400s to 1787, and the tens of thousands of graves, some of them quite fascinating, are in some places several layers deep. We also saw the Moorish Spanish Synagogue, but it is not yet open to the public. There is Judaica for sale in several gift shops in the area and some store signs are even in Hebrew. The area was very well trafficked, and closed on Shabbatot (unlike Krakow).

We attended very informal Reform services (Bejt Praha) in the Jewish Town Hall (2 Reform and 2 Orthodox services were listed in the Prague Post), where a few Czech women (self-described mischlings) and about 10 North Americans sat in the slowly darkening room and said the prayers and sang lots of songs. It was a pleasure to teach the group a few new tunes for songs in the songbook they had but they didn't know. My friend Julie and I were invited to join Czechs Kamila and Anna and 2 North Americans for dinner and drinks at a cafe nearby, where we spent a really wonderful evening talking and laughing and drinking becherovka (

PICTURE: Drinking becherovka with new friends made at Shabbat services, Prague

The Canadian woman that night turned out to be the sister of a student I know at the school I work at (small world!) and a lesbian to boot, so we adjourned late in the evening to go see a drag show nearby at U Str^elce. What a hoot -- it was nearly all in Czech (a Tina Turner and Cher lip-synch notwithstanding), and very crowded. The crowd was very mixed (lots of women, some of whom my friend said were "girlfriends," i.e. "beards" of the gay men they accompanied) and really got into it. As usual, it was in a cellar tavern, where your drinks are marked down on a slip of paper and you pay on your way out. We also got together another night and had a great time with her British gay friend and his visitor (and Julie) at Stella's, a cozy cellar bar with comfy chairs. I also visited U Dubu (above-ground!) which was unremarkable except for the 45 cent beers, and I chatted with a Finnish diplomat.

Julie and I took a day trip to TEREZIN (the camp the Nazis used as a showplace for the Red Cross), which was an odd experience, since the town itself served as the camp (a prison fortress lies a short walk away), but now has a good museum featuring children's art, and even a Jewish restaurant (don't be fooled by the "chicken *ham*" on the menu). The town, however, laid out on a grid, did not recover most of its expelled original residents and was eerily deserted. Block numbers are still barely visible on the corners of some of the town's buildings. The fortress prison lies next to a national cemetery, which sports a huge cross and a huge Magen David amongst the graves (as if Christians were equally targeted with Jews). We passed much of the day with a couple from Montana, and had a great time (in retrospect) trying to figure out the bus schedule back to Prague and schmoozing on the bus once it finally came, standing all the way...

The only discordant note on Prague was a late-night conversation Julie had on the tram with a Czech man who asked her if she had read any Czech writers. Only Kafka and Kundera, she answered. Oh, Kafka wrote as a Jew, not a Czech, he answered.


KRAKOW was very odd; it seemed to me a pale shadow compared to Prague. Before the war, fully one-third of Krakow was Jewish but now there are just two functioning synagogues (Remuh and the Templum). The Jewish quarter (Kazimierz) was not promoted as a tourist site, and the streets were relatively lifeless and nearly devoid of Jewish content: There are 5 Jewish cafes and restaurants in a small area (two named Ariel!) and several of them are supposed to offer nightly klezmer music. But we could only find one that did, and moreover the musicians were not Jewish (this I found out from the half-Jewish Swiss woman who was the vocalist)... The Austeria, where we ate dinner, served my meat dish with a cream sauce... The bookstore owner invited me back to buy a shirt I was considering on Saturday when he assured me they would be open... The Isaac Synagogue (undergoing renovation and featuring some lovely Hebrew inscriptions on the walls) was empty but for 3 or 4 lifesize cardboard photographs of old Hasids, as if visitors needed to be reminded of what Jews looked like... We attended Orthodox services at the Templum (which alternates with the Remuh in offering services), where there were locals over 60 and younger tourists. The locals (at least the ones in front of me) seemed quite uninterested in the services and talked the whole time, but for a few minutes during the silent prayer when the cantor turned slightly in their direction... well, I won't go on complaining.

On the other hand, it was a great pleasure to spend most of our time in Krakow with a woman from Australia and a fellow from New York we met on the train. We hung out for the better part of 3 days, sightseeing (Auschwitz/Wieliczka/Jewish Quarter) and discovering Krakow (nightlife/restaurants). Funny how easily friendships are made on the road...

PICTURE: Dinner with Karen and Chris in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow

The cantor, Stein, had earlier given us a nice tour of the Remuh Synagogue and the cemetery next door and chatted with us after services. While we had another conversation with a Swiss couple in Hebrew, a busload of Israeli teens arrived with military precision (guards on walkie-talkies and all) for a special service. I also found time to follow the short book "In the Footsteps of Schindler's List" and see the ghetto wall remnant in Podgorze and Schindler's factory, still operating and now making electronics (another busload of Israelis arrived at that moment). In several locations, we saw grafitti with the Polish word for Jew in it and a few swastikas and Maganei David. On the other hand, there is quite an interesting Jewish museum in the Old Synagogue, and one of the cafes was in fact closed for Erev Shabbat. All in all, it was a bit depressing to see the state of Jewish life in Krakow, part of which was sustained by non-Jews, or in a surprisingly un-Jewish sort of way.

AUSCHWITZ was quite an experience, very hard to describe (not to mention how odd it was to see it promoted on tourist office windows on a par with tours of the city and the nearby salt mines Shall we see the death camp today, dear?). It was a beautiful day, pop music playing on the bus to this very ordinary Polish town (right away it was hard to comprehend that we were on a bus to Hell on Earth), tour groups passing under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, along the tree-lined avenues and well-kept buildings and barracks of the Auschwitz I camp, yet passing the collection of Zyklon B cannisters, the mountains of hair and shoes and artificial limbs and eyeglasses, the gallows and torture cells and assembly areas and walking into the gas chambers was almost surreal. I found it impossible to step into the "standing cell" (enough room just to stand) where some prisoners were punished though Julie did. Birkenau was immense and mostly in ruins in contrast to Auschwitz; we spent quite a long time walking along the train tracks, through the few remaining barracks, around the ruins of the crematoria, through the high grass and past the rows and rows of barbed wire. It was very powerful to be in this place which represents the depths of human depravity, but at the same time it was just simply not the same place of the imagination, no barking dogs and screams and smells -- of course, and thank goodness. Does this make sense? Words fail.

As for gay life in Krakow, I found zip. Went to the one address I had for a bar there and there was no sign of any life at all, day or night. Bust.

Julie stayed in southern Poland to hike while I went on to PECS (pronounced "paytch"), in southern Hungary for some warmer weather. It's a lovely town, chock full of museums, churches and mosques, but it and also had a beautiful synagogue. The old man at the door invited me in although it was after the posted hours of operation (why should I have believed the sign, I should have known better by then). He sold me a terrific and very detailed English guide of the grand place and we talked a little about the upcoming holidays. The Jewish community cannot of course fill the synagogue, so outside of the High Holidays, they meet down the street in a much smaller place.

Finally, BUDAPEST. Like Prague, there are about 10 gay locations, plus the cruising ground along the Danube Korzo (river promenade). Went to five of them (only two of them in cellars!), including two drag shows (at one of which I met a terrific Kiwi lesbian couple, at another two terrifically friendly Hungarian straight women plunked down to share our table and talk for hours in perfect English), both of which were just as popular and crowded as in Prague and also used some men-as-men sidekicks for added humor, but used more American songs and were highly choreographed. A couple places were unremarkable, but one struck me since it was the gayest thing I had seen since Berlin: rainbow flags and Tom of Finland on the walls, Streisand on the speakers. I couldn't help but smile.

Not that this was the end of gay life there. Budapest is famous for its Turkish and thermal baths. I went to five of those, too, some of which were distinctly gay. I'm sure no details are necessary but don't jump to too many conclusions either.

PICTURE: Overlooking the Blue Danube, Budapest

We took an interesting van and walking tour of Jewish sites in the city, and saw some of the 26 functioning synagogues Budapest has. While 600,000 Jews died in the Holocaust there, some 100,000 Jews still live in Hungary, the vast majority in the capital. There was a medieval Jewish chapel in the Castle District (Tanacsics ul.), a "hidden" synagogue (Frankel Leo) which was off the street, smack in the middle of an apartment complex courtyard (something to do with the prohibition on Jews owning land), the Raoul Wallenberg memorial in a far-away neighborhood, and of course, the "traditional" Jewish quarter, which is not so much home to many Jews any more as it is to a number of synagogues (two of them in Moorish style), a very interesting Jewish museum containing a really fascinating modern art exhibit upstairs (including a few distinctly homoerotic pieces), several Judaica stores, and the Jewish community's complex. Again, as in Berlin, police presence was very noticeable and security very tight at Jewish locations. We had two prix-fixe lunches in District VII, the Jewish area, which were some of the best meals I had: one at a kosher kitchen (Hannah), the other at the Carmel Pince, which was "Jewish-but-not-kosher," since you could substitute the pork for the veal! We also ran into two local women, one working at the opera and another at a train ticket counter, wearing Jewish symbols on necklaces and wished them Shana Tova...

Speaking of which, we had the pleasure of ending our trip by attending Rosh Hashana services at the Dohany Synagogue, which is the largest in Europe (and 2nd in the world only to Temple Emanuel in NY). It holds 3000 people and was full to capacity. The building, which was used to house 7000 people during the Nazi occupation, has been recently restored to its original splendor. While the congregation is "Neolog" (a Hungarian variation on Reform), women are still separated and due to the crowd, were asked to take their seats upstairs. (Tickets, by the way, cost $6.00 for me and $4.00 for Julie.) Again, there was a dull roar throughout the services as conversations proceeded throughout the service (which surprisingly was over in less than an hour), especially among the many hundreds standing in the back and outside. Afterwards, many hundreds milled about in the streets under the floodlights and the gilded towers of the synagogue.

So that's it, at least for the Jewish and gay parts of my trip. Mazal tov if you got this far. Just wanted to share some of my experiences with you and compare notes if any of you have been over there. Thanks for the bandwidth!

       *  Richard Isaac
    \*   * /    Seattle		
    *\    * 				
   ***\**/**    rmisaac

Click here for a more general narrative of my Europe trip

Comments? Write me at
Jump to: ---