Prague, Czech Republic — Under gray, rainy skies, dozens of curious onlookers huddled together Wednesday to watch the unveiling of a new addition to the gleaming centuries-old crucifixion statue overlooking the historic Charles Bridge — the first in more than 300 years.
And some hope it could signal improved relations between the city’s Christians and its small, struggling Jewish community.
After three centuries of silently mocking Prague’s historically tortured Jews, three small plaques — in Czech, English and Hebrew — were affixed on a wall under the towering gilt bronze crucifixion statue. It is an attempt to blunt the effect of an offending inscription that rings the downcast face of Jesus. The Hebrew inscription reads, “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” The words of the biblical prophet Isaiah were placed by Prague’s government to humiliate the city’s Jews in 1696, apparently to punish them for an alleged blasphemous act by a Jewish leader.
By co-opting one of Judaism’s most sacred quotes, Christian officials contrived a hulking daily reminder to Jews of who should really be the subject of the awesome Kadosh prayer.
But on Wednesday, about 40 North American rabbis were joined by Prague Mayor Jan Kasl and several Catholic leaders to commemorate the plaque as a sign of good will and the long overdue righting of a wrong. The date March 8 was chosen to coincide with a variety of Christian reconciliation projects advocated by Pope John Paul II and New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor.
The Charles Bridge statue has long offended Jewish tourists to the city where legendary mystic Rabbi Judah Low created the fearsome Golem.
“This statue now becomes a monument of the horrors of anti-Semitism and a great symbol of reconciliation,” declared Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the NABOR, the North American Boards of Rabbis, which last year began helping the Prague Jews negotiate a resolution to the offensive inscription.
The new nationwide rabbinical group was holding its annual meeting in Prague.
Czech Bishop Pavel Pilsner, standing alongside Mayor Jan Kasl, said the plaques do not mean a diminution of the Christian community’s devotion to Jesus, but rather an effort to ask forgiveness from the Jewish community for the offending inscription that “insulted and reduced the dignity of the Jewish community of Prague.
“We hope and pray [that with] this action of reconciliation and begging for forgiveness we can draw strength to proceed into the future,” the bishop said.
Mayor Kasl told The Jewish Week he received critical letters from local neo-Nazis questioning the move, but he said he paid for the plaques from his own pocket.
The bronze plaques, about two-feet by two-feet read: “The addition to the statue of the Hebrew inscription and the explanatory texts from 1696 is the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen, who was accused of mocking the Holy Cross.”
The addition of the Hebrew inscription “which represents a very important expression of faith in the Jewish tradition, was supposed to humiliate the Jewish Community.” It is signed “The City of Prague.”
The text of the plaque was the subject of negotiations.
A draft obtained by The Jewish Week last year featured much stronger language. It called the cavalry scene “a witness to the gross disparagement of the idea of holiness.” It detailed the hostile trial of Backoffen, and called the inscription “a result of violence and an attempt to humble a community that worshipped in a different way.”
Prague Jewish Museum director Leo Pavlat, who supported the earlier draft, told The Jewish Week he had no problem with the final version.
Not addressed on Wednesday, however, was a companion plan to amend tour literature and educate tour guides regarding the new addition.