by Marlene Berlin
Somewhere between the Prague airport and our lodgings on the edge of Old Town, I lost my light gray jacket, my schmatte. That’s a Yiddish term for a well-worn and loved piece of clothing.
I must have been distracted by the discussion with our taxi driver about the movie Amadeus and the impact its production had on Prague in 1983.
“You could sense a shift in the city when the American film company came to make this film,” he said. “It was the only film, even with cuts by the censors, that continually got a standing ovation in all the theater houses.”
Indeed, the Czech extras in the movie embraced the American stage crew and actors in a most unusual way, as you can see in the first couple of minutes of this “Making Of” documentary.
So it was not until the next morning that I noticed my jacket was missing. I reported its loss to the reception staff of the hotel-like apartment building where we stayed, and hoped it would be returned to be used on chilly mornings or evenings as we walked the city.
The staff at the Prague Apartments was very young but eager to help. They more than made up for their inexperience with their enthusiasm to go the extra mile, to search out an answer to any question and provide help in any way. I knew they would be helpful before we even arrived in Prague, however. I had started using their assistance before we even left DC for Europe, when I had just a few days to plan our trip.
Originally, we were to go to Israel on July 31st, but we abandoned that plan when the FAA barred U.S. airlines from flying into airlines on July 22nd. Unsure of what the future held there, I then looked into Norway, only to discover that Oslo was warning of a terrorist threat. So much for that plan.
My husband Jim and I conferred and decided to check out Prague, a city we had tried to fit into a past itinerary without success. But then, reports of anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues, Jewish stores, and Jews in Paris made headlines. Then news came of neo-Nazi demonstrations in Berlin. I searched the news and discovered other anti-Israeli protests in Toronto, Los Angeles and Edinburgh. Maybe this was not the time to travel.
Jim’s face fell when I suggested not going anywhere. He had grown attached to the idea of Prague, the city of Mozart (he had recently studied Mozart’s operas on an audio course). He then suggested Salzburg, where Mozart was born. As a bonus, our visit would coincide with Salzburg’s annual Mozart Festival. But I was wondering, for the first time, whether I would feel comfortable as a Jew visiting countries where anti-Semitism may lurk beneath the surface, with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as a catalyst to unleash it.
I slept on it, and four days before we needed to leave, I began to book the vacation. I found the Prague Apartments in the Old Town and booked six nights through HomeAway, and then found a guesthouse on Booking.com in Grodig, a small village outside of Salzburg.
We were able to get tickets to great events like this Mozart dinner, which Jim arranged online while we were in Prague.
Booking the Prague Apartments was one of the best vacation decisions ever. Once I made my initial inquiries, they kept in constant contact, asking if I needed any other help. They offered to pick up groceries, pick us up at the airport, book events – anything. I told them they were spoiling me, and accepted their offers on the groceries and being picked up at the airport. They also helped me figure out how to get from Prague to Salzburg through a combination ticket reservation of bus and train.
Our apartment was perfectly situated, just a few blocks from the bridge leading to the Little Quarter at the foot of Petrin Hill, where I would walk every morning as a respite from the crowds of tourists surging through the streets of Old Town.
A couple of days before we were to leave Prague, two lovely young women at the apartment desk were helping me make reservations for the trip from Prague to Salzburg. Suddenly one got up to go to a back room and came back carrying my light gray jacket. It had been returned by the driver late the previous evening. I explained to both that this was my schmatte, and what this Yiddish expression meant. One of the young women responded, “I have to remember this word schmatte. I like it.”
That evening I took it with me to the Spanish Synagogue, our last music venue of our travels. We had seen Don Giovanni at the Prague Opera House, where it was first performed, and a Mozart and Dvorak concert in the Prague Concert Hall. But none of them touched the acoustical clarity and richness of the synagogue. A string quartet was accompanied by a solo vocalist who sang a Verdi aria and then short selections from musicals by Rogers and Hammerstein and Bernstein’s Candide. The program ended with the soloist singing four Jewish songs. The last was “Hatikvah (Hope),” Israel’s national anthem.
The music embraced us all and unleashed something in me. Just the day before we’d toured the Jewish quarter’s five synagogues and the Jewish cemetery. We saw that Prague Jews once were a vibrant part of the city’s culture and social fabric. I thought of the creation of Israel to receive these outcast Jews, the present quagmire between Israel and the Palestinians, another group of outcasts, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in some parts of Europe – as the performer’s voice unleashed feelings of anguish and hope.
Tears were streaming. We left the synagogue, stepped into the cool night air, and I slipped into my schmatte.