The Alchemy of Militant Memory

Seventy-eight thousand. That’s roughly the number of names that cover the inside walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in the Josefov section of Prague. Each name is perhaps an inch tall, its calligraphy unadorned and neat, grouped first by town or region, then alphabetically. These are, it is stated upon entering, the names of all Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed during the Shoah.

In the 16th century, Prague was all but synonymous with alchemy, the mystic chemistry that sought the secret of how one thing became another, how lead might be transformed to gold, and the discovery of eternal life. A two-minute walk from the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old-New Synagogue, which, legend has it, contains in its attic the mud and clay remains of the Golem mythically brought to life by Rabbi Low, the Maharal of Prague. Rabbi Low is known to have had at least one audience with the Bohemian King Rudolf II. The subject of the meeting was the Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah and alchemy are, of course, separate systems. Nonetheless, it is more than mere speculation that alchemists and Kabbalists compared notes during the height of alchemy’s popularity. And it is more than a bit likely that Rudolf, a steadfast patron of alchemy, sought to discuss Kabbalah with the Rabbi with just that aim in mind.

Today we know that alchemy is bunk, and it is easy to look back at those who practiced it as simpletons mistaking fantasy for science. This is a profoundly ahistorical way to look at these practices. Alchemical experiments gave way to what we understand now to be the modern scientific method. It was the fanciful act of “what if,” of imagination, that led to our present understanding of how the universe spins, how life endures, and how it ends.

A name, as so many overuses of “that which we call a rose” remind us, is a paltry substitute for the human being. A name alone cannot communicate a history, a person’s wants or desires, their strongest hopes, their most burdensome regrets or fears. Thus there is a humble kind of alchemy in letting simple block letters stand-in for them, an understanding that even as we read the name we can never wrap our heads around the full scope of the human whose life was snuffed by bullets, disease, or Zyklon B.

No, the name that stares back at us is static and plain. It is a few inches on a wall. Altogether, though, they take up several discreet rooms. If you are unfamiliar with the layout of the Synagogue, then you are overwhelmed that the next room’s walls are as covered as the last. Seventy-eight thousand names, inscribed in inch-high ink, covers hundreds of square feet. And this isn’t even one percent of the names of those – be they Jew or communist, Roma or queer – who died in the Nazis’ great extermination. How much space would each person’s diary occupy, their inner monologues and plans for futures they would never get? How much space for ten million of those diaries? To contemplate it is to inundate yourself with tears.

No rote quantification can ever do justice to a calamity of this size. It is why imagination is so necessary a component to our existence. It allows us to at least tenuously grasp the enormity of existential threat. Memory, in its own alchemical way, is supposed to keep us alive.

It’s why we can no better afford to throw our myths out than we can our memories. Sometimes, they are synonymous, at least in terms of providing us a reservoir of warning and hope. One story, glommed on as an appendix to the legend of the Golem of Prague, takes place during the Nazi occupation of the city. A group of Wehrmacht soldiers, stormed into the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, in search of the pile of dirt, dust, and clay that had a few centuries before been raised by the Maharal into a hulking homunculus to mercilessly protect his community from pogroms and blood libel.

Naturally, this story is apocryphal. It very likely never happened. But given the Third Reich’s infamous fascination with the occult, their search for mystical aids in the dominance of the Aryan race, it isn’t altogether unbelievable that its army would be sent to ensure any and all resistance – natural or supernatural – were crushed.

In any event, so goes the story, those Nazis never left that attic. Worth remembering, no?

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