Chasing real-life golems in the Prague ghetto

In fantasy games, golems are mostly treated like 'magic robots.' But the origin of the golem myth is a lot more complicated.

Tombstones lean at crazy angles in every direction, their Hebrew carvings worn and stained green by moss. The oldest grave here belongs to the rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara, who died in 1439. He’s far from alone. Jewish law states that a grave cannot be destroyed, and medieval law stated that the Jews had to live — and die — behind the ghetto walls. Caught between religious and secular power, Prague’s Jews did the only thing they could: they piled the earth higher and raised the tombstones, until they looked like layer upon layer of crowded shark teeth. Burials go twelve layers deep in some places.

Yet with so many graves, everyone stops at one. It’s a tumba — a stone sarcophagus in the shape of a tent — with a rampant lion crest. This is the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague. And people aren’t at his grave because he was a great Talmudic scholar, a renowned philosopher and mystic, or a legendary leader — they’re here to see the Jewish Dr. Frankenstein.

Because as legends has it, Rabbi Loew created the golem, and I — like the others here — want to chase a monster I’ve mostly encountered through video games.

Golems, as depicted in Dungeons and Dragons lore. Golems, as depicted in Dungeons and Dragons lore.

Today we know the golem as a fantasy monster. They’re strong enemies and steadfast allies in Dragon Age, and powerful tank units in Clash of Clans. A puffy snow golem, Marshmallow, even rears his icicle-fanged head in Disney’s Frozen. Any rock elemental, and more than a few clockwork soldiers, owe something to the story of the golem. But this modern conception of the creature comes from Dungeons & Dragons. When flesh, stone, and iron golems made their debut in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement, it entrenched them in the fantasy imagination. From a game design perspective, it’s easy to see why the golem remains popular: it’s license to shove robots into a medieval world. They’re metal men, animated by magic rather than electricity. It also misses the original point of the monster.

Taking the golem out of a religious context — and placing it in a world where Judaism doesn’t exist — severs the creature from much of its meaning. In medieval and early modern Kabbalism, creating a golem was an act that mirrored God’s creation of man. One method involved chanting divine word combinations, another involved calling it up from the dust, while a third suggested forming a clay figure and dancing around it in an ecstatic trance. All three of these tactics mirrored passages in Genesis about God speaking the world into existence, or sculpting humanity out of earth. In some methods, the rabbi animated the creature by drawing a powerful Hebrew word (shem) on the creature’s forehead or inserting a parchment into its mouth or chest. Prague tradition holds that Rabbi Loew used this final method.

In the late 1500s, Emperor Rudolph II was preparing a pogrom — an organized massacre — targeting the Jewish quarter. With his community facing slaughter, Rabbi Loew went to the Vltava River and sculpted a huge man from its silt mud. Chanting ritual strings of words, he inscribed the word emet, truth, on the creature’s forehead. When the clay eyes opened, Loew told the creature to defend the Jews of Prague.

The golem went about its work. It bowled through anti-Semitic mobs and crushed soldiers in its hands. It battled day and night, never tiring, his heavy feet walking a constant patrol. Prague’s Jews were saved, but at a cost. For some reason — some say because Loew didn’t let the golem rest on the Sabbath, or that a girl spurned the clay man’s love — the golem turned on the Jewish community. He went mad, smashing through the streets like an elephant. Rabbi Loew intercepted the golem as it attempted to batter down the door of the Old-New Synagogue. Thinking quickly, he smeared mud on the creature’s forehead, turning emet, truth, to met — dead. The golem immediately fell to pieces.

Too dangerous to keep, but too valuable to destroy, Rabbi Loew stowed the golem’s body in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue — in case Prague’s Jewish community needed him again.

The original golem legend is rife with meaning. Religiously, it emphasizes that only God can truly make life — any work of man is a flawed, dumb thing without divine spark. Human inventions are complex tools, nothing more. In addition, the story is a warning that violence, even righteous violence conducted in self-defense, will always turn on the community.

The Old-New Synagogue which, according to legend, still contains the original golem. The Old-New Synagogue which, according to legend, still contains the original golem.

There’s nothing to the story, historically speaking. Rabbi Loew, though profoundly talented, never made a golem. By contrast, while Emperor Rudolph II had many faults (an obsession with alchemy, aloofness, letting his pet lions wander the castle and maul servants) he mostly left Prague’s Jewish quarter alone. Scholars think the story comes from the 19th century, a time when German Jews were creating folklore to rival the resurgent interest in fairy tales.

As I walk the winding cobblestones of Prague’s Jewish quarter, it’s easy to see the story as a total fabrication. Here I am, walking a street that’s witnessed a thousand years of anti-Semitic violence, and people are trying to sell me little clay men and golem T-shirts. The clay figures are their own industry, taking their place among the great temple of tourist kitsch alongside Eiffel Tower miniatures and waving lucky cats. It’s a striking contrast, seeing naked commercialism in a district still very much awash in blood.

After seeing Rabbi Loew’s grave I stopped at the Restaurant u Golema, trying to untangle meaning from the commercialism. The restaurant offers a perfect microcosm of the district’s issues. It’s in a historic building. Antiques and magazine articles about the creature line the walls. At the back, a hulking golem statue seems to burst out of a mural depicting a medieval street.

Judging by the pork on the menu, the owners aren’t Jewish. If you were unkind, you might say they’re interlopers, coopting a story of Jewish oppression for financial gain. But it’s also true that Czechs — variously ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists — look at the legend as a saga of resistance. The waiter brings a bread bowl overflowing with rich, gravy-like goulash and a spicy beer to wash it down. Prague’s known for cheap and tasty beer. The stuff comes in thick-walled mugs, so heavy they’d probably knock a Dragon Age golem out cold if you threw a good uppercut. Pint drained, I layer back into my jacket and hit the street.

The Jewish Quarter’s network of old synagogues, civic buildings and its cemetery aren’t functioning on the whole — they’re part of the sprawling Jewish Museum in Prague. One deconsecrated synagogue will have a collection of ritual objects, while the next charts royal efforts to control the Jewish quarter. Even packed with tourists, it feels like a ghost town. There are six synagogues here, a burial society structure, and a cemetery. What this district doesn’t have are many worshippers. Though some of these synagogues still operate, they feel hollow. Shelves full of family heirlooms sit in museums, because there’s no one left to use them.

The tombstone of Judah Loew ben Bezalel in Prague The tombstone of Judah Loew ben Bezalel in Prague

On March 14th, 1939, Slovakia declared independence and signed a Treaty of Protection with Germany. When Nazi divisions rolled into Prague they next day, 92,000 Jews lived in the city. By the end of the war, there were only 15,000 — the rest lost to Terezin, Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the death camps. The Nazis collected any Jewish ritual objects left behind and housed them in the empty synagogues. Hitler planned to turn them into an anthropological display he dubbed “The Museum of an Extinct Race.”

Liberation didn’t bring much relief. Further religious oppression under the Soviets sent the remaining Jews into hiding and triggered a flight to Israel. Today, there are only 3,000-4,000 registered Jews in the entire Czech Republic, though 10,000-15,000 more may choose to keep their religion private.

I walk down the street, hands in pockets against the winter cold, staring at sharp gable of the Old-New Synagogue, its saw-toothed gothic edges pointing at the grey sky. According to legend, a monster dwells in that attic vault.

Hooking around the back, I see the iron ladder set into the side of the building, leading to the attic hatch. The rungs begin fifteen feet off the ground, making sure no one can disturb the monster, or more likely, to keep vandals out. Old-school security for an old-school building. Completed in 1270, it’s the oldest operating synagogue in Europe. Only WWII silenced its prayers.

One legend holds that during the war, a Gestapo officer climbed into the attic. Locals say the sleeping golem rose up and tore him to pieces. Nonsense? Of course. But deliciously karmic nonsense, all the same.

Coming around the side I turn the heavy loop and open the synagogue’s iron door. Voices inside naturally go quiet. Taking a kippah from the attendant, I walk into the main sanctuary, past the medieval moneybox where the community collected alms to pay the “Jewish tax.” Pay the tax, the rule went, and you can continue living in Prague. High above hangs the banner of Prague’s Jewish community. The banner’s central device is an absurd hat Jews were required, by Papal decree, to wear in public during the medieval period. Once the community got used to the hat — and took it as a point of pride — the authorities swapped it out for ridiculously large collar ruffs.

This was the site of a massacre too. On Easter Sunday, 1389, a dispute over a procession whipped Prague’s Christians into a frenzy. They stormed the Jewish quarter with swords, knives and axes, killing people on the street. Ahead of the mob, a number of families sheltered in the Old-New Synagogue and conducted a kiddush ha-Shem, a ritual suicide, or self-martyrdom, to avoid massacre or forced baptism. Locals say ghostly bloodstains from this incident — where family members slaughtered each other — sometimes reappear on the walls.

The Old-New Synagogue had seen this all, long before a monster was rumored to dwell in its attic — and in a way, that’s how the Golem functions in modern Prague. He reminds both locals and visitors alike that religious repression and violence had been a part of the city long before the Nazis came. In most of modern Europe, from England to Austria, citizens have forgotten that anti-Semitic violence wasn’t an invention of the Third Reich. To even enter the Old Jewish Cemetery and see Rabbi Loew’s grave, you must walk through the Pinkas Synagogue. Pinkas is now a holocaust memorial, with the names of 78,000 Czech Jewish Holocaust victims painted on the walls. To make it all fit, the print has to be so small, you think it’s wallpaper until you get close. This overwhelming experience sets the mental tone for the cemetery, allowing you to step back in time and realize that some of the people lying here were murdered for their religion five centuries before anyone invented the word, “Nazi.” They bait you with the golem and draw you into thinking about something far less pleasant.

Forgetting is for other cities. Prague cannot help but remember — because Prague has a monster. A monster that’s tacky, true, and one that sells trinkets, and hotel rooms, and bowls of goulash. But one that also creates a channel for the city memorialize, and share, its dark past.

The golem may have been stripped of religious meaning, but there’s a good side to its inclusion in RPGs and video games. Today, from London to Seoul, anyone Googling “What is a Golem,” can learn the history of Rabbi Loew and his clay man — immortalized in a horror story that’s, by far, less horrible than the truth.

Images by MKPiekarska - Own work, GFDL and Jorge Royan - Own work, CC-BY-SA 3.0