“A Boy of Old Prague,” by Aulamith Ish-Kishop.
Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1963, 90 pages, Reading Level: Grades 4-6.
Comprehension Level: Grades 4 through adult.
Anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jewish people and the religion of Judaism. In some European countries, anti-Semitism has been an ugly, violent practice for centuries. The sad truth is that while some Christians took great pains and risks to shelter Jews from violence, other Christians were guilty of horrific attacks on Jews.
Feeding into this hatred was an ignorance of Jewish religious and cultural practices. For example, Jewish kosher laws mandated that animals had to be butchered in a certain manner to be considered religiously clean. Because of this, Jews could not buy certain food products from Gentiles if they wished to stay pure. While there is nothing wrong with the Jewish dietary laws, they tended to lead to Gentile suspicions of Jews. When this is mixed in with latent animosity against the Jewish people because of Christ’s Crucifixion, the possibilities of anti-Semitic acts rises.
Aulamith Ish-Kishop has written an outstanding book on all of these issues. The name of this book is “A Boy of Old Prague.”
Tomas is a Czech peasant born in 1540. His family scrapes by on a barren, peasant existence. They rarely have meat and must labor four days a week for the local noble. The remaining three days are filled with backbreaking work to try to survive on their small patch of land.
Through a chance event, Tomas is placed in the castle of a Czech prince. Unnoticed by everyone, he keeps his head down and does his work. He begins to wonder if his family is well and discovers that his mother is quite sick. Knowing they have little food, he steals a chicken to take to his family. Caught immediately by the prince, Tomas is condemned to death.
Later, the prince changes his mind and sends Tomas into the Jewish ghetto to pay a debt the prince owes a rich Jewish lender. The boy is terrified as he has been told many times that Jews kill children, mix their blood in religious services and are in league with demons. When he arrives at the older Jewish man’s house, much to his surprise, he is treated with kindness and dignity. A young child in the family becomes quite attached to Tomas. As he walks throughout the ghetto, he keeps meeting many Jewish people who have the same fears and hopes that he does.
Now Tomas is confused. He has been told all his life that Jews did awful things to Christians. But no one is doing anything bad to him. In fact, he is being well taken care of in the Jewish home. But no sooner does he realize the humanity of his Jewish family and neighbors than the prince decides to make the Jews a scapegoat for his problems. The prince organizes an attack or pogrom on the ghetto. What happens in the attack and what does Tomas do?
Aulamith Ish-Kishop is a well-known Jewish writer. She carefully crafts the Czech society that molded Tomas. We see the anti-Semitic sides of the country and the violent attacks that Christians make against Jews in the name of religion. But we also see the heroic sacrifice that some Christians make for Jews in the face of this hatred. Tomas is changed from an ignorant, bigoted boy into a thoughtful young man. The change comes about because of the love he receives from various Jewish people in the ghetto.
So in spite of the vicious attack on the Jewish ghetto, the author leaves readers with hope for a better future. Love has changed Tomas for the better. He has learned about the humanity of the Jewish community. The author offers this as an object lesson on how to counter anti-Semitism: love can overcome hate.
This book can still be purchased through bookstores and online distributors. I hope you get a chance to read this poignant story.