Prague Stories and Tips

Josefov - the old jewish ghetto and cemetery

Prague is a colourful, delightful city but some pretty terrible things happened here, and most of it in the 20th century. Not far away from the tourist crowds on Staromanske Namesti or the Charles Bridge is the old jewish ghetto with its synagogues, houses and cemeteries. The ghetto was decimated in the Second World War and the whole area has a sombre, reflective mood. Here is an opportunity to see the remains of a people obliterated by genocide, and even if you find the weight of history too much for you the Old Jewish cemetery with it's row upon row of hebrew gravestones is still one of the best sights in Prague.

Josefov is named after the enlightened Austrian Emporer Josef II who lifted most of the restrictions on jews and allowed them to live peaceably in the empire. Here they lived in the ghetto between Staromanske Namesti and the river. During the 19th century, despite attempts at assimilation, Josefov contained over 40,000 jews. By the time of the Anschluss in 1938 there were over 90,000 living in Josefov. As soon as the Nazis took over Czechkloslovakia they issued anti-semitic edicts and in 1941 the first transport of jews was sent to the camp at Terezin. By the end of the holocaust, 77,000 had died in the death camps and the survivors who came back to Prague at the end of the war numbered 8,000. A significant number of these joined the communist party only to fall victim to Stalinist anti-semitic purges during the 1950's.

To understand what Prague has been through during the 20th Century a visit here is a must. It is, however, well on the tourist trail and you can follow the crowds down Pariska. where you turn left for Josefov. As a tourist attraction the area is not too delicate (yiddish marionette's anyone?) and you can buy a combined ticket for three of the most important synagogue's - the Klausen, Old-New and Pinkas. The Klausen contains the most memorabillia including photos of the old ghetto, and priceless menorah and Torah's. One of the curators explained to us that the reason they have so many judaica still here is that Hitler was building up a collection on a deviant race here in Prague, something to justify his actions to the world when they had all disappeared.

Around the corner in Siroka is the Pinkas synagogue, when you enter they give you a little disposable skullcap (mine kept blowing away on the wind) and inside are 77,000 names enshrined on the walls along with their date of birth and date of transportation to the camp. The whole synagogue was covered in names from floor to ceiling. Most were born in the 1880's but I spotted some from the 1930's meaning they were children! Horrible! You leave the Pinkas synagogue through the Old Jewish cemetery which is a high-walled area smothered in hundreds and hundreds of hebrew headstones. The earliest ones go back to the 1530's but they are stacked against each other like playing cards. Along with rooks cawing overhead this is a very atmospheric part of Prague.

To have a breath of fresh air after Josefov - head for the river.The honeystone medieval streets will take you past the baroque concert hall the Rudolfinium, where a flyer-giver will no doubt be hovering dressed in 18th costume. But you can walk all the way to the Vyserad fortress along the riverbank. And you will be stunned that there is so much greenery in a capital city. But Prague, despite it's shadowy past, is a city of colour. It's townhouses are painted bright yellow, pink, blue, lemon, mauve, jet black and emerald green - all festooned with cherubs and statues. This maybe the most colourful city in the world.

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