Prague Stories and Tips

The Jewish Quarter (Josefov)

Travel Photo by IgoUgo member

Two of my friends wanted to visit the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) in Prague to get closer to their Jewish heritage. I decided to tag along since I was curious to see what the inside of a Synagogue looked like and since I had nothing special planned that morning. The Jewish Quarter dates back to after the 1st crusade in 1096. Crusaders killed some Jewish people and converted others. During this time the remaining Jews were ordered to settle in one area and leave their original homes in the city. In 1262, the Jewish community living here was granted some self administration. At the end of the 16th century a Jewish mayor and minister of finance used his wealth to develop the ghetto. The ghetto was renamed Josefov or Joseph’s city in 1850 after the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. He issued a toleration Edith in 1781 which freed the Jewish community to move around. Only orthodox Jews and the poor Jews remained in the ghetto.

From 1893-1913 many buildings in the quarter ere destroyed to make the city more like Paris. At one point it was said there were 50,000 Jews living in Prague. However, the Nazi atrocities and subsequent communist regime caused the population of Jews in Prague to dwindle. It has been estimated that only 10% of the Jews in Prague survived German occupation. Today, the Jewish community on Prague numbers 5000-6000 people. There are two kosher restaurants in the area. The Jewish quarter has been overbuilt with 20th century buildings. What remains from pre-1893 are 6 synagogues, the old cemetery and the Jewish Town Hall. The Jewish museum was created in 1906 to save artifact from synagogues in Prague which were being lost during the reconstruction of the ghetto. During the Nazi occupation, Hitler closed the museum to the public and changed the name to the "museum of the extinct race". The museum now holds about 40,000 artifacts and 100,000 printed materials. Not everything is on display. The collection is spread out in various buildings and synagogues in Josefov. When here, I brought a pass which included all the Jewish sites. The old-new synagogue was a separate ticket which I did not purchase. We did not get to see all the sites. However, I will describe the ones we managed to see.

The first site we went to was the old Jewish cemetery which is said to be the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. It was created in 1478. Since then until about 1787, it is said that 100,000 to 200,000 Jewish residents were buried here. It is said the bodies are stacked one on top of another in layers as much as twelve deep. This was since there are so many people to be buried in such a small space. There are about 12,000 gravestones, some are intact some are broken. The Jewish museum has been trying to conserve and restore the cemetery since 1990. The most famous Jews buried here are Rabbi Low and Mordechai Maisel. Close to here is the Pinkas synagogue which was our next stop. This synagogue was founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas. Over the centuries it was rebuilt numerous times. There are two features that will strike you in this building. The first is the inscriptions on the walls of the Jewish Czeck victims of the Nazi’s. There are 77,297 names inscribed on the walls.

The next thing that is very moving is the collection of paintings and drawings of children held in the Terezin concentration camp of WWII. Next we went into the Spanish synagogue which was built in 1868. The interior of the building was beautiful with its Spanish and Moorish influences. There were intricate carving and bright colors were used in various art. Don’t forget to look up at the beautiful high dome. There was an exhibition on the life of Bohemian Jews which was pretty good. One thing you can see for free is the outside of the Jewish town hall. The hall was built in the 18th century and there are two clocks on the Rococo facade. The upper clock has Roman numeral and reads moves clockwise. The lower clock is inn Hebrew and moves counterclockwise. It is a beautiful thing to see that is free.

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