When you think about visiting Prague, there are places you simply cannot miss. Just to name few, Prague Castle, Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square or Charles Bridge. And, Josefov, known also as the former Jewish Quarter.
Jews settled in Prague in the 9th century, as the merchants from the trade caravans. Their homes were situated in various areas of the city. However, since the 13th century, they were ordered to move to the area next to the Old Town Square. And remained there for next hundreds of years. Today, this part of the city is officially named as Josefov, former Jewish Ghetto.
Jews in Prague experienced the golden times but also several anti-Jewish pogroms. It all shaped not only the community but the town itself as well. The greatest development of the Jewish quarter happened in the 16th century, under the reign of Emperor Rudolf II and major of Jewish area Mordechai Maisel – streets were paved, Town Hall and several synagogues were built. Many of them are standing until today.
18th century brought the most dramatic changes to the life of Jewish town. Emperor Joseph II., issued reforms that helped the emancipation and development of the Jewish community. In following decades, Jews started to leave the ghetto, moving to other parts of Prague. Their vacate homes welcomed poor, there was no basic sanitation. The whole area became one of the poorest parts of the city and therefore had to be “developed” in the late 19th century.
Streets and houses were demolished, new apartments and boulevards built instead. Even several synagogues were torn down, including palaces of the most notable Jews. Modern buildings (at least for the beginning of the 20th century) filled the new streets.
Only some synagogues from the medieval times survived, and they tell us the story of Jewish community. Let’s have a walk through them.
Old-New synagogue is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe, standing in Prague for more than 700 years. As the legend says, the foundation stones were brought from the Temple in Jerusalem, under the condition to be returned back once the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Another legend says, that in the attic is hidden the mystical Golem, protector of Jewish community, made by the famous Rabi Low. Whether or not these legends are true, synagogue is still in use by the orthodox Jewish community. Its interior is very simple, but filled with all the hidden symbols.
Pinkas Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery
During the WW2 Jewish community lost the majority of its members. Since 1941 Jews were transported to the Terezin Ghetto and to other concentration camps further to East. Pinkas Synagogue, dated back to the 16th century, is a memorial to all of those, who never returned back once the war was over. There are their names written on the walls, counting more than 80.000.
Once you walk outside the Pinkas Synagogue, the path takes you to the Jewish Cemetery. The oldest tombstone is dated back to the year 1439 and belongs to Avigdor Kara, famous Jewish writer. To make more space through the centuries, cemetery had to be raised up to twelve layers. And you are walking on the top one.
Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall
Klausen synagogue hold the main exhibition about Jewish traditions and customs. Ceremonial hall, on the other side, was the seat of the Burial Society, the group of the volunteers who took care of ill people and funeral service. The exhibition is therefore dedicated to this object.
The best for the end, right? One of the most stunning buildings in all Europe is undoubtedly Spanish Synagogue, dated back to the end of the 19th century. There used to be an old oratory, in the very same place, in medieval times. Because of its poor condition, Jewish community agreed to rebuilt it, to the present form, designed in Spanish Moorish style, just like the in Alhambra. The present exhibition is dedicated to the history of Jews in the 19th-20th century, to the Jewish literature (with the person of Franz Kafka) and special part explaining the story of Terezín Ghetto during WW2 events.
Note: Spanish synagogue is closed until 2021 due to reconstruction.
Are you interested to discover Jewish Quarter? Join my tour Jewish Quarter Tour.