Jews have lived in Prague since 965 In the 13th century, Prague’s Jews were banned from living outside a particular area of the city. They had to leave their homes and settle in a prescribed area, the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov. During the mid 1500’s, Prague’s Jewish population almost doubled as Jews were expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain.
In 1708, Jews were 1/4 of Prague’s population and by the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. In the 19th century, Prague’s Jews gained freedoms and began integrating into society. All that changed when the Nazis came in 1939.
Initially, the vast majority of Czech Jews were imprisoned in Terezin, a ghetto north of Prague. Others were sent directly to concentration camps. More than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Today, there are estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the Czech Republic.
The synagogues no longer need to serve large populations. Rather than let them fall into disrepair, have become different parts of the Jewish Museum in Prague and are best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe. Six synagogues remain and have been restored. Together, they comprise the Jewish Museum.* The sites include:
- Franz Kafka’s birthplace
- High Synagogue (Vysoká synagog) – This 16th century synagogue contains an exhibition of Torah mantels, curtains and ornaments.
- Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) – This 18th century rococo town hall Jewish Town Hall has a clock tower whose hands run backwards as Hebrew reads from right to left. Part of the building dates from 1586.
- Klaus Synagogue (Klausova synagoga) – It is 16th century baroque synagogue that houses Hebrew prints, manuscripts and has a good exhibition explaining Jewish traditions and customs..
- Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was once destroyed by fire. Now, it houses a collection of items brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of vanished people.
- Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was rebuilt many times since it was founded in 1479. After WWII it became a memorial to the 77,297 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the Nazi Holocaust. These numbers do not include Slovakian Jews, only Jews from current Czech territory. Each of the victim’s names is written in alphabetical order on the walls with their date of birth and the date they were last seen alive. The building is silent except for prayers and a reading the names of the dead, which alternate over the sound system.
- Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagog) – This 19th century synagogue is a stunning building named after its Moorish interior. It contains an exhibition of the life of Jews in the Czech Republic. Despite it’s appearance, it was never used by Sephardic Jews, but was an early Reform temple.
- Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagog) – Dating from 1270, this Gothic synagogue is the oldest working in Prague. It is legendary and reputed to be the home of the famous Golem of Prague. It requires an additional ticket that can be purchased at the same time.
- Jewish Ceremonial Hall, Prague (Obřadní síň) – This beautiful 20th century neo-renaissance hall abuts the cemetery. It houses an exhibit on death and burial customs.
- Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov) This 15th-18th century cemetery is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and one of the most unusual sites. Founded in 1478, it is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. As Jews were not permitted to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter and space was tight, there was a severe lack of space. 100,000 people are thought to be buried here. To fit them all, people had to be buried on top of each other. There are about 12 layers and over 12,000 gravestones. Since Jews do not believe in moving the dead, even when permitted to bury outside the quarter, they did not move the bodies to make more space.
It is customary for Jews to put small stones on a gravesite when visiting it.
Over the years, the bodies accumulated. Now the cemetery is over a story above street level.
I found the concept of having a museum divided between several important buildings all within close walking distance to each other really interesting and easy to manage. Each one has a different focus and so they compliment each other, rather than overlap. It was an incredibly interesting and moving morning.