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Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Josefov, is one of the most popular areas of the city when it comes to tourism, but you don’t need to be a scholar of history to know that the history of Jews in the city hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. Not everything is as it seems when it comes to Josefov.
This neighbourhood has seen more than its fair share of horror over the centuries but contains some of the oldest and proudest buildings in the Czech capital. This is the story of Prague’s Jewish Quarter, from AD 965 to the modern day.
Tenth-century Arabic Jewish traveller Ibrahim ibn Yaqub was the first to write about Prague from an outside perspective, and he was quick to mention the Jewish merchants working in the city’s markets. The Jewish community in Prague can thus trace its origins all the way back to the late 10th century, but to call its history tumultuous would be, if anything, an understatement.
Barely a century has passed without Prague’s Jews being faced with some sort of threat to their existence. Pogroms, killings and exclusions have been commonplace, with Easter Sunday in 1389 representing one of the darkest days. Some 1,500 Jewish citizens of Prague were massacred that 17 April alone, in one of the most horrific examples of Bohemian anti-Semitism in Medieval times.
The 16th century is seen as a renaissance of sorts, but even these prosperous times were punctuated with mass expulsions and bouts of violence. Despite the uncertainty, by the 18th century, the Czech capital was home to more Jews than anywhere else on the planet. The neighbourhood was named Josefov (Josefstadt in German) in 1850, but the relaxation of anti-Semitic laws actually saw its population decrease, as members of the Jewish community moved to other parts of the city.
Josefov was demolished at the end of the 19th century and rebuilt with Paris in mind, but it wasn’t long before the horrors of World War II made it to Prague. The Munich betrayal left Czechoslovakia to the whims of Nazi Germany. Jews were excluded from all walks of life. Wearing the Star of David became compulsory on 1 September 1941, and just over a month later Prague’s Jewish community was deported to ghettos and camps across Nazi-occupied Europe.
Despite the horrors of World War II, much of Prague’s architecture managed to survive the conflict. How did the buildings of the Jewish Quarter in the heart of one of Hitler’s most desired cities manage to survive? It is believed that Hitler wanted to establish a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race’ here once the war was over, and hundreds of thousands of Jewish artefacts were transported to Prague from all over Europe.
While the full extent of the plan may forever remain unknown, the Nazis did indeed put into motion plans for a Jewish museum in Prague. The Central Jewish Museum came into being in 1942, the brainchild of Dr Karel Stein, who was as interested in preserving his own culture as he was in appeasing the Nazis. Priceless artefacts were thus moved to Prague, although the museum was only ever open to high-ranking Nazis.
Josefov is now one of Prague’s most popular tourist spots. The Jewish Quarter is home to a number of buildings that have their own stories to tell when it comes to the history of Prague, not least the neighbourhood’s six synagogues. The Klausen Synagogue is the largest in town today, its name coming from the Latin for ‘closed space’.
Klausen may be the largest, but it is far from the most famous of Josefov’s synagogues, an accolade that is arguably shared by a trio of synagogues within spitting distance of each other. The confusingly named Old-New Synagogue is not just the oldest in the Jewish Quarter; it is also the oldest active synagogue in Europe.
Active since the 13th century, the Old-New Synagogue (originally called the Great Synagogue) is one of the oldest Gothic buildings in the entire city. Legend has it that the body of the fabled Golem lies in its attic, the folkloric monster lying in wait until it is needed to save Prague’s Jews once again.
As famous as the Old-New Synagogue is Pinkas Synagogue, the second-oldest in the city and now home to a poignant memorial to the lives lost during the Holocaust. That memorial is said to be the longest epitaph in the world, the names of more than 78,000 individuals who perished in the Nazi death machine.
The Spanish Synagogue may be the newest in town, but it is also arguably the most beautiful. This Moorish Revival delight was completed in 1868, and its exquisite interior is among the most impressive in Europe, let alone Josefov. The quarter is also home to the Maisel and High synagogues, not as famous as the others but well worth checking out nonetheless.
There is more to Josefov architecturally than the synagogues of course. The Old Jewish Cemetery may well be the most important Jewish landmark in the city. It is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and holds the remains of many of Prague’s most prominent Jews. The Jewish Town Hall and Ceremonial Hall also stand proudly in the Jewish Quarter, both offering a window into a past that is as heart-wrenching as it is inspiring.
The past of Prague’s Jews is extremely well documented, but what of the present and future? The capital is undoubtedly the centre of Jewish life in the Czech Republic today, but the population continues to drop with every passing census. The post-war Jewish population in the country was 18,000, a number that dropped to as low as 3,900 in 2010.
Despite its small numbers, the Czech Jewish community is thriving in its own way. The Chabad Memorial Center is found in the centre of Josefov and has been active since 1975, doing a fine job in encouraging cultural awareness in the Jews of the city. There are also plenty of kosher restaurants across the city, with Dinitz one of the standouts.
Despite the uncertainty and inconsistency that have plagued Prague’s Jews for well over a millennium, the city has given birth to some of the most important influential Jewish personalities on the continent. Sitting proudly at the top of this pile is none other than Franz Kafka, one of the most beloved writers in the history of European literature.
What does the future hold for Prague’s Jewish Quarter? It is impossible to tell, but this small collection of buildings is among the most popular with visitors to the city, not to mention one of the most historic neighbourhoods in Europe. Both history and the Jewish community are alive and well in Prague, the City of a Hundred Spires.