Jews in Prague: a short journey through history
Prague’s Jewish quarter, Josefov, is sandwiched between the Vltava River and the Staré Mesto district. Six synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery are the tourist highlights of this part of the city. Prayer services are held in the Old New, the High, the Jerusalem and the Spanish Synagogues. During the First Republic (1918-1928) 30,000 people made up the Jewish community. Today, about 5,000 Jews live in Prague. Josefov is a small neighbourhood but rich in history.
photo: sculpture of Princess Libuše in Karlova Street
Princess Libuše’s Prediction
According to legend, Princess Libuše predicted not only that Prague would develop into an important city, but also that Jews would settle in the city during the reign of Bohemian Prince Hostivit who lived in the ninth century. This prediction is not so strange. Prague, situated on the banks of the Vltava River, was an important junction of trade routes linking northern and southern Europe. It is a fact that from the beginning of the common era Jewish traders followed this route.
It was not until the Middle Ages that Jewish merchants settled in Prague. These Ashkenazi Jews settled in the area around today’s Dusni Street. Sephardic Jews, came to Prague after their expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century. Their house of prayers is now known as the Spanish Synagogue and is located close to the street called U Staré školy, the old school, or more accurately, the old shul. It is very likely that the oldest synagogue in Prague stood in the place where today the Jewish Museum and the Spanish synagogue stand.
Initially, the Jews had complete freedom of movement and trade in Prague; they could buy houses and hold important offices. However, at the end of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, their situation changed. The fourth Lateran Council determined that Jews could only be engaged in the money trade and could only live in Židovské město, Jewish city, now Josefov.
A wall with six gates locked at night separated the Jewish city from the Christian part of Prague. Jews were completely at the mercy of their rulers who had the right to do with them whatever they pleased. The Christian Church saw this as a symbolic punishment for the fact that the Jews were the murderers of Christ. It was not until the sixteenth century that life in the ghetto became more relaxed.
Photo: Old Jewish Cemetery, part of Jewish Museum Prague
The Jews were discriminated against. Every famine, epidemic or other disaster was a motive for a pogrom. Rabbi Avigdor Kara, poet and scholar, describes in his elegy, Selicha, how during the Easter pogrom in 1389 the ghetto was set on fire, looted and the inhabitants massacred. The reason was an alleged gossip that Jews pelted a priest with stones while he was on his way to administer the last rites to a dying person. Rabbi Kara is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery. His tombstone reads: 23 April 1439, the oldest grave in this graveyard.
Photo: Maiselova Synagogue
Desired and Cursed
Until the early sixteenth century, life for the Jews in Prague was difficult. They were constantly threatened with eviction, which never happened because they were needed for the economy mainly as moneylenders. Christian Prague merchants were eager to get rid of their Jewish competitors, but the Habsburg dynasty needed more and more money for their wars against the Turks and wanted to keep their financiers.
Photo: Jewish Town Hall in Josefov
A Golden age dawned for the Jews at the end of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Jews expelled from Moravia, Austria and Spain came to live in the Prague ghetto and the population almost doubled. Emperor Rudolf II granted them more and more privileges and greater scientific and commercial freedom. This brought prosperity and they were allowed to build homes outside the ghetto. Inside they had their own town hall, something quite unusual for Jews to have. The first mayor of the Jewish city was Mordechai Maisel, financier of Rudolf and founder of the Maisel synagogue.
In 1745 during the reign of Maria Theresa, conditions for the Jews deteriorated again. The Empress, an ardent Roman Catholic, had a deep hatred for Jews and at her command they had to leave the city. Three years later, the Empress revoked the exile and the Jews were allowed to return. Their expulsion the economy because Jews were moneylenders and suppliers of raw materials. She allowed them to come back but imposed an annual tolerance tax which, if paid, would prevent future expulsions.
Photo: Art Nouveau facade in Parizska Street
In the course of the nineteenth century, the Jewish city had grown into a maze of insanitary alleys where some 40,000 people lived. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ghetto was demolished and Josefov was created, a district with wide boulevards and buildings in Art Nouveau style. During the Nazi occupation, many Jews were deported to extermination camps. However, the Jewish monuments in Josefov were spared because Hitler wanted to turn this neighborhood into an “exotic museum of an extinct race.” As Jews from all over Europe were forced to give up their artifacts, the Jewish Museum in Prague has an enormous collection of precious Jewish art at its disposal.
Photo: the old ghetto
Nazis and Jews
Until 1939, many German Jews and later Sudeten German Jews believed they had found a safe haven in Prague. Sudeten Germans were ethnic Germans living in the Czech lands. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Jewish community in Prague numbered about 56,000 souls, of which more than 40,000 died in concentration camps, many were murdered in Theresienstadt. The memories of these atrocities are written on the walls of the Pinkas synagogue – the names, date of birth and day of transport to the death camps of each Jewish victims
Communists and Jews
The communists who liberated what was then known as Czechoslovakia brought little good to the remaining Jews. The Stalinist regime was openly anti-Semitic and many staunch communists of Jewish descent were sentenced to death in mock trials. During communism, Jewish life in Prague virtually came to a standstill. When the Prague Spring was brutally suppressed in 1968, most of the depleted Jewish community fled west. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, a reunion of Jewish exiles took place in Prague.
Photo: Spanish Synagogue
The Josefov district is north of Old Town Square and borders the Vltava River. Parizská Trida bisects the heart of this quarter. This elegant boulevard is lined with luxury shops, stylish cafes, bars and restaurants. Here are the flag stores of international fashion houses – Hermes, Dior and Louis Vuitton. The side streets are the domain of the boutiques of Czech designers such as Hana Havelkova and Klara Nademlynska. Parallel to the Parizska street is Maiselova, the street home to most of the synagogues, the Jewish town hall and the old Jewish cemetery.
Jewish Monuments in Present-day Prague
The Jewish Museum consists of six places of interest, four synagogues; Maiselova, Pinkas, Klausova and Spanish Synagogue, the old Jewish cemetery and the ceremonial hall. Combination tickets for these six attractions are available at the entrance of each attraction. A walk through the Josefov district leads past two more synagogues: the Old New Synagogue and the High Synagogue which cannot be visited because they are places of worship for the Jewish community in Prague.
photos: Marianne Crone and Wiki Commons