Following my recent visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, I state herein that in general, the Jewish nation has a very sad history. It is no good to be homelandless, it is not good to be at the mercy of a host country, which results in the constant readiness to move, whether because there is a danger to one’s life from persecution and Pogroms, economic decline, or one was simply told to leave, expelled from land one considered to be his/her home for any period of time.
Jewish history is embedded deep in the cobblestone streets of Europe; it is in the remnants of once-Jewish Ghettos, synagogues, some still standing proud less their worshippers, old, rather dilapidated cemeteries, and/or city Jewish quarter, one has to imagine its boundaries and life inside the walls.
No matter what, there is no escape from ancient Jewish history whether it is in the Land of Israel, from where vibrant Jewish life was missing for 2000 years, now restored with exalting energy, or from about every corner in the world.
In Europe, where atrocities against Jews – libels, Pogroms, persecution and Nazi Final Solution Holocaust – were invented and carried out with vengeance, ancient Jewish history could be revealed under most of European cobblestone streets. And in Prague, Czech Republic, Jewish history, of approximately 1000 years, stands fierce in front of the untold numbers of visitors who, each year, visit the Jewish Quarter, Josefov.
Jewish Prague, Czech Republic
In the once-Jewish Quarter, Josefov, whose streets today are filled with trendy stores and many tourists, you need to imagine the life that once happened there. There are six synagogues, out of the thirty that once stood proudly there, and piles of broken and/or tilted dark headstones. Some headstones depict clear Hebrew inscriptions, evidencing that underneath them Jews were buried. All of this tells an incredible story of Jewish life in Bohemia and beyond.
Once Jewish Quarter Prague, Czech Republic
In the 10th century, Jews began to settle in the region of Prague. History tells us that the first Jewish settlements, which later disappeared without a trace, were in Prague’s Lesser Side, at Újezd, and below Vyšehrad. In the 1st half of the 12th century Jews settled and built a synagogue around today’s Dušní Street. During the first half of the 13th century, the Jewish population in the Prague region spread to the area of today’s Old-New Synagogue, or Altneuschul, situated in Josefov, Prague. It is considered to be Europe’s oldest synagogue, still active today, and is the oldest surviving medieval synagogue of twin-nave design. This synagogue was the landmark that established the Jewish Town – the ghetto.
In 1850, this Jewish town became Prague’s fifth quarter and was named Josefov, in memory of the emperor Josef II, who emancipated the Jews and the Ghetto became a reputable quarter, known today as part of Old Town Prague. A Town Hall, six synagogues and a cemetery are preserved from the original Jewish quarter’s neighborhood. During the renovation of Prague, at the turn of the 20th century, other buildings were demolished and replaced by Art Nouveau tenement houses and buildings.
In 2017 there are around 5,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic.
There are 6 synagogues in the country, of which only one carries out services. History tells us that in Prague, there were 30 synagogues but over the centuries, changes to the city, by several rulers, and the outcome of the Holocaust eliminated them – condensed them to so very few.
Old New Synagogue or Altneuschul
The Old-New Synagogue, or Altneuschul, completed in 1270, in gothic style, situated in Josefov, Prague, is Europe’s oldest surviving medieval synagogue of twin-nave design, and was demolished in 1867 and replaced by the Spanish Synagogue.
Spanish Reform congregation synagogue
The Spanish, active reform congregation synagogue, built in 1868, in Arabesque style architecture, on the site of the 12th-century Altneuschul, which was the oldest synagogue in the Prague ghetto and is the most recent synagogue in the Prague Jewish Town.
This synagogue was equipped with an organ and as history goes, in the years 1836 to-1845, František Škroup, the composer of the Czech national anthem, served as organist in this synagogue. It is was named the Spanish Synagogue for its impressive Moorish interior design, influenced by the famous Alhambra.
In the synagogue, there is a permanent exhibition of the History of Jews in Bohemi and Moravia lands, dealing with the history of the Jews in the Bohemian lands from the tome of the reforms by Joseph II, in the 1780s, to the period after the Second World War.
The exhibition highlights the gradual advancement toward greater equality and emancipation for Jews in Austria-Hungary, describes the foundation of the Czech-Jewish and Zionist movements, and profiles the most important Jewish entrepreneurs, scientists, writers, musicians and artists, including Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler. Its special focus is on the Shoah of the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, and the Terezín ghetto.
The synagogue’s permanent exhibition of silverware from Bohemia and Moravia is located on its upper floor, featuring a representative selection of more than 200 of the most valuable silver collections, some were brought in from other synagogues that were demolished.
In 1938, at the start of the Nazi era, whereby Czechoslovakia was the center of the infamous “peace in our time” Munich Agreement, a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders, mainly inhabited by German speaking people, for which a new territorial designation “Sudetenland” was coined. Indirectly, Hitler enriched the museum’s collection because the Nazis wanted to preserve the expensive silverware from the synagogues they destroyed and thus all remained intact.
Most space is given to Torah ornaments – shields, pointers, finials and crowns. Also on display are charity boxes, pitcher and basin sets for hand washing, Shabbat spice boxes, Kiddush cups, Hanukkah and Shabbat candles, and charity collection trays.
Pinkas Synagogue, built in1535, in late Gothic style, named after Rabbi Pinkas Horowitz, is the second oldest surviving and preserved synagogue in Prague, administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague, turned a memorial for nearly 80,000 Czech Jewish Shoah victims.
The Klausen synagogue
The Klausen synagogue is the biggest synagogue in the Prague Jewish Town and was Prague’s Jewish community’s second main synagogue and a number of its prominent rabbis served there.
“Klausen” was originally the name given to 16th century three smaller buildings, used to be on this site and included a yeshivah (Talmudic school), founded by the famous Rabbi Loew. After the ghetto fire of 1689, in 1694, the Klausen Synagogue, in the early Baroque style, was erected on the site.
The Prague Burial Society used the Klausen synagogue as a place of prayer, now holds a permanent exhibit of Jewish tradition’s artifacts.
The Jewish Ceremonial Hall
The Jewish Ceremonial Hall, built in 1911-12 in the neo-Romanesque style, located in the or Jewish Quarter of Prague, Josefov, to serve as the Jewish Burial Society (Hevrah Kaddishah) was originally used as a ceremonial hall and mortuary and nowadays is part of The Jewish Museum of Prague holding exhibitions relating to Jewish history and tradition.
The Shoah-Holocaust of the Czech Jews
The partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939 determined the fate of its Jews during WWII. After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, approximately 118,310 persons who were defined as Jews lived in the Bohemia and Moravia Nazi Protectorate. Before 1941, approximately 26,000 Jews were able to emigrate.
During the Holocaust, the Germans and their collaborators murdered approximately 263,000 Jews who had resided in the territory of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1938.
Deportations from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
In November 1941, deranged chief Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, assassinated in 1942 by two Czech dissidents, ordered the creation of a camp-ghetto at Theresienstadt, located 37.5 miles (60 km) north of Prague.
Between 1941 and late 1944, the Nazi-German authorities, assisted by local Czech gendarmerie, deported 73,603 Jews from Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc, and other towns of the Protectorate to Theresienstadt, which served as a transit camp for Protectorate Jews. Shortly thereafter, in 1941-1942 those Jews were deported to Nazi murdering sites in the Baltic States and transit camp-ghettos in District Lublin in occupied Poland, and from 1942 on, to the Jew murdering center, Auschwitz.
Of the 82,309 Jews deported from the Nazi Protectorate, approximately 71,000 were murdered by the Nazis and their cohorts-collaborators; in Bohemia and Moravia, the Nazi occupation authorities and their Czech collaborators murdered another 7,000 Protectorate Jews. By 1945, some 14,000 Protectorate Jews remained alive in the Czech lands.
No matter what, no one can escape Jewish history, wherever Jews lived. Europe, as a whole, offers vast attestation to Jewish history in its lands.
Like in many other European cities, Prague’s rich Jewish history has been minimized to several empty of Jewish worshippers and inactive synagogues, museums dedicated to Jewish history once was, lonesome and dilapidated Jewish graveyards, painting and endless stories that tell Jewish history stories and flood the eyes with tears of Shoah.