Certain places leave a lasting impression on your mind. Seems like that happens even if the place wasn’t in your conscience before visiting.
While in Prague, I took a 3-hour walking tour of the city’s Old Town. The tour included an explanation of the sites contained within the Jewish Quarter. I am not sure if it was the guide’s fervent descriptions or the heartbreaking facts but I felt like every word penetrated deep inside. I understood I was not visiting an ordinary place.
That is why I decided to write an entire article highlighting the stories of Prague’s Jewish Quarter. If you have plans of visiting the city, I hope this guide inspires you to visit this unique area.
Before diving into what visitors can do and see in the Jewish Quarter, it is important to have some understanding of how the area was established and what vicissitudes it went through the years.
But, first, what is the big deal with Prague’s Jewish Quarter or Ghetto? Well, we are talking about the best-preserved complex of historical Jews monuments in Europe.
Most Jewish communities were destroyed due to persecution and oppression of its inhabitants. The final blow came when the Nazis occupied major cities in the European continent. Important parts of Prague’s Ghetto survive to this day because of a very sad reason. Hitler wanted to convert the area into the “Museum of an Extinct Race.” Even artifacts taken from other countries were moved to Prague for that purpose.
Historians believe Jews started to move to Prague around the 10th century. Violence and persecution towards the members of the group pushed them into a walled, confined community. They were not allowed to move freely.
Repression continued for several centuries until a rich member of the community, Mordechai Maisel, was elected leader or mayor of the Quarter. Eventually, he was named Minister of Finance and used his position, and money, to improve the living conditions of the Ghetto. He was allowed to operate in this way since he helped to finance some of the Emperor’s battles against the Turks.
The “Golden Age” of the Quarter lasted till Empress Marie-Therese expelled the Jews from Prague in 1745. Things improved when Emperor Joseph II (Marie-Therese’s son) allowed Jews to go back to Prague and settle outside the Ghetto. That is why the Quarter is known as Josefov (Joseph’s City).
The Ghetto was liberated from Nazi occupation in 1945. Since that, the Quarter has evolved into a vivacious and elegant neighborhood.
I cannot talk about this are of Prague without mentioning the Golem. According to history (or legend), Rabbi Judah Loew took clay from the banks of the Vltava River, created a creature and gave it life using magic (or a magic stone or rituals). The Golem was commanded to protect the Ghetto from attacks.
The Golem was fulfilling its purpose until it became unstable and started to destroy the city. The Emperor asked the Rabbi to deactivate the Golem in exchange for “peace for the Jews.” The Rabbi followed instructions and persecution ceased. In reality, the persecution probably diminished because of the money the Jews were providing to the Empire. The Golem was stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in case it was needed again.
Of course, there are many versions of the story. Our guide explained that maybe a small Golem was indeed created. Then, it was placed close to the fire or a bright light. This would create a big shadow and people outside the Ghetto would believe a spirit was protecting the place.
You can see reproductions of the Golem (for sale as souvenirs) in some spots of the Quarter.
Sights at the Jewish Quarter Prague
Prague’s second oldest surviving Synagogue is impressive since it has inscribed the name of about 80,000 Jews that died in concentration camps during WWII.
In addition, it presents a moving exhibition of paintings and drawing made by kids held prisoners at the Terezin Concentration Camp (located not that far from Prague)
This Synagogue has an exhibition of Jewish customs and traditions.
Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Cemetery was the only place where Jews were allowed to bury their dead. If you visit, you are going to notice the space is not that extensive at all. Because of the situation, they buried bodies in layers. Once a layer was full, they added dirt and buried more bodies. This practice continued for 350 years and it is estimated 100,000 bodies found final rest on the spot. During a visit, you are going to notice how high is the current top of the street level.
Rabbi Loew and Mordechai Maisel are buried in the cemetery.
This is the place where cemetery related ceremonies used to take place. The building is renowned for its peculiar architecture of aged stones and terracotta tiled roof.
Old New Synagogue
The name of this Synagogue may sound confusing so, let me explain. This is the oldest Synagogue in Europe. However, when it was built, it was the newcomer of the Quarter. People started to call it the New Synagogue. With time, other Synagogues were built. Residents added the “Old” adjective to the New Synagogue name to differentiate it from others in the area.
According to legend, this is where the Golem was stored.
Jewish Town Hall
This beautiful building was erected by Mayor Maisel. It is well-known because of its two clocks. One uses Roman characters while the other one uses Hebrew characters.
As previously stated, Mayor Maisel was a wealthy man. Because of that, he was able to build a private Synagogue to worship with his family. He went all and about and covered the interior with gold and silver. Nobody knows what happened with the Synagogue’s treasures.
This is the Quarter’s more lavishly decorated Synagogue. Because of its Moorish style, it was called the Spanish Synagogue (since the Moors ruled most of Spain for a thousand years).
Photo by Mendhak
Photo by Thomas Ledl
Other Sights at Prague Jewish Quarter
The National Theather houses the Czech Philharmonic. Even though it serves as a concert hall, it has spaces for rent and an art gallery. The plaza in front of it is called Jan Palach Square.
Holy Ghost Church
This church located at the edge of the Jewish Quarter was constructed to establish the community borders. During a period, Jews were forced to attend mass here every Sunday. Nowadays, its presence reminds us of how diverse the city has become.
Frank Kafta Statue
Fran Kafta, the famous writer, was born in the area. The statue of a small Kafta sitting over a larger, headless body was inspired by one of his early stories. Other say the statue reveals a bit of Kafta’s childhood since he grew up with an abusive father.
Believe it or not, Prague’s answer to the Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive is located in the Jewish Quarter. Parizska Street is full of stores such as Dolce & Gabbana, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Bottega Veneta. According to our guide, the luxury stores cater to rich residents who have businesses in Central Prague and live outside the city.
While walking around, you are going to notice the many stately buildings dating from the beginning of the 20th century. A lot of the Quarter was destroyed since the government wanted to rebuild in a style similar to Paris.
Because of that, we lost most of the old architecture of the area. On the positive side, we ended with glamorous buildings all over town.
How to Visit the Synagogues – Prague Jewish Museum
- The monuments detailed in here are part of the Jewish Museum. This institution administers the Synagogues, Ceremonial Hall and Cemetery. A single ticket will get you entry to most sites.
- Also, you can hire a guide take you through the sites and give you historical/folkloric details.
- Keep in mind these places are closed on Saturday in observance of the Sabbath.
- I learned a lot about this part of town thanks to a free walking tour. Those are an excellent option for those looking to learn about history and architecture
- For a free walking tour of Old Prague, you can use a company like Sandemans. They have excellent ratings and I found their guides engaging and knowledgeable
- They offer daily free tours of Old Town Prague (including the Jewish Quarter). These tours do not go inside any of the monuments shown in this post. Please, present an appropriate tip at the end
- The sights in the Jewish Quarter are located close to each other. Therefore, the walking distance can be estimated at 1 or 2 miles
- Exploring the area can take you 2 to 4 hours
- For more of Old Town, check my post about the beautiful sights located around the Old Town Square
- Find more about the city at the Prague City Tourism website
- Plan to see more of Czechia (Czech Republic) with the help of the country’s official tourism site
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