It was once a Jewish ghetto where Jews from across Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe settled after being barred from their native homes. Quaint, architecturally captivating and soul-stirring, to say the least, Josefov today is located near Prague’s Vltava River — also sometimes called the Czech national river — and the Old Town, the face of medieval Prague. With several synagogues situated at a walking distance from each other here, a ceremonial hall and an old Jewish cemetery, it is often referred to as the city’s open air Jewish museum or the Jewish Quarter.
The history of the quarter dates back to the 13th century and many monuments here survived the test of time. It is said that lifestyles of inhabitants of this former ghetto were greatly dependent on the policies of kings and emperors who ruled. Where persecution and suffering was made to be their ultimate fate for the most part, Prague’s Jews thrived during the second half of the 16th century under King of Bohemia Rudolf II (1576-1611) who relaxed restrictions imposed on the community, hence their situation improved. Jewish goldsmiths and artisans were allowed to practice their craft and royal cities were opened to their residence.
Prague’s history is inseparable from its Jewish past. Earlier, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV had given Czech Jews their first flag with the Star of David; a replica of which exists today in one of the city’s synagogues. The Jewish community of Prague, therefore, became the first in Europe to use the star symbol as their official emblem. In 1782, King Joseph II of Austria granted Jews the right to attend schools and universities. In honor of his “acts of tolerance”, the quarter got its name “Josefov.”
A number of buildings from the quarter were flattened after 1893, due to overpopulation, hence got a newly reconstructed look. Fast forward to the 20th century, most of the buildings survived the Nazi occupation and stand as testimonies to the history of the Jews in the city in today’s modern Prague.
The first thing to catch my eye in the quarter was the Old-New synagogue. The gothic style building’s frontier, having slight resemblance with the shape of a Menorah, looked fascinating. The synagogue was reportedly constructed between 1270 and 1290 and is considered to be “the oldest constantly active synagogues outside Israel.” It is mythically also said that stones used to build this synagogue were brought from Jerusalem by angels.
Just across the road from the Old-New synagogue are two shops located, with signboards carrying the Star of David, selling Jewish souvenirs — coming from an Islamic country and then living in Europe, these signs of Jewish culture were something I had never seen in person before!
This leads to another majestic architectural wonder, a Romanesque style Ceremonial Hall. Until the First World War, it was used for ritual washing of the dead, but post 1926 it became a part of the extended Jewish Museum. Today, the building’s Baroque-style paintings and artifacts elaborate and illustrate the rituals involved in burying the Jewish dead.
The Ceremonial Hall is also connected to the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery, founded in the 15th century, happens to be among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world with the earliest tombstone dating back to 1439. According to the Jewish Museum in Prague, the total number of tombstones in the cemetery is 12,000 and over 100,000 bodies are buried here. Despite being expanded several times, it couldn’t really meet the needs of the Jewish town as the number of bodies was considerably high. Hence, several bodies are buried on top of each other and some of Prague’s prominent Jews from the past were also laid to rest here.
Prague was once home to the biggest Jewish community in the world, predominantly during the 18th century, and it was during this time that Maisal Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue and the Jewish Town Hall were built. The Pinkas Synagogue pays tribute to Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia region with their names inscribed on the walls of the nave and the areas in the surroundings.
A monument of Franz Kafka, one of the most notable writers from the 20th century, is also situated not very far from here. The Jewish writer from Prague was born in the city’s Old Town and lived in the neighborhood of what comprises Jewish Quarter today, as per various accounts, and no description of Prague’s prominent historical Jew figures or its Jewish past is complete without mentioning him.
Prague feels like the most Jewish European city I have ever visited despite a declining number of Jews here and this is mainly due to its long association with the Jewish community. That bond remains alive even today and leaves a lasting impression on the city’s cultural life, which is very much preserved here. According to the Federation of Jewish Communities, about 3,000 to 5,000 people are registered members of the Jewish community in the Czech Republic, of which at least 1,600 live in the capital Prague. The number has been declining over the years.