The Josefov district in Prague surprises many visitors who, thinking they are visiting the Prague ghetto, imagine they will only find old historical buildings. You will find them, but you will also find more recent Art Nouveau and Art Nouveau buildings, along with an elegant street lined with boutiques of famous designers such as Louis Vuitton and Dior.
The historical essence of the Jewish quarter lives on in the Jewish Museum, which gives you access to the most interesting and touching accounts of Jewish life in Prague.
A highly evocative place within the museum is the Old Jewish Cemetery, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe, with around 12,000 ancient gravestones.
The soul of the district are definitely the synagogues, important places of worship but also meeting places. Be sure to visit the most important ones: admire the arabesque decorations in the Spanish Synagogue; look for the Golem in the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Europe still functioning; enter in silence the Pinkas Synagogue, which houses a touching memorial to the victims of the Shoah and an exhibition of drawings made by children from the Terezín ghetto.
Also in the neighbourhood is the Maisel Synagogue, housing a beautiful collection of silverware, ceramics and candelabra and the first part of an exhibition on Jewish settlements in Bohemia and Moravia, which continues in the Spanish Synagogue.
If you want to take a break from history, treat yourself to music and art in the sumptuous Rudolfinum.
Characterised by a deafening silence and a decadent appearance, the Old Jewish Cemetery is a must-see attraction during a visit to Prague: here the gravestones are arranged one on top of the other and a guide will help you identify the most significant ones, such as that of Rabbi Loew and his pupil David Gans.
Created in 1439, today it has more than 12,000 tombstones and it is estimated that more than 100,000 people are buried here.
Don’t be confused by the name: the Old-New Synagogue (in Czech Staronová Synagoga) is truly the oldest synagogue in the Prague ghetto and in Europe still functioning today, as well as one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague.
Built around 1270, it has survived floods, fires and pogroms over the centuries and is still today the religious centre of Prague’s Jews. Originally called the New Synagogue, it took on the curious name of Old-New when another synagogue was built nearby, but it was destroyed.
Together with the Old Jewish Cemetery, it is one of the top attractions of the Prague ghetto. Unlike the cemetery, however, the Old-New Synagogue is not included in the Jewish Museum entrance fee: you will have to buy a separate ticket or, if you have a museum ticket, pay a small additional fee.
There is a little piece of Spain in Prague’s Jewish quarter: the Spanish Synagogue (Spanelská Synagoga in Czech), the newest synagogue in the quarter, owes its name to its Moorish-style decoration inspired by the magnificent Alhambra in Granada.
It is a riot of stained glass, glittering gold and oriental motifs, and is a must-see.
The Spanish Synagogue was built in 1868 on the site of the Old School (Altschul), the oldest synagogue in Prague’s Jewish quarter, dating back to the 12th century. The design of the building is by Josef Niklas and Jan Bělský, while the extraordinary interior decoration is by Antonín Baum and Bedřich Münzberger.
The most famous organist of this synagogue was František Škroup, the author of the Czech national anthem, who played here from 1836 to 1845.
Today, the Spanish Synagogue houses two permanent exhibitions. One tells the story of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia and the lives of famous Jews in science and art, including the writer Franz Kafka, the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and the composer Gustav Mahler.
The exhibition on the upper floor displays a collection of silver objects from the Jewish Museum. The Spanish Synagogue is also a venue for classical music concerts and other cultural events.
One of the most moving places in the Prague Ghetto is the Pinkas Synagogue, now dedicated to the almost eighty thousand Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who were victims of the Holocaust.
The Pinkas Synagogue was founded by Aaron Meshulam Horowitz, an important member of Prague’s Jewish community and probably dedicated to his grandson, Rabbi Pinkas Horowitz. It was built in the late Gothic style in the 15th century near a ritual bath (mikveh), conceived as a place of prayer for the Horowitz family.
After World War II, between 1955 and 1960, the synagogue was transformed into the Memorial to the Bohemian and Moravian Victims of the Shoah . One of the first such memorials, it was closed for over twenty years during the communist regime and reopened to the public in 1995.
The Pinkas Synagogue houses a permanent exhibition displaying drawings made between 1942 and 1944 by children from the Terezin ghetto under the supervision of artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Most of the children who drew these pictures died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps.
These drawings, at times naive and at times disturbing, are a touching testimony to the atrocities suffered by Jews during the Nazi occupation, documenting confinement in Terezín, daily life in the ghetto and the dream of returning to live free in the land of Palestine.
The name Klausen Synagogue – Klausova Synagoga in Czech – derives from the name of the small Jewish schools and prayer houses present on the site as early as the 16th century.
The building is baroque and its interior houses Jewish manuscripts, old prints and a permanent exhibition. Next to the Synagogue is the House of Ceremonies, dating from 1906, for the celebration of funerals.
The Maisel Synagogue – named after its founder, Mordecai Maisel, mayor of the Jewish ghetto in Prague – was erected in 1592 on the basis of a privilege granted by Emperor Rudolf II. Built by Judah Tzoref de Herz and Josef Wahl, it was originally a Renaissance temple. It burnt down in the ghetto fire of 1689 and was rebuilt several times until it took on its current neo-Gothic style in the early 1900s.
The permanent collection shows historical objects of the Jews of Bohemia dating from the 10th to the 18th century.
Named after Prince Rudolf of Habsburg, the Rudolfinum is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and is one of the most significant buildings on the banks of the Vltava River.
In the past, the Rudolfinum was at times the seat of the Czechoslovak Parliament; today, however, the major concerts of the Prague Spring music festival are held there.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
With just one ticket, you can visit the main attractions in the Jewish Quarter. If you have a Prague city card, the ticket for the Jewish Museum, which includes admission to the Old Cemetery, Spanish Synagogue and Pinkas Synagogue, is free!
Pay attention to the dates because the Jewish Museum and all related facilities are closed during Jewish holidays.
For a more in-depth tour of the Jewish Museum and all the other attractions in Josefov, Prague’s Jewish Quarter, take part in a guided tour.
With the metro, Line A – stop Staromestská, you get close to all the sights of the Jewish Quarter. Otherwise, take tram 17 or 18 to Námestí Jana Palacha.
According to one legend, the Old-New Synagogue houses the Golem. Again, don’t be confused by the name: we are not talking about the first-generation Pokemon, but a human-shaped clay automaton that could be infused with life by a spell.
It is an anthropomorphic figure typical of Jewish mythology and medieval folklore, created by Rabbi Löw, highly respected within the Prague Jewish community. Legend has it that the rabbi hid his dangerous creature in the attic of the synagogue and, to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, he prudently had the external stairs leading to the attic removed.
The first Jewish traders of Byzantine origin settled in Prague in the 10th century and from the very beginning were the target of anti-Semitic demonstrations. Intolerant Christians destroyed the first Jewish settlement in today’s Mala Strana; pogroms were not uncommon: the most infamous was the Passover massacre of 1389, in which more than 3,000 Jews died, including those who had taken refuge in the Old-New Synagogue.
There were, however, also positive moments, for example when prominent Jewish personalities such as Rabbi Löw and Mordecal Maisel had considerable influence at the court of Rudolf II.
In 1716, Charles VI granted autonomy to the community and, thanks to the enlightened Joseph II, isolation from the rest of the city was broken and the Jews were able to return to Prague and economic prosperity immediately resumed.
Ten thousand people were concentrated in the area of a few blocks, although in 1796 Jews were allowed to live in some houses in the Old Town. Mixing with the rest of the population from then on extended to the whole of Prague thanks to the Enlightenment reforms. In the same period, thanks to the works of Joseph II that improved the conditions of this population, the district was renamed Josefov in his honour.
Anti-Semitism, however, smouldered under the ashes and in 1899 Leopold Hilsner was accused of performing ritual human sacrifices.
Although the interwar years were favourable to Czech Jews, the Munich Pact of 1938 gave Hitler control of Czech territories and Jews were confined to a ghetto to await deportation, while synagogues were turned into warehouses for goods confiscated from Jews. Most of Prague’s 50,000 Jews were deported to the Terezín concentration camp and died as a result of the Nazi genocide.
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