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Prague's Jewish Quarter

Updated on March 25, 2016
Jaynie2000 profile image

Jaynie is from Madison, WI but has traveled extensively. Her family speaks 4 languages, making the world very accessible.

Prague's Jewish population may first have arrived in the city as early as the 13th century. They were confined to a walled in community that is known today as Josefov. This community was little more than an overcrowded ghetto in which the people worshipped, worked, lived and were buried, ever segregated from the rest of Czechoslovakia. The community was so crowded that out of necessity the Jewish Cemetery evolved into a unique resting place in which the dead were literally stacked on top of one another. Eventually, Emperor Josef II abolished the segregation of Jews and the community was opened, allowing Jews to move out of the ghetto and reside in the general population, which many did. eventually, the former Jewish community became home to Prague's most indigent persons. In the late 19th century, the city demolished the ghetto altogether, making way for more fashionable homes and shops. Synagogues remained intact and others were added over the centuries. The Jewish Synagogues held many precious artifacts and valuables during WWII when Jews from the Czechoslovakia were forced into the camps. Over 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews were lost during the Holocaust. 

The history of Prague's Jews is very rich and today, the Jewish Quarter has become a popular destination for tourists interested learning more about these people, their customs and history. The area is rich with culture including many original synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. 


The Old Jewish Cemetery

The Old Jewish Cemetery is a haunting reminder of the grim conditions in which Prague's Jews lived and died. As tourists amble cautiously among hundreds of crumbing tombstones, they are reminded of the brevity and fragility of human life. The atmosphere is almost haunting as the souls of the dead lie stacked in layers beneath the disintegrating monuments. No actual records were kept of the number of dead buried in this tiny cemetery, yet every person who was confined to the ghetto before it was opened by Emperor Josef II, was buried here.

The cemetery features the Ceremonial Hall, a mock Romanesque hall, built in the early 1900s as home to the Jewish Burial Society. Inside, exhibits include details of the Jewish rituals for preparing their dead for burial. 

Old Jewish Cemetery
Old Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Town Hall

In the late 16th century, Jewish philanthropist, Mordecai Maisel, gifted this building to his community. It was one of several buildings that he and his family built in an effort to honor the Jews who had been persecuted in Prague when Maisel was just a child. The Town Hall boasts a Rococo style clock whose hands wind counterclockwise and its Hebrew letters are read from right to left. In 1763 the Town Hall was renovated and now sits in proud Baroque style among many other of Prague's most historic buildings. 

Pinkas Synagogue

The Pinkas Synagogue was built in the 15th century as a place of worship, but it took on a much deeper significance after WWII, when at least 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews were exterminated. Today, the synagogue contains a grim reminder of the lives lost, as the names of each individual has been written in red and black on the synagogue's wall. Most of the lives were lost in the Terezin Concentration Camp. Children created written works and paintings during their confinement in Terezin, many of which are on display at the synagogue today serving as a poignant reminder that the Nazi party did not respect even the sanctity of children's lives. Following Israel's Six Day War in 1967 the synagogue was closed and renovated by the Communist party. It did not reopen until 1991.




The Spanish Synagogue

This synagogue derives its name for the Spanish architectural influences that comprise both its interior and exterior. Islamic motifs also adorn the interior, giving this synagogue a remarkable, multicultural flair. The synagogue was built in 1868 upon the site of the former "Old Schul," or Old School, Prague's first Jewish house of worship. The composer that wrote the national anthem of what is now the Czech Republic, was once the organist in this synagogue. The Spanish Synagogue still hosts concerts of sacred music which are open to the public. They are the perfect way to cap off a day of sightseeing in this historic district. 

Ceremonial Hall Interior
Ceremonial Hall Interior

Wrapping Up Your Day in the Jewish Quarter

There is so much to see and appreciate in the Jewish Quarter that by day's end, you'll be famished and fatigued, yet you'll have amazing memories that will last a lifetime. There are a host of excellent restaurants and cafes that will appeal to a range of palates. Try ducking in to Barock for specialty cocktails. The atmosphere sits in stark contrast to the historic buildings you have just toured. It's creme, green and black interior boasts oversized fashion portraits and comfortable seating. They have a wonderful wine list and serve a variety of dishes including sushi, traditional Czech food, luscious desserts, and more. 

Another favorite is King Solomon. This kosher restaurant serves meat and dairy products in a separate facility. They are closed Fridays in observance of the Sabbath. The atmosphere here is stunning. Commanding stone columns and walls, rich burgundy table cloths give this restaurant a rich, historic feel. The menu includes traditional Hebrew fare including wienerschnitzel, gefilte fish, roast duck and holishkes. The prices are a bit steep, but it is billed as one of the best kosher restaurants in the city.

There are less traditional places to try as well. With choices ranging from French to Cuban Creole you're sure to find something to tempt your palate. 

There are also wonderful shops in which one can purchase souvenirs from the Jewish Quarter or traditional Czech glass, jewelry, marionettes and pashminas.

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© 2011 Jaynie2000

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    • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jaynie2000 

      7 years ago

      Thank you. We loved it so much. We were touring 3 countries with our kids, so we only stayed for 2 and a half days, but wished we had stayed longer. It was amazing. So romantic and historic. I highly recommend it.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 

      7 years ago from Western New York

      Prague is such a beautiful city, and learning about the Jewish Quarter there was great - thanks for the wonderful hub!

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