Exploring Josefov, Prague's Jewish Quarter
No visit to Prague is complete without a visit to Josefov to learn about the history of the Jewish community in the city. Bordered by the Old Town and the River Vltava, the Jewish Quarter is one of the smallest areas in the Czech capital, but also one of the most interesting. It is rich in history and collections of Jewish artifacts, in spite of the demolition of large areas in the 1890s to make way for more salubrious housing.
The Jewish Quarter was originally formed by the merging of two Jewish communities from the Middle Ages in Prague Old Town. The Old-New synagogue was surrounded by Jews from the west and Jews from the Byzantine Empire settled around the Old Shul (where the Spanish Synagogue now stands). The merged communities lived in a ghetto. Oppressive laws were enacted for centuries against the Jews in Prague. One law in the 16th century made them wear a yellow circle as a sign of shame.
Rudolph II was less oppressive and appointed Mordechai Maisel, the Jewish Mayor, as chief financial adviser. Joseph II treated the Jews well, and it is said that the Jewish Quarter was named Josefov after him. It was not until 1850 that the Jewish Quarter officially became a part of Prague. With lack of sanitation making the ghetto a health hazard, much of the area was demolished by the city authorities in the 1890s. The Town Hall, several synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery were spared.
Amazingly, the Nazis preserved the Jewish Quarter during World War II as a record of the communities destroyed by the regime. As a result of this policy, Jewish artifacts were gathered from Czechoslovakia and further afield to be stored in Prague, giving rise to the large collection preserved to this day.
The mid-20th century was a tragic time for the Jews. Many were killed by the Nazis and others were forced to leave by the subsequent communist regime. The Jewish community in Prague now numbers 5000–6000 people.
The Top 8 Sights in Prague's Jewish Quarter
We spent an afternoon visiting the main sites of Josefov. All are easily accessible on foot. Most are covered by an all-in-one ticket to the Jewish Museum, with the exception of the Old-New Synagogue, for which we purchased a separate ticket and the Jewish Town Hall, which is closed to the public.
- Spanish Synagogue. (Closed from June 1919–fall 2020).
- Maisel Synagogue.
- Old-New Synagogue.
- Jewish Town Hall.
- Klausen Synagogue.
- Ceremonial Hall.
- Pinkas Synagogue.
- Old Jewish Cemetery.
Skull caps are provided for male visitors to the synagogues.
1. Spanish Synagogue
Location and History
Located on Vezenska, a few minutes walk from the main cluster of Jewish buildings in Josefov, the Spanish Synagogue is the newest and most ornate in this area of Prague.
Although the Spanish Synagogue only dates back to 1868, the site has been a prominent one in the Jewish community since the 11th century. Prague's first synagogue, Stara skola (the Old School or 'old shul') on this site, was at the heart of the community for Jews of the eastern rite.
In 1935 a functional building was added to the Spanish Synagogue and the building has remained unchanged since. During World War II property confiscated from Czech Jewish communities and furniture removed from other synagogues was stored here.
Since being handed over to the Jewish Museum ten years after the war, the Spanish Synagogue has had a checkered history. 1958-1959 saw a complete internal restoration and in 1960 an exhibition of synagogue textiles opened here. But in the 1970s the building was neglected and it was closed in 1982. Its fortunes revived after the Velvet Revolution and in 1998, fully restored, the Spanish Synagogue re-opened. On 1st June 2019, its doors closed again for renovation work, with plans for it to reopen in fall 2020.
From the outside, the Spanish Synagogue resembles a Moorish palace with its intricate stonework, interestingly curved windows and jagged roof edging. A motif of the Ten Commandments has a prominent position on the facade.
Inside, the Spanish connection continues and it's easy to see how this was modeled on the Alhambra. Floral motifs and geometric patterns abound on every available surface.
The basic floor plan is simple. The main hall is surrounded by three balconies with a dome above, but it is the stunning gilded decoration and the striking stained glass windows that catch the eye. It is well worth going up on the balconies to view the exhibition, get a stunning view of the synagogue interior from above and to see the ornate organ.
Before its recent closure, there was an exhibition about the history of the Jews in Prague from 1781 during the reign of Josef II, when the Edict of Tolerance was issued.
Don't Miss These Other Sites
Near the Spanish Museum, there are two other sites worth seeing.
Franz Kafka Statue
As you approach the Spanish Synagogue you might be intrigued by the unusual statue on the street nearby. Sculpted by Jaroslav Rona and installed in 2003, the 3.75meter bronze statue depicts Franz Kafka on the shoulders of a headless figure.
Franz Kafka (1883–1924) was a famous German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist, who came from Prague. Fusing realism and the fantastic, little of Kafka's writing was published in his lifetime. Since his death, however, his work has become well-known and he is now regarded as a leading 20th-Century writer, with his writing having spawned the term 'Kafkaesque', which is used to describe situations similar to those in his books.
The statue near the Spanish Synagogue refers to Kafka's story, "Beschreibung eines Kampfes" or "Description of a Struggle".
Robert Guttmann Gallery
This is one that we nearly missed. It was only as I checked off the sites on our all-in-one ticket at the end of our walk around Josefov, that I noticed the Robert Guttmann Gallery. With a reputation for always wanting to get my money's worth and not wanting to miss anything on the tour, we trekked back towards the Spanish Synagogue to find the gallery located in a street behind.
Named after a Jewish painter, the gallery focuses on exhibitions of work by Jewish artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as post-war and contemporary art.
2. Maisel Synagogue
This synagogue takes its name from a former mayor of Josefov, Mordechai Maisel. Having made his fortune lending money to Rudolph II for wars against the Turks, Maisel had the most richly decorated synagogue in the city as his private house of prayer at the end of the 16th century. After the original was destroyed by fire in 1689, a new synagogue was built on the site.
The Maisel synagogue has been remodeled several times and the present Gothic-style building dates from 1893–1905.
The interior, with its bare white-washed walls, differs a lot from the original ornate building. The history of the Czech-Jewish community before 1781 is told in an exhibition here along with a collection of gold and silverwork, candlesticks, scrolls, and other artifacts. Tragically most of the collection of Jewish treasures were brought to Prague by the Nazis, having been plundered from Bohemia and Moravia to place in their museum to a vanished people.
3. Old-New Synagogue
The oldest functioning synagogue in Europe, built around 1270 is worthy of its place on any tour of Josefov. Having survived fires, the 19th Century slum clearances, and many Jewish pogroms, the Old-New Synagogue is still at the religious heart of the Jewish community in Prague. It is one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague and was originally known as the New Synagogue (New or Great Shul) until other synagogues, were built nearby. It then became known as the Old-New Synagogue (Altneuschul).
The exterior is marked by a set of steep Gothic sawtooth brick gables. at either end of a large saddle roof. The thick outer walls are supported by buttresses. Low annexes on three sides of the main rectangular building serve as an entrance and women's sections. Narrow gaps in the walls allow women to hear the service.
You step down into the main nave, because traditionally as a sign of humility, the floor level is lower than the surrounding land. The interior is plain and simple, but there are several points of interest.
- A large elaborate wrought iron cage in the center surrounds the bimah, the raised platform from which the Torah is read.
- Above the cage hangs the Jewish Standard. This historic banner features the six-pointed star of David with a Jewish hat inside it, the official symbol of the Jewish community in Prague.
- The Torah is a parchment scroll containing the Five Books of Moses handwritten in Hebrew. The scrolls of the Torah are stored in the Ark.
- The Ark is the holiest place in the synagogue. It is on the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem. The ner tamid (eternal light) hangs in front of the Ark and the cantor's desk is to the right. The tympanum above the Ark is decorated with 13th-Century leaf carvings.
The interior is lit by chandeliers and in keeping with the layout of the synagogues of the time, seating is around the outside walls of the main hall. Walking into the Old-New Synagogue is like stepping back hundreds of years in time.
4. Jewish Town Hall
Although closed to the public, it's worth pausing as you pass by to look at the Jewish Town Hall, located by the Old-New Synagogue. It too survived the demolition of the run-down areas in Josefov at the end of the 19th century. The Rococo blue-and-white facade from the 18th century belies its earlier origins. The core of the building was the original Jewish Town Hall, dating from 1570–77 when its construction was financed by the extremely rich mayor, Mordechai Maisel.
It is worth noting that this is one of the few buildings of this kind to emerge unscathed after the Holocaust. You can't miss the wooden clock tower and its green steeple, with a clock on each of the four sides. Look at the north gable and you will find another clock. This one is Hebrew with hands moving anti-clockwise reflecting Hebrew script which reads from the right.
The Council of Jewish Religious Communities in the Czech Republic now takes place in the Jewish Town Hall.
5. Klausen Synagogue
A group of small Jewish schools and prayer houses, called klausen were originally on this site, which neighbors the Old Jewish Cemetery. After they were destroyed in the fire of 1689, a synagogue bearing the same name was built here. The interior of the Baroque building, with its high vaulted ceilings, contains a collection of religious objects. Hebrew prints, manuscripts and an exhibition of Jewish traditions and customs trace Jewish history in Central Europe back to the early Middle Ages.
Along with all the exhibits, you can't miss the ornamental three-tiered Torah Ark, which was added in 1696 after a donation by a wealthy benefactor.
6. Ceremonial Hall
Adjoining the Klausen Synagogue you will notice a building resembling a small medieval castle. It actually dates from the early 20th century, when it was built as a ceremonial hall by the Jewish Burial Society. It now contains an exhibition about Jewish traditions of burial and death and is appropriately located overlooking the Old Jewish Cemetery.
7. Pinkas Synagogue
Of all the synagogues we visited in Prague, our visit to the Pinkas Synagogue, located by the Old Jewish Cemetery, was definitely the most moving. A Jewish religious building has existed on this site since the 15th century. It takes its name from Rabbi Pinkas. Over the years the synagogue has been restored many times.
In the 1950s the Pinkas Synagogue became a memorial to all the Jewish people from Czechoslovakia, who, after imprisonment in Terezin concentration camp, were then deported to Nazi extermination camps. The names of the 77,297 who never returned are inscribed on the walls of the synagogue. There is also a chilling list of the camps. It is a fitting memorial. More sobering still is the realization that the names inscribed on these walls represent only a fraction of those who died in the Nazi concentration camps.
Even more harrowing are the contents of an upstairs room, where drawings by children in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) camp are displayed. Friedl Dicker Brandeis, a painter, took drawing lessons for the children in which she encouraged them to express themselves. They grappled with life in the camp through their pictures, as well as drawing about memories of home and hopes of the future. Sadly most of these young children never lived to see the future, as they perished in concentration camps along with their teacher. But their tutor hid the drawings in the Terezin camp before she was deported to Auschwitz, thus preserving them for future generations to see.
8. Old Jewish Cemetery
There has been a cemetery on this site since 1478. For over 300 years it was the only burial site allowed for Jews. The overcrowding in the cemetery reflected the overcrowding in the Jewish ghetto surrounding it. It is estimated that over 100,000 people were buried here before the final burial in 1787.
Bodies were buried on top of each other, as many as 12 layers deep. Graves have been roped off to protect them. Nevertheless, the mix of over 12,000 gravestones leaning at an angle and the Hebrew inscriptions on them cause visitors to pause, away from the noise of the city, and reflect on this final resting place for the Jewish community in bygone years.
Finding Your Way Around Josefov
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If You Have Time
All of the above sights are clustered within a small area of Prague, but if you have time, while you are in Prague I would highly recommend visiting Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague New Town. It is located a 16-minute walk (1.3km) south west of Maisel Synagogue, on Jeruzalemska (Jerusalem Street) on the way to the main railway station of Prague.
Built in 1906 as compensation for buildings demolished in Josefov towards the end of the 19th century, it was originally named the Jubilee Synagogue in 1908 to commemorate Franz Joseph I's 50 years in power as the emperor of Austria. After the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the independence of Czechoslovakia, the synagogue adopted the name Jerusalem Synagogue from its street location.
The eye-catching exterior is a mix of Moorish and Art nouveau and for a small charge, you can access the bright and colorful interior of the newest and largest synagogue in Prague. When we visited there was an exhibition in the women's gallery about the post-war history of the Jewish community in Prague, as well as details about the preservation of Jewish monuments.
For us, the Jerusalem Synagogue brought our journey through the history of the Jewish community of Prague up to date.
We spent an afternoon walking around the sights of Josefov in the above order. Fittingly it was an overcast day, as we pondered on some of the more somber aspects of the history of the Jewish community in Prague. Although we had been warned about the Holocaust memorial by other visitors, nothing can prepare you for the impact of the names engraved on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue. Each name representing a person who never returned from the Nazi concentration camps. Added to this the artwork of the children from Terezin camp makes a profound impact on any visitor.
I had not realized how far back the Jewish community went in Prague. A visit to the Old-New Synagogue is a fascinating step back in time. Nor was I prepared for the ornateness of some of the synagogues, especially the Spanish Synagogue and, on another day, the Jerusalem Synagogue.
This is not an area to be taken as part of a light-hearted sightseeing trip. But for any serious visitor to Prague, Josefov is definitely not to be missed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Liz Westwood