It was once a Jewish ghetto where Jews from across Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe settled after being barred from their native homes.
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 Old-New 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.
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.
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.