Josefov – Prague Jewish Quarter

By: Sindhuja Kodivalasa, Staff Writer

Photo Courtesy: Sindhuja Kodivalasa

Very few European cities can boast of a well preserved Jewish quarter and Prague is definitely one of them. The Jewish Quarter or the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, known as Josefov, is located close to the Old Town Square. It is well preserved and the smallest quarter in Prague.

Ironically, the Jewish Town has Adolf Hitler to thank for its well-preserved condition. It was the Nazi leader himself who decided to establish the “Museum of an Extinct Race” in Prague. Thanks to this, valuables from the occupied countries were gathered in this area and the largest collection of Jewish items in Europe was created here. Nowadays, a lot of Jews have moved back into this quarter and this place is lively once again.

Jewish Ceremonial Hall
Jewish Ceremonial Hall

Its parched history dates from the 13th century, when Jewish people were ordered to leave their respective houses and settle in one area of the city. And over the years the Jews were banned from inhabiting any part of the city. Apart from this, when more Jews were expelled from Germany, Austria, and Spain, they moved here, overcrowding the place. Over the years, this place has been forced to undergo a lot of structural changes but, luckily most of the monuments are well preserved even today.

This place has a lot of great buildings. There are six synagogues (Jewish places of worship), including the famous Spanish Synagogue and Old-New Synagogue, plus the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery, the most remarkable of its kind in Europe. All of these places, except the Old- New Synagogue are known as the “Jewish Museum in Prague”. There are several tours across this place and that requires a ticket issued at the entrance of the Jewish quarter.

The Old-New Synagogue requires a separate ticket. It is the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe, built in early Gothic style in the 13th century, and is the main house of prayer for the Jewish community in the present day. According to one of the legends, this is the resting place of the legendary Golem – the predecessor of Frankenstein’s monster.

The Legend says the Golem rests here...
The Legend says the Golem rests here…

One of the city’s most popular legends is the story of “the Golem of Prague”. During the reign of Rudolf II, in the 15th century, Rabbi Judah Loew created the golem to protect the Jewish Quarter of the city and its citizens. At this time the majority of Prague’s Jewish populace were being attacked. They say the rabbi created the golem from the clay from the banks of the Vltava River. Following a religious ritual the giant Golem was created, only to be awakened by special incantations in Hebrew spoken by his maker. After an incantation the Golem would awake and he would do the biddings only of his maker, which included protecting the Jewish people in the Prague Ghetto. Rabbi Loew placed the Hebrew word ‘emet’ (truth) on the Golem’s forehead. As the Golem grew stronger with each incantation he also grew increasingly violent and started killing people. Rabbi Loew was then promised that violence against the Jewish population would come to an end if the Rabbi would destroy the massive scary Golem. Rabbi Loew ended the Golem’s life by removing the letter ‘e’ from ‘emet’ changing the word ‘truth’ to ‘death’ thus ending the giant’s life. It is said however that Rabbi Loew’s son brought the Golem back to life. Fact or Fiction? It’s up to you!

The Pinkas Synagogue is a silent memorial to the victims of the holocaust. Its walls hold the longest epitaph in the world, which lists the names of those who died in the Nazi concentration camps. And the Spanish Synagogue is astounding with its wonderful golden decorations.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, is one of the largest in the world. This place is full of mysterious gravestones and a thousand stories which played out here. Thanks to the limited space and Jewish custom, which makes it impossible to disturb old graves, the cemetery has been covered with earth several times, and new graves were created in it. Nowadays, there are as many as twenty layers on top of each other in some places here.

The Cemetery
The Cemetery

The Jewish Quarter with its unique architecture and history stands apart from the rest of the Prague in the center of the city. And it is definitely a place worth visiting.


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