jewish quarter

Prague’s Jewish Quarter: incredible stories of the past

PRESS TRIP – One of the things I love the most about travel is discovering the local history and culture. After all, nothing beats learning by immersing yourself in the source. But what do you do when you can’t go to the destination of your choice? You go online just like I did with Prague’s Jewish Quarter virtual experience tour.

My virtual press trip was hosted by Czech Tourism and Prague City Adventures. Not only did it bring me back to our trip to Prague a few years ago, but it also made me forget I was home and not able to travel. It was a very moving and inspirational tour through Prague that brought to life the stories of the people who lived and left their mark here.

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Prague’s Jewish Quarter history

Prague has one of Europe’s oldest recorded Jewish communities, dating back to the 10th century. Since then, the community has continuously existed despite several persecutions and expulsions, including the Holocaust and subsequent antisemitic persecution by the Communist regime.

Several events have shaped the history of the Jewish population in Prague. Jews were forced to live in a concentrated walled-in area called the ghetto as far back as the 11th century and suffered numerous pogroms. During the Middle Ages, they were forced to wear a yellow star as identification and were limited to which jobs they could work.

The end of the 16th century brought prosperity to the area when the Jewish mayor, Mordecai Maisel, became the financial advisor for Emperor Rudolph II. He used his wealth to help develop the ghetto. During that time, the area also saw its population almost double with an influx of Jewish people expelled from other parts of Europe.   

Another man who played an instrumental role in developing the Jewish Quarter was the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. In 1781, he passed the Toleration Edict, allowing for great religious freedom. The Jewish Quarter was renamed Josefov (Josefstadt in German) in his honour.

Architectural finds in the Jewish Quarter

Most of Prague’s Jewish Quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of a reconstruction initiative to improve the sanitary condition. The plan looked at Paris for inspiration, and today, you can find many incredible Art Nouveau buildings from that time.

During this time, most buildings were demolished, and streets were remodelled to reflect the latest city-building style. However, several most significant historical buildings were saved. These are the six synagogues, including the 13th century Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Central, the old cemetery and the Old Jewish Town Hall.

jewish quarter
Jewish Quarter – Old Jewish Cemetery (wiki commons)

While cemeteries are not on everyone’s to-do list, the Old Jewish Cemetery is worth visiting. It was founded in 1478, and burials were held here until 1787. The cemetery is home to over 100,000 graves and more than 12,000 gravestones. In some cases, people were buried on top of one another, up to 12 layers deep. The cemetery is one of the largest of its kind in Europe and one of Prague’s most important Jewish historical monuments.

Notable residents of the Jewish Quarter

In the early 20th century, Prague was home to notable authors, including Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Werfel. During the tour, we learned about others that left a very different yet just as profound mark on the city.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: Friedl was an artist living in the Jewish Quarter at the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, she was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp with her husband, Pavel Brandeis. She brought a suitcase filled with art supplies that she used to teach art to the children at the camp. In 1944, both were sent to Auschwitz, where she died. Her husband survived, and so did the collection of over five thousand artworks by her students. They are now exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Nicholas Winton:  British banker and humanitarian who established an organization to rescue children at risk from Nazi Germany. Son of German-Jewish parents who had emigrated to Britain, he arranged the rescue of 669 children, predominantly Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. In Britain, he found homes for the children and arranged for their safe passage. His work was largely unnoticed for about 50 years. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his work and in 2014, he was awarded the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class), by Czech President Miloš Zeman.

Nicky’s Family – A documentary film about a few out of 669 children rescued by Sir Nicholas Winton from the hands of the Nazis.

8 Paratroopers: These eight men were selected in 1942 to conduct a covert mission to assassinate the Nazi governor, Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague. During the attempt, one of the paratrooper’s guns jammed before he could kill Heydrich. Determined to carry out the assassination, the other man threw a bomb at the car, but that also didn’t kill their target. Despite their failed attempts, Heydrich died later from blood poisoning caused by the horsehair in the seat of his carriage. Unfortunately, the paratroopers were betrayed by one of their own, who ratted them out to the SS officers looking for revenge. The Nazis killed them all.

Operation Anthropoid – a movie about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

War World II aftermath

By the 18th century, Prague was home to more Jews than any other city in the world. But that all changed with the Second World War. Many Jewish citizens were deported to ghettos and concentration camps across Nazi-occupied Europe. Those that returned after the war often found it difficult to reclaim their property and moved elsewhere. Consequently, today, the Jewish population in Prague is nowhere near what it used to be.

Other reminders of the people that once lived here and died tragically are the many stumbling stones scattered across the city. Each plaque, embedded in the pavement outside of houses and buildings, commemorates a person who lived at the given address before being deported. It states their name, birthday and where and when they died. Over 74,000 stumbling stones (known as Stolpersteine) can be found in more than 1,200 cities and towns across Europe and Russia.

Virtual tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter

A virtual experience doesn’t always deliver the complete familiarity of visiting a destination. However, I will say that my virtual tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter was a poignant and immersive experience. Our guide Nikola, took us through the city, highlighting the fascinating stories of the Jewish people that left their mark on the city.

I might have enjoyed it from home, but I felt as if I was there in person. The tour was great, and I recommend it be that in person on virtually. Prague is a gorgeous city, and if you’re planning on stopping by, make sure to visit the Czech Tourism site for inspiration and sign up with Prague City Adventures for an in-depth tour of Prague.  

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