Prague Jewish Town

Staronová synagoga z východu, 1836

Through this article, I would like to take you to the place which is very important for the history of Prague Judaism. Its origins come from 13th century when Jews were forced to live separately from Christian citizens in so called ghettos. Today, we are going to set out on a tour of the oldest and also largest Jewish ghetto in Europe with the second world’s largest museum of Judaism.

Prague Jewish Town

History Old New Synagogue
According to historical sources, Jews allegedly got to Prague from Jerusalem due to vast demolition of temples. They allegedly came from two places. A larger group of Jews came from the Byzantium in the east and a smaller and latter group came from the Alps in the south-west. Jews were settling here from the 10th century and represented a specific group of people who adhered to their own practices and religious order which so dramatically differed from the one of other citizens.

The period of first settlement is represented by the synagogue at Újezd in the Lesser Town which used to have the oldest Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately, the synagogue and the cemetery were abolished in the 12th century. The 11th and 12th centuries were associated with further settlement of Jews in Prague, in nowadays Vladislavská street, where another Jewish cemetery was established in 1254. Its destruction is dated back to 1478.

In 1330s, the Jewish territory was already so extensive that fortified walls were built around it and this started the era of the Old Jewish Town. The fortification was also incited by ever more frequent attacks upon Jewish citizens. Originally the walls were not used as a separation line but as a protective means for property of Jews.

Legends from Jewish Ghetto Golem
There are many legends about the old Jewish Ghetto. The most famous one is about a mythical creature called Golem. Golem was said to be an animated anthropomorphic being created by  Rabbi Loew (czech: Rabi Löw) from clay with the help of water, fire and air. It was brought to life by force of Shem which contained a special cabbalistic formula and had to be inserted under Golem’s tongue. Golem, later Josele, had an incredible force and managed almost everything. Rabbi used to take the Shem out from Golem’s mouth always at Sabbath – a holiday during which Jewish customs and traditions forbid Jews to work. Nevertheless, once Rabbi left the Shem in Golem and before he returned to the synagogue, Golem madly and furiously destroyed everything that stood in his way. When Rabbi seized the Shem once again, Golem’s body fell on the ground and fell into pieces. Golem’s remnants were brought to the attic of the Old New Synagogue where they are believed to have remained until today.

Jewish citizens
Jewish citizens belonged to very wealthy people. They were engaged in business activities and were known for loans. As soon as the ruler learned about their property and possessions, he charged them with high taxes which filled up the royal treasury. On several occasions even the ruler himself had to borrow money from Jews. The reward was his royal protection over the whole Jewish community. In proof of the king’s gratitude, stonemasons from the royal iron-mill built the Old New Synagogue. As we have already mentioned in the previous entries, this synagogue belongs to the oldest in Europe.

PRAGUE 1 MONUMENTS  CENTRAL

Pogroms
Nevertheless, the fortification failed to protect Jewish population against destructive pogroms. At Easter 1389 the Ghetto saw the greatest slaughter, plunder and destruction of Jewish property. Nearly 1 000 people were killed. One of survivors of this catastrophe was latter Rabbi Avigdor Kara whose name we learned on our tour through the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Prosperity of the Jewish community Old jewish cemetery and Pinkas synagogue (1855)
The Jewish community started to thrive during the rule of the Emperor Rudolf II. There was as huge economical and cultural development in the Town. Rudolf II. ordered that all disputes between Jews and Christians are to be settled only at the royal court. He also confirmed so far unwritten Jewish privileges. After these royal decisions, the number of Jewish citizens greatly increased. Many trades developed – from merchants to financiers. In those favourable times many buildings and synagogues were built and also the influence of Jewish religion widespread. The propagation was so vast that Christians became to feel endangered. The royal court then took certain actions in order not to have Judaism spread so quickly. This limitation was successfully implemented 100 years later during the reign of the empress Maria Theresa since Jews were expelled from Prague at her order.

Position of Jews quite improved during the reign of Maria’s son, the emperor Joseph II, whose reforms included political equality of rights for Jews. The Jewish town was also integrated into other Prague quarters. To show their gratitude to Joseph II, Jews called this quarter Joseph Town (Josefov). And that’s the origin of this Prague quarter’s name.

Jan Minarik - redevelopment of jewish ghetto Problems of Jewish community
Still, every joy wears off at some time and so far trouble-free life of Jews started to be rocky again. Rich Jews suddenly began to move out to different Prague quarters and only poorer citizens stayed in the former ghetto. This emigration and separation resulted in many problems, especially hygienic ones. The standard of the town was falling, hygienic conditions got worse and worse, several diseases and epidemics were spreading through the ghetto. Beautiful buildings which used to be cared of started to decay in this consequence, which meant extensive demolitions and sanitation measures including pulling down very important buildings. However, thanks to the timely help, many synagogues and houses were left standing, reconstructed and nowadays are still here. New synagogues with unique architectural elements were built in places of old building which had been torn down.

PRAGUE  MONUMENTS  CENTRAL

During World War II Jews were deported into concentration camps. Abandoned Josefov became a warehouse of confiscated property. After the war many items remained in hands of the Jewish Museum since their owners had been killed in concentration camps and thus the Jewish Museum became the second largest Jewish town in the world.

Until 19th century the Jewish Town belonged to the most important parts of Prague and nowadays it still has a great significance in Jewish tradition. Let me show you some interesting parts of the Jewish Town. Adjacent to the Old New Synagogue you can see the tower of Jewish Town Hall with a curiosity which does not always get noticed. It’s the tower clock with its hands going counterclockwise.

Another interesting thing that must be mentioned here is the fact that here used to stand the first seat of Prague University. Behind St Nicolas Church there was a house of a Jew called Lazar. After his death in 1366 Charles IV presented this building to Prague University and it became the first dormitory in Karlov quarter. The building served those purposes until 1383 when the King Wenceslas  IV bought a new house – today’s Carolinum.

All about Prague Jewish Town

All about Prague 1 Monuments

All about Prague Monuments

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