Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, which lies between the right bank of the Vltava and the Old Town Square, is one of the oldest, most historic and most architecturally interesting parts of Prague.
The first Jews arrived in Prague in the 10th century during the reign of Prince Borivoj Premyslovic. They were merchants, following trade routes across Europe into the new market town below Prague Castle. In the 11th century, during the prosperous reign of King Vratislav II, Jewish settlers, attracted by commercial opportunities, arrived and set up businesses on the right bank, near the market square in the Old Town. A settlement grew around them, with houses, synagogues and a cemetery. In the 13th century, during one of many periods of persecution, all the Jews in other parts of Prague were herded into the Jewish quarter. Their movements, as well their trades and professions, were restricted. More and more Jews, prohibited from other parts of Prague, crowded into the area. Walls were thrown up to contain it. It became a ghetto. Over the next century savage Pogroms took place, the worst of which was the 1389 Easter Sunday massacre of 1,500 people.
Towards the end of the 16th century, conditions improved in the Jewish ghetto. The philanthropic Emperor Rudolph II’s Imperial Charter granted new religious freedoms. Jewish scholars and philosophers arrived in the city, among them the Maharal Judah Leow Ben Bazale. Legend has it that the Maharal created a magical golem from Vltava clay to protect the Jews of Prague. The golem was so powerful that Emperor begged the Maharal to destroy it. It was confined in a coffin which, apparently, still lies buried in Josefov today. Under the protection of the Emperor Rudolph, the Maharal and the golem, the population in the ghetto grew to 1500, about one quarter of Prague’s total. The Jewish Mayor, Mordechai Maisel became the Minister of Finance and his money helped to develop the ghetto. This was a golden age for Jewish Prague.
But, in 1745, after the Thirty Years’ Wa,r Maria Theresa of Austria, alleging collaboration with the Prussians, expelled all the Jews from Prague. The ghetto became a ghost town. Three years later, however, they were allowed to return and life resumed
In 1779 restrictions on Jews eased. They were allowed to settle outside the city and as the liberal and the affluent abandoned it, only the orthodox and the poor remained in the Jewish Quarter. In 1781, the Emperor Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance emancipated the Jews of Prague and in gratitude, they named the Jewish quarter Josefov. In 1850 Josefov achieved the status of a town.
Between 1893 and 1913, during the frenzied renovations and re-builds that marked the new Austro-Hungarian Empire, much of old Prague was demolished to make way for a new city, modelled on Paris. Afterwards, all that remained of Josefov was six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall.
In 1939, the Nazis arrived. The Jewish population of Prague was systematically removed – murdered or transported to concentration camps like Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. The ghetto was once again a ghost town. Incredibly, it was not demolished but preserved as an “exotic museum of an extinct race”. Jewish artifacts were gathered from all over central Europe for display in Josefov.
Today, Josefov is a picturesque quarter of narrow lanes and old stone buildings. The Jewish people, although decimated in number, have returned and their story continues. Josefov is a peaceful village, despite the thousands of tourists that stream through its streets, where businesses trade, in tiny shops and stalls, in fine lace decorated with Judaic motifs, in candles, menora and yamulke.
In the Jewish Museum 40,000 exhibits of textiles, art and silver and 100,000 books from all over Bohemia and Moravia, tell the long and fascinating story of the Jews of the Czech Republic.
The Old-New Synagogue is the main house of prayer for Prague’s Jewish community. Built in the 13th century, it is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe. It is in the Gothic style and is richly adorned with elaborate stonework. All the interior furnishings are originals.
The Jewish cemetery holds the graves of centuries of souls who have lived in Josefov. Its most famous include those of the Maharal Judah Leow Ben Bazale and Franz Kafka.
Most of the historical sights in the Jewish Quarter come under the auspices of the Jewish Museum and a single ticket gains entrance to all its buildings, including the Town Hall and the six synagogues.