The Jewish Traveler: Prague
This capital city is among Europe’s most enchanting, and its Jewish sights are arguably the continent’s best preserved, handsomest and most frequently visited.
As the clock strikes the hour in Prague’s main railroad station, Jewish travelers in particular do a double take.
The nine bars of music that accompany the chime sound distinctly like “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem. It’s because the music for “Hatikva” was inspired by Bedrich Smetana’s “Vltava,” part of the Czech Republic’s unofficial classical national anthem. If travelers hear it on arrival, it’s a fitting introduction to the Jewish connection in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
The first clear evidence of a Jewish presence in Prague dates to 1091. When the First Crusade swept through the area in 1096, many of the city’s Jews were murdered and others forcibly baptized. Nevertheless, Jews continued to arrive. The construction of Prague’s Altneuschul—one of the oldest existing synagogues in Europe—was completed in 1270.
The community had a burst of growth during the 16th century, increasing from 600 in 1522 to 6,000 by the end of the century. The reign of Emperor Rudolf II, spanning the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, was a Jewish golden age. Rudolf was the only Hapsburg emperor (the dynasty ruled the Czech lands from 1526 to 1918) who kept his court in Prague rather than Vienna. He preferred art and science to politics, and during his reign Jews attained wealth and influence. The best-known Jew of the era was Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal), a rabbi, scholar and mathematician. According to legends that developed two centuries after he lived, the Maharal was also the creator of the golem.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw more restrictions on Jewish life, but the legal position improved in 1782 with the Toleranzpatent of Emperor Josef II.
In the mid-19th century, by which time Prague’s Jewish population of 10,000 was one of the largest in Europe, the last regulations were removed and Jews achieved full emancipation in 1867.
The Jewish cultural flowering of the late 19th and early 20th centuries surpassed that of the Maharal’s age. Prominent writers included Franz Kafka, Max Brod and Franz Werfel. Among those who lived for a period in Prague were Gustav Mahler and Albert Einstein. Non-Jewish artists and writers came to regard Jewish history and legends as integral to the city’s heritage; the municipal fathers dedicated a statue of the Maharal not in front of one of the synagogues but at the entrance to City Hall.
After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and especially after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, refugees streamed into Prague, swelling the Jewish population to 56,000 by the time the Nazis took the city in March 1939; by the end of that year, some 19,000 managed to emigrate. Deportations to Terezin (Thereisenstadt in German) and to death camps further east began in 1941. About 10,000 Prague Jews survived the war.
What set Prague apart during the Holocaust was not the fate of its Jews but the fate of its Jewish treasures. Instead of razing synagogues and destroying religious objects, the Nazis preserved everything in Czechoslovakia to mount a “museum of the extinct Jewish race.”
The Communist takeover of 1948 put a sudden end to any hope for renewed Jewish life in Prague. Many more Jews emigrated, and by the end of the 1960’s the community had dwindled to about 2,000.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Prague Jewry has undergone a transformation. By most accounts, there are at least 5,000 Jews in the city, a number that includes about 2,000 foreign nationals, mostly Israelis and Americans. Of the 3,000 Czech Jews, a fair number have only one Jewish parent, and community leaders believe there are perhaps many thousands more of half-Jewish parentage who have yet to develop a Jewish identity or affiliate with the community.
However sinister the motives behind their preservation, the buildings and other treasures spared by the German occupiers constitute Prague’s rich Jewish inheritance today. The sites and collections that became the “State Jewish Museum” under the Communists are now the property of the community. In a city of spectacular beauty and history, the Jewish sights are among the most visited and certainly the most promoted by CzechTourism. Non-Jews once again share the sense that the Jewish legacy is part of the Czech legacy.
Recent years have seen the fulfillment of the “two Jews, three opinions” tradition, for good and for ill. Jewish organizations, programs and congregations have mushroomed. But during 2005, a bitter dispute between the backers of two factions produced a bizarre outcome—for much of the year Altneuschul was open to tourists but closed for prayers; after community elections in November 2005, the two camps reached a compromise and the synagogue is once again a place of worship.
The Jewish community headquarters is located in the old Jewish Town Hall at Maiselova 18 (011-420-224-800-849;www.kehilaprag.cz). Most of the Jewish buildings and synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, plus the Old Jewish Cemetery, are part of the Jewish Museum, for which visitors buy a single ticket. The museum office is at Skoly Square 1 (221-711-511;www.jewishmuseum.cz).
Traditional Orthodox services are held daily in the High Synagogue, which is in the Jewish Town Hall complex, and on Shabbat at the Altneuschul and at Chabad House (Parizska 3; 222-320-200;www.chabadprague.cz). Modern Orthodox Shabbat services are held at the Jerusalem Synagogue (also called the Jubilee Synagogue) at Jeruzalemska 7. Conservative services are held Friday evenings in the Jewish Town Hall (for information, call 608-176-579). The Reform Beit Simha prays Friday evenings in an apartment at Manesova 8 (603-426-564). Once a month, the Conservative and Reform congregations have a combined Shabbat morning service. Bejt Praha, an independent congregation that follows Conservative custom, holds Friday evening services in the Spanish Synagogue (Vezenska 1; 222-310-199; www.bejt-praha.cz).
Three of Prague’s five sections—the New Town, the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter (also known as Josefov)—sit on the right bank of the Vltava River, which flows through the city and under its landmark bridges. The heart of the city’s history is the Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti), which borders the Jewish Quarter.
The Old Town Square is one of the most picturesque plazas in the world, a cobblestone expanse surrounded by Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance (and in the surrounding blocks Art Nouveau) buildings. The square today is a lively hub of cafés, restaurants, shops and street performers.
It was around the Old Town Square that Prague’s best-known Jewish son, Franz Kafka, spent much of his life. The Kinsky Palace, the Rococo building that is now an art gallery, is where Kafka attended school and where his father had a haberdashery. One corner that preserves his memory is on the right side as you face the building, on the ground floor: the Kafka Bookstore. To the right of the palace is the Gothic Church of Our Lady Before Tyn; inside is the tomb of Tyco Brahe, the Danish astronomer who was, among other things, a friend of the Maharal.
On the south side of Old Town Square, just to the left of Zelezna Street, is a building called At the Golden Unicorn (No. 17), where Kafka frequented a literary salon hosted by Berta Fanta. Other regulars were Einstein and Max Brod. (Brod, Kafka’s closest friend, was a writer and Zionist leader; as executor of Kafka’s estate, he defied his friend’s wishes and saw that Kafka’s work, little of which was published during his lifetime, reached the public.)
Just off the square’s northwest corner, to the left of the Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, is a smaller plaza called Franz Kafka Square. The pink and yellow building on the square’s north side (the address is U Radnice 5) is Kafka’s birthplace. On the ground floor is the Franz Kafka Exposition, an exhibit of photos and artifacts, with a book and souvenir shop, devoted to Kafka’s life. The square is at the foot of Maiselova Street, the main thoroughfare of the Jewish Quarter.
Walking up maiselova, just past U Golema (the Golem restaurant), is the Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova 10), named for Mordecai Maisel, a moneylender who helped finance Rudolf’s war against Turkey. He became mayor of the Jewish Town and gave generously to the community. The synagogue, built in the 1590’s, rebuilt in the 1680’s and renovated in the early 20th century, sits behind a Gothic iron fence. The exterior, which features a Decalogue between twin spires, is neo-Gothic. The sanctuary maintains the original Baroque style with crisscross strips on a vaulted ceiling. The building today is a museum devoted to the history of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia—the two regions that make up the Czech Republic. The synagogue also hosts evening concerts.
The Jewish Town Hall, also built by Maisel, is at Maiselova 18. Inaugurated in the 1570’s, it took on its late-Baroque appearance after an 18th-century restoration. Below the distinctive steeple, which holds a conventional clock, is the building’s best-known feature—a gable holding a second clock with Hebrew characters. The Town Hall houses the administrative offices of the community and the High Synagogue.
Across a narrow lane in front of the Town Hall is the Altneuschul, the city’s, and perhaps Europe’s, most important Jewish landmark. The simple (and probably correct) explanation of the name in English, “Old-New Synagogue,” is that it was originally the new synagogue and became the old synagogue when an earlier sanctuary was destroyed.
But one of Prague’s popular legends is that it was built with stones from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, sent “on condition” (al tnai in Hebrew) that they be returned for use in constructing the Third Temple.
The building is early Gothic with a stone base supporting stepped brick gables, forming a steep red-tiled roof. Inside, the sanctuary has a double nave and vaults with five lines to avoid forming the shape of a cross. The walls are lined with wooden benches with arched backs; the seat with the highest back, topped with a Star of David, is Rabbi Loew’s chair, where he sat in the 16th century. (According to legend, when the golem went berserk and the Maharal was forced to destroy it, he hid the creature’s remains in the rafters above the synagogue’s ceiling.) Above the stone central bima, surrounded by Renaissance iron railings, is the Jewish standard, the banner under which Jews were permitted to march in guild processions in the Middle Ages.
To tour the Altneuschul, buy a separate ticket—which does not include entrance to the other synagogues—in the souvenir shop across the lane or at the Jewish Museum offices.
Branching off Maiselova is Siroka Street. At Siroka 3 is the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague’s second oldest, which dates from 1490. Today, the building—which features a Gothic vaulted ceiling and Art Nouveau arched windows—is a memorial to the Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust. The names of all 80,000 victims are inscribed on the walls of the first floor. On the second floor is an exhibit of drawings made by children in Terezin; of the 10,000 children sent there, only 242 survived.
Visitors must pass through the courtyard of the Pinkas Synagogue to reach the Old Jewish Cemetery. The burial ground is one of the most incredible sights of the Jewish world, a dense forest of tombstones that conveys a sense of deep tranquillity. Though covering less than an acre, the cemetery has 12,000 visible stones, the oldest from the early 1400’s and the last from 1787.
Because of the limited space, the dead were buried in layers (typically 20 inches separate one from another), and there may be as many as 100,000 actual graves. This explains the numerous headstones over what appears to be a single plot, some at sharp angles. Even amid the tightly packed rows of headstones, trees shade the cemetery and the sense of enclosure is increased by the surrounding buildings—two synagogues, an art museum and apartment houses—that border it.
A single, one-way path winds through the grounds. The most prominent graves along the route, their tombstones covered with pebbles left by visitors, are those of the Maharal and of Henda Basevi, wife of Prague’s first Jewish nobleman.
The cemetery path comes to an end on Hrbitova Street, between two Jewish buildings. The Klausen Synagogue, built in the 1690’s, is an early Baroque structure with a gently arched ceiling and a three-tiered Holy Ark. The ground floor exhibits ceremonial objects that explain the Jewish calendar, while the second floor is dedicated to the Jewish home and life cycle.
The other building is the Ceremonial Hall, an early-20th-century pseudo-Romanesque structure that housed the Jewish Burial Society. On the walls are paintings of funeral processions and burials, while the display cases have a fascinating array of items ranging from death shrouds and combs to uniforms of the society members (they look like firemen’s attire) to the china and silverware used at the society’s annual banquet.
Two blocks east of Maiselova is the Spanish Synagogue, which opened in 1868. It took its name from its Moorish architecture—a white stone exterior with terra cotta arabesques and a sanctuary in which every square inch of the walls, columns and ceiling are painted gilded stucco with polychrome arabesque patterns. Amid the grand décor is an exhibit on the Enlightenment and objects and documents on Jewish nobility, Hebrew publishing in Prague and Jewish ministers in the first Czech government after independence in 1918.
In front of the Spanish Synagogue is a sculpture that can only be described as Kafkaesque. It features a small Kafka sitting on the shoulder of a larger figure—a standing empty suit with no arms or head.
Prague’s New Town has one synagogue. Though built in 1908, the Jerusalem Synagogue, three blocks off Wenceslas Square, is equal in beauty to any of the more historic houses of worship in the Jewish Quarter. The Moorish-style building has a pink-and-sand-colored stone façade with three small arches over the front entrance and, above, a sweeping arc enclosing an elegant Star of David-motif window.
The most charming of the bridges across the Vltava is the Charles Bridge, completed in 1357. Lining the pedestrian span are 30 historic statues, one of which has long been an affront to Jews. Walking toward the left bank and the Little Quarter, the third statue on the right shows Jesus on the cross. In 1696, during a period of growing anti-Jewish incitement, a local Jew was accused of debasing the cross and, in retaliation, the Hebrew inscription “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts,” was added to the sculpture. An explanatory plaque was mounted on the wall below the statue in 2000.
Make sure to cross the Charles Bridge all the way to the Little Quarter, a stunningly preserved neighborhood of Baroque palaces and old houses, many dating to the 13th century. Looming above the quarter is Prague Castle, once the home of emperors, today the home of the president of the Czech Republic. The castle grounds offer magnificent views. Prague is a city of high culture and great architecture, and the two often go hand in hand. Even if you don’t normally attend opera or classical concerts, you might want to consider an evening at the neoclassical Estates Theatre, the State Opera with its Rococo interior, the Neo-Renaissance National Theater or the Municipal House, Prague’s most important Art Nouveau building.
Prague’s favorite artist is Alfons Mucha, who was perhaps the defining practitioner of Art Nouveau. His work can be found all over the city, most prominently at the Municipal House. Living in Paris at the end of the 19th century, Mucha, a Catholic, did all of Sarah Bernhardt’s theater posters, many of which incorporate Jewish themes. A museum dedicated to his life and work is at Panska 7 (www.mucha.cz).
Thirty miles northwest of Prague is Terezin, which the Nazis turned into a concentration camp and way station to death camps in Poland. Built by the Hapsburgs in the late 18th century—ironically, to help defend against invasions from Germany—Terezin was a fortress town that also housed a prison. Its most prominent inmate prior to the Nazi occupation was Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand sparked World War I.
During the 1940’s, Terezin’s neat streets were deceptive. The camp’s relatively good conditions (no prison uniforms, no tattoos, no shaved heads) were part of the design, a propaganda tool ideal for showing the Red Cross and representatives of neutral nations how well Jews were treated. Some inmates stayed for a day, others as long as three years.
People sent to Terezin were those the Nazis chose to favor temporarily—Czech, German and Austrian Jews, veterans of World War I and high-profile people such as artists, writers and actors. The camp had synagogues, its own Jewish money and frequent plays and concerts staged by inmates. A cabaret was run by Kurt Gerron, a German Jewish actor and film director who had appeared in The Blue Angel opposite Marlene Dietrich. During the war, 150,000 Jews passed through Terezin; some 35,000 died there and 86,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other camps.
Today, much of Terezin (416-782-616; www.terezin.cz) serves as a memorial and museum detailing life in the camp, the art and music performed and produced there and the Nazi killing machine. Highlights include the synagogue maintained by Danish Jews, a chilling propaganda film and drawings by children; the art teachers were the painter Friedl Dicker Brandeis and Olga Kafka David, sister of Franz.
Despite the decline in numbers after World War II, Prague’s Jews have continued to influence their city and nation. Prominent filmmakers have included Jan Kadar and Milos Forman. Best known today are writers Ivan Klima and Arnost Lustig; Vladimir Zelezny, founder of TV Nova and a member of the European Parliament; and Jan Kraus, an actor and television host.
Prague’s only fine kosher restaurant is King Solomon at Siroka 8 (224-818-752; www.kosher.cz). There is also a more modest kosher restaurant, Shalom, in the Jewish Town Hall.
Kosherprague.com can provide breakfast in some hotels and also arranges tours. Another good tour operator is Wittmann Tours (222-252-472 or 603-426-564; www.witt man-tours.com).
You can find a wealth of information on Prague and its Jewish sites at www.czechtourism.com (212-288-0830 in the United States). If you are traveling around the region, one of the best transportation options is a rail pass from RailEurope (877-257-2887;www.raileurope.com). Prague has many fine hotels. One that is especially charming and well located is the Iron Gate (233-920-118), at Michalska 19, just steps from Old Town Square and a five-minute walk to the Jewish Quarter.
For all Prague’s charms, some visitors leave the city feeling they’ve missed something elemental: Those brooding Kafka stories, the noirish quality of the golem tales, not to mention the bleakness of the German occupation and 40 years of Communism, don’t seem to jibe with the dazzling face the city presents today.