Prague’s Jewish Ghetto, or “Josefov,” is the best preserved complex of historical Jewish sights in all of Europe. This includes the oldest and still active synagogue in Europe – the Old-New Synagogue and the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Prague’s Jewish Quarter even survived the Nazi occupation in the 20th century due to Adolf Hitler ordering it be preserved as a “Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race.” The Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from other occupied countries and transported them to Prague where the Maisel Synagogue was used as a warehouse to store them in. It’s quite ironic that due to this preservation, many of the potentially lost or destroyed artifacts have survived and are now on display in the remaining synagogues in Prague.
The Jewish Ghetto consists of roughly 9 main sites scattered over a 3 block area (located in the Old Town,) which include synagogues, museums and the Jewish graveyard. Touring this area is an absolute must when in Prague and is something you can easily do on your own without a tour guide. I would recommend doing your research on the area before you go and to bring a good guidebook instead of wasting time and money on a live guide to take you through at the groups pace. This way, you can spend as much or as little time that YOU want at the sights that YOU are the most interested in, rather than at the sights the guide feels you should be the most interested in. A ticket is required to tour this area.
Prague’s Jewish graveyard is my most memorable and favorite of all the sights I’ve seen in Europe so far.
This graveyard’s history speaks for itself. From 1439 to 1787 this was the only burial ground allowed in the walled off community of the Jews of Prague. This cemetery holds roughly 12,000 tombstones although the number of persons buried here is much greater. It is estimated there are over 100,000 burial in all. Tombs were piled atop each other because of the limited space and it is estimated the tombs are 12 layers deep. Over time, the many layers became a small plateau. As things settled over time, the graves got crooked which has resulted in a very interesting and sad looking graveyard- to say the least. To not even be given enough respect to have a proper burial after death is just plain sad.
This sight is absolutely jaw dropping and is truly amazing to see in real life. It is quite a powerful feeling to slowly walk through the graveyard trying to process the reality of it’s existence and the intense history it holds.
How did Jewish Ghettos come about in Europe?
During the crusades in the 12th century, the pope declared that Jews and Christians were not to live together due to their non-Christian beliefs. Jewish people all over Europe were ordered to vacate their homes and settle in a designated walled off area of the city that was locked in at night and during festivals.
The living conditions in the Jewish Quarter were so horrible with so many people crammed into such a ridiculously small living area, that they eventually turned into ghettos and many people died of disease, malnutrition and so on. This is actually where the word “ghetto” originated. The word ghetto actually means,
“A part of a city predominantly occupied by a particular ethnic group that may be looked down upon for various reasons, especially because of social or economic issues, or because they have been forced to live there (e.g. the Jewish Ghettos in Europe).”
The term was originally used in Venice, Italy. It is derived from the word Borghetto, meaning Little Borgo, a cluster of homes and buildings often outside Italian city walls, to describe the area where Jews, trades people or agricultural workers were compelled to live.
The confinement in the horrible conditions of the ghettos was the least of the Jews problems; being burned alive by the crusaders in their own synagogue was much worse.
Persecution of Jews in Europe began with the Crusades in the high middle ages (11th, 12th and 13th century.) Entire communities were destroyed, massacred and burnt alive. Survivors of the crusades were forced to convert to Christianity or killed. Some were banished or fled to Poland. Some Christians even protected their Jewish friends from the crusades by hiding them in their home, similar to what people did during Nazi Germany occupation in the 20th century.
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council mandated many strict rules for the Jews including wearing distinctive clothing. At one point Prague’s clergy encouraged mobs to pillage, ransack and burn the Jewish Quarter. Nearly the entire Jewish population of Prague perished at this time. The remaining few were baptized to Christianity. It was such a massacre, that the walls of the Old – New Synagogue went dark with blood.
With Jews being banned from living anywhere else in Prague, over time many Jews from surrounding countries that were banished from their homes joined Prague’s Jewish Quarter making it more and more crowded, thus worsening the conditions.
During the 16th and 17th century, Prague had one of Europe’s largest Ghettos with 11,000 inhabitants. Of the 120,000 Jews living in the area in 1939, just 10,000 survived the Holocaust.
It wasn’t until the 1500’s Jews were found security and a renewal of prosperity in Poland.
After educating myself on Europe’s Jewish history when I went to Prague and Rome, I was surprised to learn how many people thought Jews in Europe weren’t persecuted until Nazi Germany came into power, when in reality; it had been going long before the 20th century. The yellow badge and pointed hats weren’t a creation of Nazi Germany; they originated with Pope Innocent III in 1215. Many of the Jewish persecution methods originated in the middle ages and were just reused during the Third Reich.
In my sheltered bubble of Utah, I have never even been close to anything Jewish prior to going to Prague, so to me and I imagine too many others, I found it was incredibly fascinating. I find Jewish history so intriguing and interesting. Learning about the Jews of Europe has given me a great appreciation for their culture and history and has enlightened me to a level I couldn’t have imagined before.
I had never been in a synagogue before visiting Prague, so I found it was very interesting to NOT see stained glass windows, statues , pictures of the saints and Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I was raised a Catholic so this was the norm to me. Instead, the synagogues were full of intricate design and prints and reminded me much of the eastern style influence if I dare say. They were very beautiful, colorful and I appreciated the difference of style I was exposed to. I know in the Muslim religion they do not have pictures of any kind in the mosques, only designs and I wonder if it is similar for synagogues because I don’t recall seeing one (hopefully one of my readers can enlighten me.) Either way, it was very interesting to compare the difference of religious houses and worship.
As for the Jewish Quarter as a whole, it was such an intense and surreal feeling to know that I was walking in what used to be a cramped ghetto, chuck full of shabby wooden shacks shoved on top of each other with horrible living conditions and death and fear on every corner. Fortunately, in the 1848, the Ghetto was finally demolished. Oh the history!