Sunday, July 1, 2012

PRAGUE, Part 4: The Jewish Quarter

Jews have a very interesting history in Prague.  In the early 1700s, one-fourth of Prague's population was Jewish, and more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. However, their golden age only lasted until mid-century, and after that it was a roller coaster of alternating persecution and acceptance until World War II, during which time the Prague Jews suffered along with all the rest of the Jews in Europe.

These days there are about 1,600 Jews in Prague, not quite the number that used to live there, but a thriving community nevertheless. In fact, the first thing we noticed when walking into the Jewish Quarter, known as "Josefov," was the general opulence. Our guide told us that this is now the most expensive neighborhood in town, although it is no longer a "ghetto," or strictly Jewish. 

The guardian of the entrance to the Jewish Quarter is this interesting bronze statue of a headless man with another man on his shoulders. It is based on a dream described in a story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a Jewish writer from Prague. In this interpretation of the dream, the man sitting on the headless statue is Kafka himself, who spent most of his life  in Prague's Jewish Quarter.
I think this was a much better choice than the giant cockroach from Kafka's Metamorphosis.

It was easy to know what part of town we were in.  Jewish stars were everywhere:

And even the delivery trucks were distinct:

Our first stop was the Spanish Synagogue, built in the 19th Century.  It looked wonderfully Moorish and reminded us of the Mezquita de Cordoba in Spain. Ironically, during World War II, the Nazis used this synagogue to store the property that they had taken from the Jews, which is what may have saved it from destruction.

What? An organ in a synagogue?  Definitely not orthodox.

Next we stopped in at the Pinkas Synagogue, which is now primarily a Jewish Museum.
It doesn't look much like a synagogue, does it?
Several rooms were dedicated to a listing of names of the Jews from Prague who had been victims of the Nazis.We weren't allowed to take pictures (which seems counterproductive to me), so this one is from the Web. There were a LOT of names, and it was hard to believe a living body once belonged to each name, and that every single one of these people was killed by the Nazis.
There was another room  full of art created by children while they were incarcerated in the Terezin Concentration Camp, about an hour from Prague. A smart teacher thought to bury them in canisters in the ground. Again, no pictures, so here is a mediocre one from the Web:
The Jewish Cemetery next door was really interesting.  Since a limited amount of space was available to the Jewish community for a cemetery, and since Jewish law forbids destroying graves, over the years new layers of soil were placed on top of old graves so that more bodies could be buried. 
The old tombstones were placed on top of the new layers with the new tombstones, which is why they are so close together.  There are eleven or twelve distinct layers of graves.  The cemetery is not very big, but there are approximately12,000 tombstones visible and as many as 100,000 bodies buried there. We had to pay an additional fee to take pictures, so we paid for Bob and these are his:

Next, we walked into the courtyard of the Kafka Museum with its iconic "K."  There is also a most unusual statue there: two men peeing into a pool at their feet.  They are motorized and swivel at the hips. I've read that you can send them a text message, and that they will "write" your message in their pool.  We didn't try it--yet another reason to return to Prague.  I am not sure what all this has to do with Kafka, but it is, um, very unique. 

Kafka is obviously a favorite son in the Jewish Quarter:

Our final stop was the Jerusalem Synagogue, also known as the Jubilee Synagogue, which was built in 1906 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the reign of Franz Joseph I of Austria. It is the youngest and biggest synagogue in Prague.  Like the Spanish Synagogue, it is Moorish Revival architecture but with touches of Art Nouveau. I love the crazy color palette:

The women's galleries are located on  the balcony:

Stan, you look very cute in your kippah (which I am used to calling a yarmulke, but when in Prague . . .)

The intricate patterns on the ceilings were beautiful:
I have seen lots of stained glass windows, but this may have been my first stained glass ceiling:
 . . . or stained glass Star of David:

Other stained glass windows definitely have the Art Nouveau look.  Note the benefactors' names included in the windows. The one on the left was paid for by Joseph and Emma.  Hmmm...

Again, it was a bit unusual to see an organ in a Jewish synagogue:

At the start of World War II, 92,000 Jews lived, worked, and worshiped in Prague. Two-thirds of them were killed in the Holocaust.  Although the number of Jews in Prague today is only a fraction of what it once was, they have done an amazing job restoring their sacred places, making their presence felt, and providing a valuable educational experience for tourists.

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman is a sweet love story that begins in pre-World War II Prague where Lenka and Josef meet, fall in love, and are married. Then the Nazis invade and they are swept up in the nightmare of the Holocaust. I don't want to give the plot away, but I will say that Lenka, an artist, spends time in Terezin Concentration Camp, and the contrast to her beloved city of Prague is shocking.  Many spots we visited in Prague are mentioned in the book, making it a good companion read while touring this beautiful city and its elegant, culturally rich Jewish quarter.

NEXT: A Day Trip to the Bone Chapel


  1. I loved the Jerusalem Synagogue, particularly the wonderfully bold stripes and colors. The cemetery was also very moving, knowing that so many people were buried there in layers.

  2. I really like those bold colors.

  3. I do love that Jewish Synagogue!

    It was always a little disappointing when we weren't allowed to take pictures inside. For me, it somehow always lessened the impact of what we were seeing to not be able to record it.

    1. I truly don't understand why they didn't allow photos. There are no worship services going on. I can understand no flash rules as flashing cameras all around are very distracting. However, especially in WWII memorial sites where they are trying to spread a message, it seems like getting photos out there is a good idea.

  4. We declined to pay to enter, so had to peek over the fence at the Jewish Cemetary. I remember those clogged graveyards vividly!