Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Prague is one of my favourite cities – a really nice old town and home to great (and cheap!) beer. We spent Easter 2015 there – in line with our Easter city break tradition that also featured thus far Paris, Rome, St Petersburg, and Hong Kong. We found ourselves back there for a friend’s stag do, which of course cannot be the subject of a blog post here. 😉 But there was one particular sight we missed last time around – the Jewish quarter was closed due to Passover. So we used our time wisely while we waited for the rest of the party to arrive.

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There’s a long history of Jewish life in Prague, and it’s reflecting the up and down of the Jewish people everywhere in Europe. In medieval times, Jews were only allowed to settle in this particular part of town, which was a poor and undesirable place. Later, after Jews were emancipated and gained wealth in the 19th century, they actually moved out of the quarter, but built some of the prettiest synagogues in Europe. Most of them survived the horrors of the Nazis almost unharmed because someone had the perverse idea to preserve Prague’s Jewish quarter as a sort of museum to this extinct race.

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Today, there are half a dozen synagogues and the cemetery which can be visited. Some are restored to their original splendour (like the Spanish Synagogue), some display items of Jewish life and religion (like the Maisel Synagogue), others serve as a memorial to the Holocaust.

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Probably the most impressive one can be found in the Pinkas Synagogue which houses upstairs a collection of children’s drawings from concentration camps. While many children processed the horrors around them with childish innocence, others were clearly fully aware of their situation. It’s hard to tell which ones were more moving. All this in the context of an endless stream of names of people who lost their lives.

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A surprisingly charming contrast to all this is the cemetery. Jews never remove old tombs, so over the centuries the cemetery grew layer by layer into the height due to the confined space the Jews were given. Tightly packed you find hundreds of tombstones which somewhat give an even better impression of the thriving Jewish life in the quarter than the synagogues themselves.

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Of course, one couldn’t possibly fail to mention the most famous member of Prague’s Jewish community: Franz Kafka. Born into a Jewish-Bohemian middle-class family at the end of the 19th century, he would publish his books and stories in German as part of the Jewish self-understanding of the time as members of the German bourgeoisie. There’s a really nice statue dedicated to Kafka at the entrance to the Jewish quarter.

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Prague may be most famous for its castle, bridges, churches, beer, and red light district, but if you want a unique experience that makes you marvel and think at the same time, I can highly recommend a visit to the Jewish quarter!