No trip to Prague is complete without a visit to the Josefov, also known as the Jewish Quarter. Since 1992, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, serving as a reminder of the evils of fascism and the resiliency of the Jewish community.
A Brief History
Jews settled in the quarter around 1096 after fleeing from a pogrom or religious persecution. Eventually, they were segregated from the Christians and forced to live in a walled ghetto. After numerous pogroms spanning centuries, the quarter saw a bit of hope when Mordecai Maisel, a Jewish Mayor, became the Minister of Finance in the 16th century.
The quarter used to be called Jewish Ghetto or Jewish Town, but it was eventually renamed in honor of the Roman emperor Joseph II, who issued the Patent of Toleration. It granted religious freedom to non-Catholics, permitting Jews to live outside of the quarter. However, this glimmer of hope was short-lived.
Most of the structures in the quarter were demolished to fulfil a Parisian fantasy, but it never came to fruition because Prague was struck with the horrors of the Second World War. Starting in 1941, Jews were forced to wear the Star of David as an identifier. Merely a month later, they were forced into concentration camps across Europe.
Prague’s medieval center survived the bombings of World War II, including a handful of synagogues in the Jewish quarter.
Top Sights in Prague’s Jewish Quarter
There are a handful of synagogues in the Jewish quarter, but none are as ancient as the Old-New synagogue, previously known as the Great synagogue. It has been around since the 13th century. Pinkas Synagogue, which is equally famous, is the second oldest in Prague. Now, it is home to a memorial for the lives lost during the Holocaust. Listing the names of 78,000 individuals, this epitaph is said to be the longest in the world.
One of the more recent synagogues is the Spanish Synagogue. Resembling a Moorish palace, it features intricate stonework, curved windows, and elaborate floral patterns.
A Dr. Karel Stein proposed the idea of a museum to house the confiscated personal items of Jews, as well as artifacts from the Jewish Museums of Prague, Mikulov, and beyond. While some of the personal effects were returned to survivors, others were sold, looted, or destroyed during the communist regime.
Thankfully, many rare artifacts have survived over the years. Today, the museum has its own gallery, library and educational center. It welcomes many exhibitions—from temporary to travelling collections. It also hosts numerous cultural and educational events.
- Old Jewish Cemetery
Another remarkable site you’ll find in the quarter is the Old Jewish Cemetery. With about 10,000 gravestones, some dating back to the 15th century, it is one of the most important Jewish landmarks in Prague. Significant figures in the Jewish Community were laid to rest here, including Loew ben Bezalell, commonly known as Rabbi Loew. According to legend, he created the Golem of Prague.
- Franz Kafka Memorial
Josefov is the birth place of Franz Kafka, who authored The Metamorphosis and The Castle. His lived on the corner of Kaprova and Maiselova street before his family transferred to Wenceslas Square.
Kafka’s bronze monument is located next to the Spanish Synagogue. Jaroslav Rona sculpted the statue, taking inspiration from the writer’s Description of a Match.
How to Get There
Located between Old Town square and the Vltava River, the Jewish Quarter is just a stone’s throw away from the Old Town. It is a five-minute walk from the square. If you’re coming from Charles Bridge, you can reach the quarter on foot in 10 minutes or so. There is limited parking around in the neighborhood, so refrain from using private transportation during your trip.