Czech This Out: Prague’s Rich Jewish History

Prague has the best-preserved Jewish history in Europe, and the reason is beyond ironic. This week we toured the Jewish sites in Prague with a good guide, and the experience is worth sharing.

In broad summary, the ancient Jews in the land of Israel were devastated by a series of disasters that included the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the first century, the tragedy of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in the second century, and the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Many of these Jews, driven from their homeland, migrated across North Africa and entered Europe at Gibraltar. Traveling up through Spain, they fanned across Europe and established communities in all the major cities. But the Jews never fully assimilated into medieval society and they became objects of discrimination.

When Pope Innocent (talk about an oxymoron) labeled the Jews “Jesus-Killers,” they became objects of even greater persecution. In many communities they were forced to live in certain sections (called ghettos) and had to wear a yellow star or a yellow stripe around their arms. Why yellow? According to our guide, yellow was the cheapest color to make, for it was produced using horse urine. Even today yellow is a term of derision and cowardice.

In Prague, the ghetto became so wretched that Emperor Joseph had it razed and rebuilt. There the Jews received a measure of freedom until overtaken by Nazi Germany in 1939. After the Nazis seized Bohemia and Moravia, the Jews were rounded up by the thousands and sent to the death camps.

But while the Jews of Prague were transported to holocaust, their buildings—the synagogues, schools, and Jewish properties—were not destroyed. Why?

In one of history’s great ironies, Hitler had decided to keep Prague’s well-defined Jewish Sites intact as a future memorial to a race of people he expected to annihilate. He didn’t want the world to know he was behind the annihilation, of course. He intended to rid the earth of the Jews, and leave the Jewish Quarter in Prague as a memorial to these poor, extinct peoples. It was to become like a museum where you could see dinosaur bones—the remains of an extinct population. His plan backfired, for after the war this area became a point of inspiration for Jews around the world and Hitler was exposed for the monster he was.

Here are three sites I found particularly evocative.

  • One of the sites, the Pinkas Synagogue, is a memorial to the Jews of Prague who perished in the Holocaust. On its walls are the names of 80,000 Jewish victims from Prague, and there is also a display of original drawings done by children who were imprisoned. Of the 8,000 children who were deported, only 242 survived.
  • In the middle of the area is the old Jewish Cemetery. Because the Jews had to bury all their dead in a small area and weren’t given access to other cemeteries, their graveyard filled up over time. They had to bring in more and more dirt to bury the loved ones in layers. This caused the walled cemetery to rise up considerably above street level, and it also crammed together the grave markers like jagged teeth sticking out of a dead man’s mouth.
  • I especially like the name of one house of worship. It’s called the Old-New Synagogue. When it was built in the 1200s, it was called the “New Synagogue.” In the 1500s, when other synagogues were constructed nearby, it became know as the Old-New Synagogue. (It’s a great lesson for those of us in Christian work, where our churches should always retain the heritage of our rich past while staying contemporary and fresh for each new generation.)

Here are some pictures for the Jewish Sites of Prague.

The Old New Synagogue
Jewish Gravestones