The Czech Republic has been imbued with a vivid Jewish presence for hundreds of years. With 10 Jewish communities and 350 Jewish cemeteries, it boasts the second largest synagogue in Europe (the third largest in the world). Many towns had large Jewish populations, and a great many Czech Jews have made substantial cultural contributions, both religious and secular. From fine crystal to Franz Kafka, from kosher vineyards to the venerable Rabbi Loew (associated with the legendary Golem of Prague), you will sense the mystique of this part of the world. While Prague is the epicenter of Czech Jewish memorabilia, tracking down Jewish heritage in other parts of the country can be a fascinating voyage of discovery, starting from sites near Prague to Pilzeň in the west, Mikulov in the south and more.
The 10 Stars project in the Czech Republic is a nationwide project linking 10 synagogues/sites of Jewish heritage in 10 towns all over the country which showcase the unique cultural heritage of the Czech Republic. These activities included not only the buildings’ construction and restoration, but the majority of the synagogues and rabbinical houses and to include permanent exhibitions along with other temporary programs (lectures, concerts, screenings, theater performances, etc.) and to inform visitors about Jewish history and Judaism in a unique manner and in an authentic setting.
One of the synagogues I had visited was in Ustek, a small town in the Ústí nad Labem Region. It is located 16 km northeast of Litoměřice and has a population of 2,719. The town is renowned for its medieval center where houses with Gothic gables have been preserved. The Synagogue in Úštěk was founded in 1794 on a high foundation wall of sandstone cubes at the very edge of a cliff promontory.
Guided by a knowledgeable and engaging guide Marek Tousek, managing director and operator of Magni Tour, I discovered this beautifully restored synagogue, rabbi’s house, and school. In this unconventional spaces of the Jewish school and the teacher’s quarters, visitors today can see an exhibition of what the Jewish school may have looked like in the middle of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the main task of the “Revitalization of Jewish Monuments” project in Úštěk was the complete renovation of the rabbinical house opposite the synagogue, which was performed in 2010–2014. This old Jewish building (house no. IV) was acquired by the Jewish community in 1870, which renovated it and used the first floor for the rabbi’s quarters and a Jewish school.
Today, the building’s ground floor is home to an exhibition on the history of Úštěk’s Jewish community, while the former rabbi’s quarters on the first floor feature an exhibition on the history and nature of Jewish schools in the Czech lands. Jewish schools are a unique cultural phenomenon as the importance of education is emphasized in many passages of the Bible and the Talmud (e.g., in the Pirkei Avot). Promoting traditional education was an important duty for each Jewish community from age five to six, pupils attended the cheder, where they studied the basics of Hebrew, the texts of the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Jewish laws. Around age 15, boys went on to study at the yeshiva, whose main purpose is the study of the Talmud. This traditional form of Jewish schooling existed in the Czech lands until the 19th century. This exhibition also looks at Jewish education in prewar Czechoslovakia and at Jewish schools in Prague today.
The abandoned Jewish cemetery dates back to the 16th century and has 211 gravestones on the premises. The older ones are mostly decorated in the custom of the old days, but one can find also modern ones from the late 19th century. One of the significant Art Nouveau-style gravestones, located in the middle of the cemetery, belongs to the Heller Family.
The Jewish Quarter of Třebíč is one of the best preserved Jewish ghettos in Europe. It was added in 2003 (together with the Jewish Cemetery and the St. Procopius Basilica) to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Rear Synagogue is of two synagogues in the Jewish Quarter was built in 1669. The neighboring house was built in 1798. It was stunning, spacious and bright, with baroque paintings on the walls. At the upper women’s gallery, there is a small exhibition of the Jewish culture as well as a mockup of how the Jewish quarter used to look like. The last service was held here in 1926 and since then the building was close to demolishing only to be finally renovated and open to the public into a Jewish Museum in 2011. Visitors will particularly appreciate the mural paintings in its interior dating from the early 18th century. Today, the synagogue is used for exhibitions, concerts, and other cultural events. There are over one hundred buildings remaining in Trebic Jewish quarter, including two synagogues, the Jewish town hall, the rabbi’s house, the school, and the hospital. A permanent exhibition of Jewish culture is available in the former women’s gallery, displaying many valuable objects used in the now-extinct Jewish community, whose final chapter was written by the Holocaust during the Second World War.
The Jewish Cemetery
The Jewish cemetery in Trebic is among the most impressive one in the Czech Republic and Central Europe. Located on the hill it is home to over 3,000 graves in Renaissance, Baroque and Classicist style. Around 11,000 people were buried here! Old tombstones covered in moss or ivy, with barely seen inscriptions and the oldest of which dates from 1625.
Terezin Memorial. It was an 18th-century military fortress that was turned by Nazis into the only concentration camp on Czech territory during World War II where more than 33,000 European Jews died. The Terezín monument includes a whole complex of buildings spreading out on both sides of the River Ohra. Its main parts were made up of the Small and Big Fortress built according to a design from the famous school in the French town of Mezières. The daily suffering and inhumane conditions for the lives of the tens of thousands of Jews who were deported here is evident every step of the way. Walk past the former accommodation quarters, the famous chapel in the Magdeburg barracks, the Columbarium with its ceremonial rooms or the Ghetto Museum. The monument plaques and cemeteries in the areas around Terezín commemorate the sad stories of those who were imprisoned here.
The Big Fortress, a former Jewish ghetto features the Museum of the Terezin Concentration Camp, is where you will see many chilling artifacts, such as a collage of drawings by children imprisoned at the camp. The propaganda movie was produced by the Nazis to present Terezin as a “gift” to the Jews from Hitler and was supposed to dispel rumors about the horrors of life in concentration camps. You will find copious amounts of literary, artistic, musical and theatrical works by the prisoners that were preserved, which can be viewed during a tour. The four sisters of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, were also deported to Terezín, the philologist professor from Austria Elise Richter and the poet and cabaret performer Walter Lindenbaum. Relatives of the Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the American presidential candidate John Kerry were also imprisoned here.
Prague’s Jewish Town
The experience of visiting Prague’s Jewish Town (named Josefov in Czech after Emperor Josef II) will grip your heart. Very few European cities can boast of a well-preserved Jewish quarter, but Prague is definitely one of them. The Jewish Quarter, or Jewish Ghetto in Prague, the smallest quarter in the city, is located close to the Old Town Square.
The museums in Josefov come under the umbrella of the Jewish Museum which manages six Jewish monuments clustered together in Josefov: the Maisel Synagogue; the Pinkas Synagogue; the Spanish Synagogue; the Klaus Synagogue; the Ceremonial Hall; and the Old Jewish Cemetery. There is also the Old-New Synagogue, which is still used for religious services and requires a separate ticket. In one of the most grotesquely ironic acts of WWII, the Nazis took over the management of the Prague Jewish Museum – first established in 1906 to preserve artefacts from synagogues that were demolished during the slum clearances in Josefov around the turn of the 20th century – with the intention of creating a ‘museum of an extinct race’. They shipped in materials and objects from destroyed Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia, helping to amass what is probably the world’s biggest collection of sacred Jewish artifacts.
One of my favorite synagogues is the Old-New Synagogue is Europe’s oldest working synagogue and one of Prague’s earliest Gothic buildings which were completed around 1270. Men must cover their heads (a hat or bandanna will do; paper yarmulkes are handed out at the entrance). Around the central chamber are an entry hall, a winter prayer hall and the room from which women watch the men-only services. The interior, with a pulpit surrounded by a 15th-century wrought-iron grill, looks much as it would have 500 years ago. The 17th-century scriptures on the walls were recovered from beneath a later ‘restoration’. On the eastern wall is the Holy Ark that holds the Torah scrolls. In a glass case at the rear, little light bulbs beside the names of the prominent deceased are lit on their death days.
With its steep roof and Gothic gables, this looks like a place with secrets, and at least one version of the Golem legend ends here. Left alone on the Sabbath, the creature runs amok; Rabbi Loew rushes out in the middle of a service, removes its magic talisman and carries the lifeless body into the synagogue’s attic, where some insist it still lies.
Across the narrow street is the elegant 16th-century High Synagogue, so-called because its prayer hall (closed to the public) is upstairs. Around the corner is the Jewish Town Hall, also closed to the public, built by Mordechai Maisel in 1586 and given its rococo facade in the 18th century. It has a clock tower with one Hebrew face where the hands, like the Hebrew script, run ‘backwards’. The handsome Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941. After WWII it was converted into a memorial, with the wall inscribed with the names, birth dates, and dates of the disappearance of the 77,297 Czech victims of the Nazis. It also has a collection of paintings and drawings by children held in the Terezín concentration camp during WWII.
The Pinkas Synagogue contains the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery, Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish graveyard. Founded in the early 15th century, it has a palpable atmosphere of mourning even after two centuries of disuse (it was closed in 1787); however, remember that this is one of Prague’s most popular sights, so if you’re hoping to have a moment of quiet contemplation you’ll probably be disappointed. Around 12,000 crumbling stones (some brought from other, long-gone cemeteries) are heaped together, but beneath them are perhaps 100,000 graves, piled in layers because of the lack of space.
The most prominent graves, marked by pairs of marble tablets with a ‘roof’ between them, are near the main gate; they include those of Mordechai Maisel and Rabbi Loew. The oldest stone (now replaced by a replica) is that of Avigdor Karo, a chief rabbi and court poet to Wenceslas IV, who died in 1439. Most stones bear the name of the deceased and his or her father, the date of death (and sometimes of burial), and poetic texts. Elaborate markers from the 17th and 18th centuries are carved with bas-reliefs, some of them indicating the deceased’s occupation – lookout for a pair of hands marking the grave of a pianist. You exit the cemetery through a gate between the Klaus Synagogue and the Ceremonial Hall, both of which house exhibitions on Jewish forms of worship, family ceremonies and traditions such as birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, and marriage.
A block to the southeast lies the neo-Gothic Maisel Synagogue, which replaced a Renaissance original built by Mordechai Maisel, mayor of the Jewish community, in 1592. It houses an exhibit on the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia from the 10th to the 18th centuries, with displays of ceremonial silver, textiles, prints, and books. Finally, about two blocks east of the Maisel is the Spanish Synagogue. Named after its striking Moorish interior and dating from 1868, its exhibit continues the story of the Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day.
Statue of Franz Kafka – New York Jewish Travel GuideThere are four main kosher restaurants in Prague that are open for tourists; their popularity with locals can be witnessed at Sabbath dinner every Friday night. Located opposite the Pinkas Synagogue, King Solomon (www.kosher.cz) is the oldest of the four and serves rich Middle European Jewish food and kosher wine in austere stone-clad surroundings. Tables for the Sabbath (either dinner on Friday or lunch on Saturday) have to be booked in advance by filling out an online order form.
Dinitz (www.dinitz.cz), tucked behind Španělská synagoga, is a kind of Israeli-Middle Eastern-Mediterranean fusion restaurant. Bookings should be made a week in advance, particularly for Friday (for which there is a flat-rate for four courses). Shalom Kosher Restaurant is run by the Prague Jewish Community and located inside the Jewish Town Hall.
In Josefov, Chabad’s Shelanu (www.shelanu.cz) a cafe and deli with daily dinner, offers simple kosher food. There is a salad bar and Shelanu’s specialty is pareve (dairy-free) ‘milk´ shakes. Kosher food can be bought online at King Solomon(www.kosherfoodonline.cz). In addition, there is a great Chabad Grill Restaurant at The Chabad Maharal Center. It is open daily from 12:30-22:00. (Fridays from 10:00-15:00) and they prepare an amazing Shabbat dinner.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Guide & New York Jewish Travel Guide
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Czech Tourist Authority – Czech Tourism USA