There had been a Jewish community in Prague for close to 1,000 years when the Nazis occupied the city in March 1939. A community of 92,000 Jews lived in Prague at the time of the German invasion, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and there were many thousands more living in towns and villages across Czechoslovakia. The Holocaust would claim the lives of well over one hundred and fifty thousand Czech Jews, murdered in death camps including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. Eighty-five percent of Prague’s Jewish community would perish.
Once in power, the Nazis immediately began to implement their race laws, and the occupation quickly turned into brutal oppression for Prague’s Jews. This culminated in the mass deportation and murder of Jews in Theresienstadt Ghetto in the Czech city of Terezin, or in concentration camps elsewhere in Europe. By the time Soviet armies forced the Germans to retreat from Czechoslovakia, a thousand years of continuous Jewish history had almost been wiped out. Encouraged by the Soviets, many surviving Czech Jews left for Palestine.
Today, around 5,000 Jews live in Prague, similar to the number living there in the early 16th century, and the city’s Jewish Quarter is one of the best preserved in Europe. It is a perverse irony that the preservation of the Jewish Quarter is a direct result of the Nazi decision to maintain it as an open-air “Museum of an Extinct Race”. Thousands of artefacts from Central European Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust, were brought here to be housed for posterity.
The wealth of Prague’s Jewish history that can still be seen and visited today illustrates just how significant the community and its culture was. The atmospheric Old Cemetery with its jumble of tombstones; the 15th century Pinkas Synagogue, with its interior inscribed with the names of Prague’s 77,297 Jewish residents killed in the Holocaust; the glorious Spanish Synagogue with Islamic Moorish designs that wouldn’t look out of place in Cordoba; and the Jewish Museum, home to thousands of possessions left behind by the dead, are all unmissable.
The tiny Old-New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Europe, dates from 1270 and is incredible. It’s rumoured that a Golem, created by the 16th century Rabbi Loew to defend the Prague Ghetto, lives in the synagogue attic. Less visited synagogues, like the attractive Jerusalem Synagogue with its Art Nouveau-meets-Moorish architecture and housing a fascinating display on Prague’s pre- and post-1938 Jewish community, are also worth a visit. You can easily spend a day exploring this history.
Jewish Prague almost ended in 1939, but it’s not as if the Nazis originated the idea of anti-Semitism. They built on well-established Christian theological foundations and centuries of persecution. In 1179, Prague’s Catholic authorities announced Christians should avoid touching Jews, and they were forced to build their homes close to the Old Town Square. This was the beginning of Prague’s Jewish ghetto. In 1215, Jews were ordered to wear distinctive clothing. At Easter in 1389, the Church incited mobs to attack and burn the Jewish quarter. Few of the 3,000 Jews living in Prague survived the murderous mob.
Despite regular attacks against the community – the entire Jewish population of the city was twice expelled in the 16th century – by 1708 Jews made up a quarter of Prague’s population. The Empress Maria Theresa decided to expel the entire Jewish population again between 1745 – 48, before an edict of religious toleration was issued by Emperor Joseph II in 1781. Things improved a great deal through the 19th century, and even the ghetto was abolished in 1852.
The tragedy of this period was that Czechoslovakia’s Jews were pressured to adopt the German language, the language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a consequence they were often viewed with suspicion by Czech nationalists who saw them as agents of foreign powers. By the early 20th century the Jewish community was itself divided: Zionists, who wanted nothing to do with national politics, found themselves in conflict with Jewish Czech nationalists; who, in turn, were in conflict with German speaking Jews.
How these tensions might have transformed the community became a moot point as German tanks rolled into Prague, bringing with them the start of the Holocaust.