We weren’t sure what to expect when we visited the Synagogue Museums in Josefov and the Jewish Quarter in Prague. Would the area be run-down and depressing? Would we find more out about what had happened here than perhaps we wanted to know on a weekend break?
Well, the answer is that it was one of the most humbling and thought-provoking experiences we have encountered. The area of Josefov is alive with beautiful buildings making it an area in Prague that deserves your attention.
Prague’s Active Synagogues
Known as Altneuschul, this is Europe’s oldest active synagogue. It is also the oldest surviving medieval synagogue in the world and was completed in 1270. It is a very simplistic building, and its vaulted stone ceilings and gothic arches and columns are reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Worship has continued here for 700 years, only stopping during the Nazi occupation.
Classed as one of Prague’s most important synagogues, services regularly occur with male worshippers sitting or standing against the walls. Female counterparts listen through an opening in the wall from another room.
Built in the early 20th century to replace three previous synagogues destroyed during the re-development of the Jewish Ghetto. It is used as a place of worship rather than being dedicated as a museum but is used as a cultural and exhibition venue in addition to a place where organ concerts are held.
Prague’s synagogues are closed on Saturdays (Jewish Sabbath) and Jewish festivals.
Prague’s Synagogue Museums
The remainder of Prague’s synagogues are museums dedicated to the Jewish people’s lives throughout the centuries.
Built by the mayor of Prague in 1592, this synagogue was burnt down in 1689. A new neo-Gothic synagogue was built from 1893 to 1905 and housed a collection of Jewish silver, textiles, and books. The Nazis brought the collection to Prague with the intent to set up a museum detailing the people they planned to annihilate.
Klausen Synagogue and the Ceremonial Hall
Constructed at the turn of the 20th century and near the Jewish Cemetery, Klausen Synagogue hosts an exhibition devoted to traditions, customs, and the Jewish Burial Society. The Ceremonial Hall was where the tradition of washing the dead before burial occurred.
You are inexplicably drawn to the name inscriptions on the walls as you enter the Pinkas Synagogue. They are dedicated to nearly 80,000 Czech victims of the Holocaust and are known as the “Epitaph to those who have no Grave”.
The synagogue also houses drawings made by the children held in Terezin Ghetto and sent to the gas chambers. It is heartbreaking to see but allows us to remember those children through their art. If you are interested in learning more about the site of a former concentration camp and places connected to the Second World War, you can book a tour of Terezin.
Old Jewish Cemetary
Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue museum is the Old Jewish Cemetary, the resting place of Jews from the 15th to 18th century. Overcrowding in the cemetery was a real problem then, and bodies were buried on top of one another. The result was over 12,000 gravestones, all juxtaposed against one another. Visitors can walk through the cemetery and take a moment to contemplate life and death.
The cemetery is one of the oldest Jewish burial grounds in the world. The New Jewish Cemetary was established in 1890 when the Old Jewish cemetery ceased to serve its purpose. It is now the only burial area for the Jewish community in Prague.
This is a stark contrast to the previous two synagogues with its grandiose Moorish styling and bright colours. We chose to go inside as it housed the biggest collection of Jewish artefacts, and we were curious to learn more about Prague during the Holocaust.
To say it was moving would be an understatement. To see evidence of how the Jews were treated in Prague during the wars was an education. We pray we will never have to encounter it in our lifetime.
If you can visit only one of Prague’s Synagogue Museums, then make it this one. You will come away shocked and moved and thankful for your own life and freedom.
Copyright of video owned by the Jewish Museum in Prague