The former Jewish Ghetto in Prague has a long history, going back to the 12 th century. There is the oldest still existing synagogue in Europe – the Old-New Synagogue – and the Old Jewish Cemetery from the 15 th century. Several other historical buildings are preserved in this quarter, which is called Josefov at the present time. There are various legends connected with it, which contribute a lot to the reputation of Prague as a mystical city. The Jewish Quarter is definitely one of the main places to visit, if you are in Prague.
History of the Prague Jewish Quarter
The first Jewish settlements in Prague existed already in the 10 th century, but the present area, known as Josefov, was settled around a half of the 12 th century. It wasn´t a ghetto at the time, there were similar settlements for example of German merchants in Prague.
The Jewish Quarter was enclosed by a wall with six gates, which was a defensive fortification at the time: it was intended to protect the Jews from attacks from the outside, rather than to isolate them. There were anti-Jewish storms already in the 13 th century, caused by edicts of Fourth Council of the Lateran (the biggest Catholic council of the middle ages) in 1215. However, the Jews in Prague were protected by the king, because they payed taxes.
Anti – Jewish pogrom in 1389
The Old – New Synagogue in Prague was built in the last third of the 13 th century. It is still used for its purpose, there are regular divine services even nowadays. The year 1389 is one of the saddest dates in the history of Jews in Prague: there was the biggest anti-Jewish pogrom in the middle ages. Around 3000 citizens of the Jewish Quarter were killed, their homes were plundered and burned out. It was such a massacre, that the walls of the Old – New Synagogue went dark with blood.
Blossom of the Jewish Quarter in the 16 th century
On the contrary, the quarter was in blossom during reign of Rudolph II. in the 16 th century. Several new synagogues were built (the Maisel Synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, the High Synagogue) as well as the Jewish City Hall. The historical privileges of the Jews were confirmed and the number of Jewish citizens increased. The expansion was so big, that it started to threaten the business of Catholic citizens in other quarters and it caused efforts to restrict the Jewish economy. Finally, Jews were expelled of Prague by Maria Theresa in 1748.
The status of Jews in Prague got better during reign of Joseph II., but they had to stay in the ghetto and couldn´t move anywhere else. This changed as late as in 1848, when the Jews were made politically equal to other citizens.
The Jewish Quarter was included to Prague as a fifth town in 1850 and it was called Josefov, in honour of the Emperor Joseph II. Because rich Jews moved to better quarters, Josefov soon became a place of poor people. It declined and hygienic conditions were bad there. That´s why it was decided to demolish the quarter and to keep only few valuable historical buildings.
Demolition of the Jewish Ghetto
The former Jewish Ghetto in Prague was demolished in 1897. Nowadays, there are 6 synagogues, the Jewish City Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Most of the other buildings were built at the beginning of the 20 th century. The Jewish Museum was founded in 1906, to keep valuable historical and artistic objects from the demolished houses and synagogues.
What interesting buildings have disappeared? Several synagogues (the Gypsy Synagogue from 1613, the Great Court Synagogue from 1627, the New Synagogue) and many picturesque houses.