In our second full day in Prague we concentrated on the Jewish Museum. We bought a ticket that included an English-speaking guide. Amazingly we were a group of two with our own dedicated guide who was extremely knowledgeable.
Overall, we were very moved by Josefov (the Jewish Quarter), with its thousand years of Jewish history. Key highlights of the Jewish Quarter are now part of the Jewish Museum, including the Old New Synagogue (the World’s oldest synagogue outside Israel), the Old Jewish Cemetary (with twelve layers of bodies), the former Jewish Town Hall, Pinkas Synagogue (memorial to 80,000 Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia), Maisel Synagogue, and the Spanish Synagogue. Also this area includes Franz Kafka House, home of the celebrated Jewish author.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and shared an overview of Jewish history in Prague over a thousand-year period but it was very much a lottery depending upon the century. The golden age was probably four hundred years ago, represented by Mordechai Maisel who funded the extensive Renaissance reconstruction of the ghetto and the building of the Maisel Synagogue in 1590-92. Other centuries were dominated by anti-Semitism – for example, some five hundred years ago, a sizeable number of Jewish people were forced to leave Prague to settle in Poland, Russia and neighbouring countries. A second golden age was probably the nineteenth century in which the Spanish Synagogue was completed in 1868 – this is probably one of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe. The twentieth century, of course, contained the Nazi period and now the Pinkas Synagogue is a permanent memorial to the 80,000 Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia.
The museum holds one of the most extensive collections of Judaic art in the world, containing some 40,000 exhibits and 100,000 books, providing a comprehensive picture of the life and history of Jews in this region. It was quite moving to see examples of yellow hats or neck-collars that the Jews were forced to wear over the centuries in Prague.
We also learned about Franz Kafka, the German-speaking Jewish author from Prague who became one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated authors. Kafka died prior to the War because of ill-health but his two sisters perished in a concentration camp. We were told that Kafka foresaw the Holocaust in his writing, and was thinking about emigrating to Palestine before his death.
According to the Jewish Museum in Prague:
This is the most visited Jewish museum in the world, and the most visited museum of any kind in Prague. In part this is due to the large numbers of tourists visiting the Czech capital, but it is also because alone amongst the vast areas of Europe occupied by the Nazis (and later by the Communists), many of the buildings in Prague’s old Jewish ghetto were allowed to stand.
Elsewhere the Nazis systematically destroyed and burned synagogues and other Jewish buildings. But, the story goes, the Nazis chose to leave Prague’s Jewish quarter intact so that once their aim of murdering every Jew was complete, the Prague Jewish museum would be turned in a macabre “Museum of an extinct race”.