It’s no secret that Prague is considered one of the most beautiful and well preserved cities in Europe, largely due to it escaping relatively unscathed during the Second World War. With it’s charming old town, romantic art nouveau architecture, and imposing castle atop a hill, Prague is a delight for tourists from all over the world. And being there in August it literally felt like half the world had descended upon this central european capital!
Escaping the crush of summer crowds, I spent a morning away from the old town and explored Prague’s beautiful Jewish Quarter. This area of the city is one of Europe’s oldest and best preserved Jewish neighborhoods. Ironically, during World War II, Hitler decided that this would be the site of his “museum” to the very race his was seeking to exterminate. Consequently, Jewish artifacts from destroyed synagogues and communities throughout Europe were sent here to be catalogued and kept. While most Jewish neighborhoods were destroyed during Nazi occupations, this one was saved, though most of it’s inhabitants were not.
Today, walking through Prague’s Jewish quarter is a poignant reminder that this place has been home to the Jewish community for over 1000 years. Prague’s Jewish museum is made up of several beautiful synagogues scattered throughout the area (spanning about 3 or 4 blocks). A single ticket allows access to all the sights, including a powerful Holocaust memorial, a cemetery, and exhibits on Jewish culture and customs.
In order to avoid long lines and tour groups, I was at the gates a little before 9:00 in the morning. Starting early I was able to explore most of the sights without fighting crowds, and really take the time to appreciate the importance of this museum and the exhibits and artifacts that were displayed. For anyone going to Prague, I highly recommend spending half a day in the Jewish Quarter. Not only do you get a wonderful insight into this part of Czech history, but also into the culture of the Jewish people who have lived here.
One of the most popular and visited sites in the quarter is the Pinkas Synagogue, which dates back to the 16th century. Today it houses the Holocaust memorial, honoring the thousands of residents who never returned. Walking through the synagogue you see the walls inscribed with the names of 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent to the death camps. The names are organized by communities, with family names in red, individual first names in black, and the individual’s birthdate and death date (if known).
An audio recording reads each of the names, and there is an unmistakeable reverence as you pass through these halls.
Upstairs, is the Children’s Art Exhibit featuring art work done by children held at the nearby Terezin Camp, where Prague’s Jews were kept prior to being transported to the death camps. For me, this was the most emotional part of the museum. These art works look like those you would find displayed in any elementary school, until you read the wall plaques and realize the unthinkable circumstances it was created in.
The art is catgorized by topics–everyday life in Terezin, hopes for the future, even fairytales like children today might draw. Each art piece has a small plaque accompanying it, giving the name of the young artist, and their birthdate and death date. According to the guide, of the 8,000 children that were sent to Terezin, only 240 lived to see liberation.
Leaving the Pinkas Synagogue brought me into the Old Jewish Cemetery, home to over 10,000 aged and eroded tombstones, their faded Hebrew inscriptions sometimes hard to make out.
From the 15th to 18th century this was the only burial ground for the the Jews in Prague. Because of this, the graves had to be piled on top of one another, meaning there are actually about 80,000 people buried here. It’s a quiet and contemplative place, seemingly tucked away from the commotion of modern day Prague.
Exiting the cemetery, my next visit was to Klausen Synagogue. This part of the museum contains exhibits regarding Jewish holidays and religious customs. Displayed artifacts included elaborate Torah scrolls and menorahs from Prague’s Jewish community. The upstairs depicts everyday life in the Jewish culture including the birth of children and marriage customs. A beautiful canopy was displayed as well some typical home furnishings.
From here I walked through the neighborhood to the Spanish Synagogue a couple of blocks away (with the help of one kind person who saw me studying my map and offered directions). This ornate synagogue was absolutely breathtaking, having been built in the late 19th century during a time when European Jews prospered. This synagogue covers the history of the Jewish people from the 18th century to the 20th century, focussing especially on Czech Jews in the 1900s. A display case shows exhibits on many influential members of the community, including those men who were made the “curators” of Hitler’s Jewish museum prior to being sent to the camps themselves.
I concluded my museum tour here and spent some time strolling through the neighborhood. Today this part of Prague is thriving: full of shops, restaurants, tourists, and local people living their lives. This was my first visit to a major Holocaust memorial in Europe, and what I loved about it is that it covered so much more than just the events of 80 years ago. I was able to travel through hundreds of years of history of this community and see how it reflects in the Prague of today. This kind of an education is one of the things I love best about traveling!
For more information about visiting the Jewish Museum in Prague, visit their official site here.