Josefov was at one time the center of Jewish life in Prague, although you wouldn’t know it from walking there today, where it’s home to Prague’s high end shopping district with everything from Prada to Armani on a street appropriately titled Pařížská, or Paris Street. Until the late 18th century, Jews were forced to live here, in what was essentially a ghetto. For more information on the history of Josefov click here.
It’s a bit of a misnomer but all of the sites in Josefov (save for the Old New Synagogue) comprise the “Jewish Museum.” So no, there’s not just one museum; rather, your ticket covers admission to seven sites which are as follows:
-Old Jewish Cemetery
-Robert Guttman Gallery
You could easily spend a day in the Josefov. However, if you’re like me and your time in Prague is more pressed (there is so much to see and do while there), you’ll want to prioritize and determine which sites on the ticket you want to see the most. However, the ticket is valid for seven days so you always have the option of returning on another day.
I ended up choosing the Pinkas Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue, and the Old Jewish Cemetery to visit as these three sites held the most interest to me.
Pinkas is the second oldest surviving synagogue in Prague but it’s also a memorial to the country’s 78,000 victims of the Holocaust. Each victim’s name is handwritten on the walls of the synagogue by community, along with their date of birth and death. If their date of death is unknown, as many are, the date they were deported is listed instead. You are literally surrounded by names and it’s so heartbreaking to know that not one of those names lived. The names of the camps where Czech Jews perished are also displayed. Thanks to Rick Steves’ guidebook I was able to locate the names of former United States Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s grandparents, who died in the Holocaust.
As if seeing all of the names wasn’t sad enough, it’s further depressing/maddening when I read that the Communists actually tried painting over the names when the country was under Communist rule. During that time the memorial inside Pinkas was closed.
The second floor contains an exhibit of drawings done by children who were imprisoned at Terezin which is worth checking out, especially if you aren’t able to visit there in person.
I think this is one of the most visually difficult places I have ever visited.
Old Jewish Cemetery
While today the stones make for dramatic photographs, at one time Jewish people were forced to bury their dead on top of each other because one, this was the only Jewish burial ground in Prague and two, Jewish custom forbids the dead from being moved. So walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery (whose entrance is through Pinkas) you will literally see tomb on top of tomb crisscrossed with another tomb (well, you get the picture). There are an astounding 12,000 tombstones in all, although due to the fact that graves were piled on top of each other seven or eight deep, there are close to 85,000 people actually buried here. Over time the cemetery grew into a plateau and ultimately, the tombstones became crooked.
Unlike many other Jewish cemeteries, the Old Jewish Cemetery was not destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.
I have always enjoyed visiting historical cemeteries and I can’t think of any place more historically rich than this one.
Ten years later I’m still a “Moorish” girl at heart. I’m referring to the Moors that once settled and thrived throughout the Iberian Peninsula but especially in my beloved Spanish city of Seville. So when I read that there was a synagogue in Prague that was designed in a Moorish style, I was immensely interested in visiting.
Compared to the Pinkas Synagogue, which has been a site of worship since the 16th century, the Spanish Synagogue is quite new in comparison, opened in the mid-19th century. However, it stands on the grounds of Prague’s oldest synagogue which burned down during a horrific pogrom in the 1300s.
The Spanish Synagogue came about at a time when Jews were finally granted rights after the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid-19th century. Naturally many of them prospered and the utterly beautiful Spanish Synagogue is testament to that. It’s showy, it’s colorful, it’s truly over the top. But that’s what makes it so unique, what sets it apart from the more austere and plain interiors of the other synagogues.
My favorite parts of the interior were the rose window that features a Star of David which graces the ark and the elaborate tracery. Oh, and the organ.
Upstairs there are a series of interesting exhibits which focus on Czech Jews in the 1900s. They’re definitely worth a perusal and signage was in English too.
This is not part of the Jewish Museum and so admission is extra. You can purchase your ticket online; however, I just got it on site. (Note-the place to purchase tickets is in the shop across the street from the entrance to the synagogue.)
The Old-New Synagogue was built in 1270 and is the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe (and many feel the oldest still-working synagogue in all of Europe). It’s considered to be “new” due to when it was built, but then “old” once other synagogues were built.
I found it interesting that when you enter, you actually descend below street level to what was once 13th century street level. The Old-New Synagogue remained intact as Hitler and his Nazis actually planned for it to become a part of their “Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race.”
The Red Headed Traveler’s Tips for Visiting the Jewish Quarter
-Remember, none of the sites in the Jewish Quarter are open on Saturdays. It’s the Sabbath.
-Plan to visit Pinkas Synagogue either right when it opens (9AM) or come later in the day. This is one of the most heavily visited sites in the Jewish Quarter (if not the heaviest) and so it’s teeming with tour groups which makes it difficult to have a reverent visit. When we first got there it was fairly empty but in a matter of 15 minutes, a school group arrived and gone were the sounds of respectful silence.
-Buy your ticket online in advance. It will save a lot of time just needing your ticket scanned to enter.
-Spend a few extra dollars to get the ability to photograph all of the sites; don’t be cheap and do it illegally. Your ticket will then have a camera icon on it although I was never asked to show it.
-If you’re not Jewish, get a good guidebook to explain the many features found inside the synagogues, otherwise you may be looking at “stuff” without the faintest idea what it is. I was truly pleased with my Rick Steves Prague & Czech Republic guidebook on so many levels but especially his walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. He really explained things for the “goyim.”
-Soak in the significance that unlike in countless European cities, Prague’s Jewish Quarter remained virtually intact during World War II. Its cemetery wasn’t destroyed, its synagogues not set aflame.