Capital of the Czech Republic. The city of Prague has the oldest Jewish community in Bohemia and is one of the longest enduring and most important Jewish centers in East Central Europe. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Prague was one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. The presence of Jewish merchants at Prague markets is mentioned in a report by the Iberian Jewish merchant Ibrāhīm ibn Ya‘qūb in about 970. Jewish settlement at the time was located near the prince’s marketplace in the area below Prague Castle (Suburbium Pragense). A second community, near Vyšehrad Castle (Vicus Wissegradensis), on the right bank of the Vltava (Moldau) River, is mentioned in a record of 1091.
Jewish Town Hall, Prague, ca. 1900. From Antiquitates Judaicae Pragenses (Jewish Antiquities in Prague), a postcard album printed by M. Schulz for the Gomel Hasidim Burial Society in Prague, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
Anti-Jewish unrest broke out in Prague in 1096 in connection with the First Crusade. The synagogue and the Jewish area below the castle were burned down in 1142. It was at that point that a Jewish section most likely was established around the Old Synagogue (Altschul) on the right bank of the Vltava, in what was to become the Jewish Town. The focal point of this settlement was concentrated along what is now Široká Street (Palatea Judaerum).
In its earliest period, Jews enjoyed the same rights and privileges as German and Frankish merchants: they were free to settle and to trade, could practice crafts, and were given internal autonomy. By the eleventh–thirteenth centuries, Prague was a major center of rabbinic culture. Many famous scholars settled there, including Yitsḥak ben Ya‘akov ha-Lavan of Prague, his pupil Avraham ben ‘Azri’el, and Yitsḥak ben Mosheh.
The status of Jews in medieval Prague deteriorated, however, under the influence of the Crusades and church edicts during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Perhaps to stem the worsening conditions, King Přemysl Otakar II issued new Jewish privileges (Statuta Judaeorum) in 1254 and 1262, prohibiting violence against Jews, protecting their festivals, and preventing damage to cemeteries and synagogues. Jews were granted religious freedom and were allowed to set up their own administration. Six main gates closed off access to the Jewish quarter in order to protect Jews as servants of the king (servi camerae regiae). With the arrival of new settlers in the second half of the thirteenth century, a new section in the Jewish quarter was founded in the vicinity of the Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), construction of which was completed in about 1270. The oldest Jewish cemetery in Prague was located outside the city walls. Nonetheless, a major violent attack on Prague’s Jewish population took place during Easter 1389. The rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara (d. 1439) described the event in a seliḥah, “Et kol ha-tela’ah.”
The Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), built ca. 1270, the oldest building in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and the oldest preserved synagogue in Europe. From Antiquitates Judaicae Pragenses (Jewish Antiquities in Prague), a postcard album printed by M. Schulz for the Gomel Hasidim Burial Society in Prague, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
The Prague Jewish community was also affected by the Hussite Wars of 1419–1437. Jews sympathized with the Hussites in their struggle against the Catholic church and the German Crusaders, providing them with financial support. However, unstable conditions in Prague soon forced many Jews to leave the country. Subsequently, the influence of the church and the power of the king were weakened in favor of the nobility and the independent towns of Bohemia. In Prague, the city council of the Old Town gained power over the Jewish judiciary and claimed the right to collect Jewish taxes. Having lost their monopoly in banking, Jews became more involved in commerce and crafts. But fearing economic competition, the burghers demanded the expulsion of Jews from Prague in 1501, 1507, and again in 1517. In 1522, approximately 600 Jews lived in Prague; by 1541 the numbers had risen to about 1,200, and the Jewish quarter was considerably extended. From 1512 on, Prague was the leading center for Hebrew printing north of the Alps.
In 1543–1545, Ferdinand I (1526–1564) expelled Jews from Prague; the expulsion is described in the elegy “Ana elohe Avraham,” by Avraham ben Avigdor. Another expulsion followed in 1559–1562. In 1567, however, Emperor Maxmilian II (1564–1576) reconfirmed Jewish privileges and issued an imperial charter that eased restrictions on Jewish trade and business. A “golden age” for Prague Jewry can be said to have existed during the reign of Rudolf II (1576–1611). The primas of the Jewish community at that time was Mordecai Maisel (1528–1601), Rudolf’s court Jew and banker. In 1576, Rudolf reconfirmed all Jewish privileges; in 1585 he confirmed the affiliation of Jews to the imperial court; and in 1599 he exempted the Jewish community from all customs and toll duties in Prague. Having regained its former autonomy and wealth, the Jewish community developed trade, finance, and crafts. Its population increased at the beginning of the seventeenth century to about 6,000.
Coat of arms of Ya‘akov Bassevi of Treuenberg, seventeenth century. A painted stone shield from the former house of Bassevi in Třistudniční (Three Wells Place), in the Prague ghetto. The house was demolished between 1893 and 1907. (Archives of the City of Prague)
The representative of Prague’s Jewish community during the Thirty Years’ War was the financier Ya‘akov Bassevi of Treuenburg (1570–1634). He managed to acquire 39 new houses outside the Jewish quarter, enabling the largest expansion of the area to date. In 1623 and 1627, Ferdinand II (1620–1637) confirmed previous privileges, enabling Jews to trade freely and to sell their own goods throughout the country. Jews were also exempted from customs and toll duties, and the powers of the Jewish elders and the royal Jewish judge were increased. In return, however, the Jewish community had to agree to a considerable rise in taxes and to provide the emperor a loan of 24,000 gulden.
During the Renaissance, the Jewish Town contained important yeshivas and Hebrew printing establishments. In 1564, Rabbi Eli‘ezer Ashkenazi (1512/13–1586) founded a ḥevrah kadisha’ (burial society). The most prominent spiritual leader was Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal of Prague; d. 1609), who served as rector of the Prague yeshiva and wrote a number of religious and philosophical works. Among his rabbinic successors were Efrayim Shelomoh ben Aharon of Luntshits (1550/60–1619), Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579–1654), Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva Horowitz (1561–1619), and the latter’s cousin, the kabbalist Yesha‘yah ben Avraham Horowitz (1565–1630). Also active in Prague were the mathematician, astronomer, and chronicler David Gans (1541–1613) and the physician, philosopher, and astronomer Joseph Delmedigo of Crete (1591–1655).
After the Thirty Years’ War, measures were taken by the state authorities to reduce the numbers of Jews and to segregate them more strictly in a ghetto. Implementation of these measures was prevented in 1680 by an outbreak of plague, which took the lives of more than 3,500 Jews. Shortly afterward, on 21 June 1689, the Jewish Town was struck by a devastating fire that destroyed its 318 houses and 11 synagogues, killing 150 people. The authorities subsequently tried to reduce the size of the ghetto, to segregate it from the Christian quarters, and to move Jews to the district of Lieben (Libeň). With financial assistance from Jews abroad, however, the ghetto was soon restored to its former size.
Torah shield. Prague(?), late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Silver: repoussé. Hebrew inscription: Rosh Ha[shanah]. The Max Stern Collection, 1986.200. (Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)
Shortly afterward, in 1696, Prague’s Jewish community was shaken by the show trial of the alleged murderers of 12-year-old Shim‘on Abeles, which marked the culmination of Jesuit efforts to Christianize Prague’s Jews. Despite the persecutions, the population of the Jewish Town increased to more than 11,600 in the late seventeenth century, making Prague one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. However, to prevent further growth, Emperor Charles VI (1711–1740) issued the Familiants Law in 1726, allowing only eldest sons to marry. The first detailed census of Prague’s Jewish Town was carried out in 1729, and it revealed that 2,335 Jewish families with 10,507 adults were living in the ghetto. Of the more than 700 artisans, there were some 158 tailors, 100 shoemakers, 39 hatters, 20 goldsmiths, 37 butchers, 28 barber-surgeons, and 15 musicians.
Anti-Jewish state policy reached its peak during the reign of Maria Theresa (1740–1780), who in December 1744 ordered the expulsion of Prague’s Jews. They were allowed to return in August 1748 only after influential intervention on their behalf by city and guild representatives, and after they had agreed to an increase in the annual Toleration Tax to 204,000 gulden. High taxes and a major fire in the Jewish Town in 1754 (which caused 190 houses and 6 synagogues to burn down) led to a long-term decline in the economic strength of Prague’s Jewish community. Despite this, Jewish culture continued to flourish. Among the prominent rabbis in the eighteenth century were Simon Spira-Wedeles, Elias Spira, David Oppenheim, and Yeḥezkel Landau.
The position of the Jews considerably improved under Joseph II (1780–1790), whose decrees from 1781 removed the obligation of Jews to wear special dress. He also allowed Jews to partake in trade, crafts, and agriculture, and provided them with access to all local schools. As part of a systematic policy of Germanization, Jewish communities supported the establishment of German schools. In addition, Jews had to adopt German family names, and all business transactions had to be undertaken in that language. In 1784, Jews were brought under the purview of the public judiciary, and Jewish courts were restricted to deciding cases involving religious and family law.
The shops of Moizis Reach, a junk dealer and L. Kohn, a butcher, in the Jewish quarter, Prague, ca. 1890s. (YIVO)
Prague ultimately became a Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) center, with such figures as Herz Homberg (1749–1841), Peter Beer (1758–1838), Mosheh Yisra’el Landau (1788–1852), and Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (1790–1867) settling there. Jewish academics achieved success in medicine, law, and the humanities. Favorable conditions were created for newly emerging entrepreneurs and merchants who were active in the textile industry.
In 1848, Jews were granted equal rights under the first Austrian constitution. Jews were no longer compelled to live in ghettos and the Familiants Law was abolished. From 1852, Jews were allowed to own property and from 1859 to own land. The process of legal emancipation in Austria-Hungary was completed under the constitution of 1867. In 1848 Prague’s Jewish community, with a population of more than 10,000, was still one of the largest in Europe.
In 1850, Prague’s Jewish Town was united with the rest of the Old City and was renamed Josefov (Josefstadt). High mortality figures and the danger of epidemics and frequent floods led city administrators to convert Josefov into a modern residential and commercial quarter. A slum clearance act was drawn up in 1893 and demolition of the area began in 1896. All that remained of the Jewish Town was the outline of the original roads, six synagogues, the Jewish town hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Historical treasures from synagogues were preserved in the Jewish Museum, founded in 1906.
Annual prayer service at grave of Yehudah Löw. Prague Burial Society. Oil on canvas, ca. 1830. (Jewish Museum in Prague)
Although the numbers of Prague Jews continued to rise with an influx of migrants from the countryside (increasing from 20,508 in 1889; to 23,473 in 1890; to 27,289 in 1900; to 29,107 in 1910; to 31,751 in 1921; and to 35,463 in 1930), many Jews also left for Vienna, Berlin, and other cities. As a result of the reforms of Joseph II, the majority of Jews in Bohemia adopted the German language as an essential prerequisite for their emancipation. From the 1870s and 1880s, however, an increasing number of Jews sought to assimilate into the Czech environment. In 1900, 55.3 percent of Jews in Prague declared Czech their primary language.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was increasing support among university students for cultural Zionism. A number of Jewish social, relief, and educational associations were active as well. Among the city’s chief rabbis were Markus Hirsch (1880–1889), Nathan Ehrenfeld (1890–1912), and Heinrich Brody (1912–1930). Jews were prominent in the sphere of German literature; writers such as Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Oskar Baum, Ludwig Winder, and Egon Erwin Kisch achieved international acclaim. Jews also contributed significantly to the economic prosperity of the city, particularly in the textile, clothing, shoe, and food industries. They worked as well in wholesale and retail businesses, as clerks, and in freelance professions.
Die Meiselgasse (Meisel Street), drawing by Adolf Kašpar. From Das Prager Ghetto, by Ignat Herrmann, Josef Teige, and Zikmund Winter (Prague: Verlagsbuchhandlung der Böhm. Graphischen Gesellschaft “Unie,” 1903). (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)
Members of all Jewish movements and organizations lined up in support of the Czechoslovak Republic, which was founded on 28 October 1918. The Czech Jewish and Zionist movements continued to be active during the interwar years, and a number of Jewish journals were published in Prague. The Jewish Party (Židovská Strana) gained two parliamentary seats, and four Jews were chosen to be government ministers in the elections of 1929 and 1935. In 1926 Czechoslovakia established diplomatic connections with Mandate Palestine, which President Tomáš Masaryk visited in 1927. In 1933, Prague hosted the Eighteenth Zionist Congress. After 1920, the seven Jewish communities of the former suburbs were federated into the Union of Jewish Religious Communities of Greater Prague. Mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews—once a rarity—increased to 27 percent in 1927 and to 31 percent in 1933.
The signing of the Munich Agreement on 30 September 1938 led to the occupation of Czechoslovakia’s border regions; on 15 March 1939, the rest of the country was overrun as well, leading to the founding of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Refugees had been arriving in Prague from Germany since 1933, and then from Austria and the occupied Sudetenland. By March 1939, there were about 56,000 Jews in the city. By the end of that year, the Palestine Office in Prague had facilitated the emigration of about 19,000 Jews.
Immediately after the Nazi occupation, Jews were expelled from most professions, associations, and organizations. From 1 September 1941, Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. The Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt) was established in November 1941 as a concentration camp for Jews from the Protectorate, the elderly, and prominent Jews from Austria and Germany. Between 16 October 1941 and 16 March 1945, more than 45,500 Jews were deported from Prague to Terezín and to other concentration and extermination camps. Approximately 89 percent of them died.
After World War II, 10,338 Jews settled in Prague—from concentration camps, army units abroad, and from Subcarpathian Rus’, which had been ceded to the USSR. By 1950, about half had emigrated to Israel, Western Europe, or America. After the Communist takeover of power in 1948, Jews again faced exclusion from political, economic and cultural life and many were sent to prison. The Slánský Trial in the 1950s had an openly anti-Jewish focus. Religious life was restricted, and rabbis were compelled to emigrate. The liberalization of the regime from 1965 to 1968 ended with the severance of diplomatic relations with Israel in June 1967 and with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. A new wave of emigration began, and the Jewish population of Prague fell to about 2,000.
Purim celebration in Chabad House, Prague, Czech Republic, 2004. (Chabad House, Prague)
New hopes for a revival of Jewish life in Prague did not emerge until after the fall of the Communist regime in November 1989. Institutions that had been ceded to the state were restored to the Jewish community, and a partial restitution of property that had belonged to the community began in 1994. Today the Jewish town hall is the seat of the representative bodies of Prague’s Jewish community, the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, and the chief rabbinate. Based at the Jewish Community House in Jáchymova Street are the Terezín Initiative, the Hidden Child organization, the B’nai B’rith Lodge, and the Czech Union of Jewish Youth. Services are currently held in the Old-New, High, Jerusalem, and Spanish synagogues. Prague has a Jewish kindergarten, an elementary school, and a high school, as well as two retirement homes.
Natalia Berger, ed., Where Cultures Meet: The Story of the Jews of Czechoslovakia (Tel Aviv, 1990); Ignát Herrmann, Josef Teige, and Zikmund Winter, Das Prager Ghetto (Prague, 1903); Hillel J. Kieval, The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870–1918 (New York, 1988); Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000); Guido Kisch, Die Prager Universität und die Juden, 1348–1848: Mit Beiträgen zur Geschichte des Medizinstudiums (Mährisch-Ostrava, Czech., 1935); Otto Muneles, Bibliographical Survey of Jewish Prague (Prague, 1952); Otto Muneles, ed., The Prague Ghetto in the Renaissance Period (Prague, 1965); Otto Muneles, ed., Ketovot mi-bet-he-‘almin ha-yehudi ha-‘atik be-Prag (Jerusalem, 1988); Arno Pařík, Prague Jewish Cemeteries (Prague, 2003), parallel text in Czech, English and German; Samuel Steinherz, ed., Die Juden in Prag (Prague, 1927); Eli Valley, The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe (Northvale, N.J., 1999); Milada Vilímková, Die Prager Judenstadt (Prague, 1990), also published in English as The Jewish Town of Prague; Hana Volavková, A Story of the Jewish Museum in Prague (Prague, 1968).