Jewish History and Culture in the Old Ghetto
The Jewish Museum in Prague documents the Jewish experience in Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) for the last thousand years. Exhibits spread across six different sites describe the history and traditions of the Jewish people in the region.
The museum was created when the Jewish Ghetto (Josefov) underwent redevelopment at the turn of the last century. As streets were widened and buildings were razed, lots of artifacts, art, documents and books turned up. (You don’t realize how much stuff you have until you have to move it.) In an effort to preserve all of these historical items, the Jewish Museum in Prague was founded in 1906. Today, the museum spans six sites, all of which are located in the Josefov. These six sites are some of the few to survive the neighborhood redevelopment.
The Maisel Synagogue was built in 1592 by the popular mayor of the Jewish ghetto, Mordechai Maisel. It was damaged by fire in 1689, rebuilt in Baroque style, and in the late nineteenth century it was rebuilt again, this time in a neo-gothic style. This houses the exhibit, “History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia From the Establishment of Jewish Settlements Up to the Period of Emancipation,” which covers the period from the 900s to 1700s.
The Spanish Synagogue, so-called because of its Moorish design style, was built in 1868 and then completely restored in 1998. The exhibit, “History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia From Emancipation to the Present” is located here. This includes the periods surrounding World War I, World War II and Communism. The Spanish Synagogue was to be used by Hitler as a museum of the extinct Jewish race. Photographs here show the interior of the synagogue with Nazis cataloging Jewish items for their own museum.
The Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535. Today it is a Holocaust Memorial with the names of the 80,000 Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by Nazis written on the walls. Upstairs is the “Children’s Drawings from Terezín 1942-1944” exhibit featuring artwork made by children at the concentration camp.
Old Jewish Cemetery
Jews were not allowed to live outside or be buried outside of the Ghetto, so the final resting place for three centuries of Prague’s Jews is the Old Jewish Cemetery. The last person was buried here in 1787. There are 12,000 tombstones, but the cemetery is many layers deep. Over 100,000 people thought to be buried here.
The Klaus Synagogue, adjacent to the cemetery, was built in 1604 and rebuilt in the 1880s. The first part of the exhibit “Jewish Customs and Traditions,” covering birth, bar mitzvah and marriage, is located here.
This former mortuary and home to the Prague Burial Society was built 1912. The second part of the “Jewish Customs and Traditions” exhibit, which covers medicine and death, is fittingly located here.
Know Before You Go
Getting here is easy. Starting in Old Town square, walk north past St. Nicholas church along Pařížská Street for about five minutes, then right on Široká Street for another five minutes. Open from 9am to 4:30pm in the winter and from 9am to 6pm in the summer. It is closed on Saturday and on Jewish holidays (which there are a lot of so check the website). Admission is 300 Kč, but if you purchase your ticket with an Old-New Synagogue ticket, the total cost is 480Kč instead of 500 Kč. The Old Jewish Cemetery and Pinkas Synagogue require that men wear yarmulkes, which are provided. Photography inside the synagogues is prohibited.
A Prague must-see. The scope and breadth of the Jewish Museum in Prague makes it one of the best museums, period.