Jewish quarter (Josefov) is a town quarter and the smallest cadastral area of Prague, formerly the Jewish ghetto of the town. It is completely surrounded by Old Town. The quarter is often represented by the flag of Prague’s Jewish community, a yellow Magen David (Star of David) on a red field.
Jews are believed to have settled in Prague in the 10th century. In 1262 Czech King Premysl Otakar II issued a Statuta Judaeorum which granted the community a degree of self administration. The ghetto was most prosperous towards the end of the 16th century when the Jewish Mayor, Mordecai Maisel, became the Minister of Finance and a very wealthy man. His money helped develop the ghetto. Around this time the Maharal was supposed to create the Golem.
In 1850 the quarter was renamed “Josefstadt” (Joseph’s City) after Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor who emancipated Jews with the Toleration Edict in 1781. Two years before Jews were allowed to settle outside of the city, so the share of the Jewish population in Josefov decreased, while only orthodox and poor Jews remained living there.
Most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to model the city on Paris. What was left were only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall (now all part of the Jewish Museum in Prague and described below).
Currently Josefov is overbuilt with buildings from the beginning of the 20th century, so it is difficult to appreciate exactly what the old quarter was like when it was reputed to have over 18,000 inhabitants.
The Old Jewish Cemetery was established in the first half of the 15th century. Along with the Old-New Synagogue, it is one of the most important hictoric sites in Prague´s Jewish Town. The oldest tombstone, which marks the grave of the poet and scholar Avigdor Karo, dates from the year 1439. Burials took place in the cemetery until 1787. Today it contains some 12,000 tombstones, although the number of persons buried here is much greater. The cemetery contains several burial layers placed on top of each other. The most prominent person buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery is without a doubt the great religious scholar and teacher Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as Rabbi Loew (d. 1609), who is associated with the legend of the Golem.
The Maisel Synagogue was built in 1590 – 1592 by the Mayor of the Jewish Town, Mordechai Maisel, who funded the extensive Renaissance reconstruction of the ghetto. The builders of this synagogue were Josef Wahl and Juda Goldsmied de Herz. The original building was seriously damaged by fire in 1689. After the fire it was renovated in the Baroque style and later, in 1893-1905, it was rebuilt to a pseudo-Gothic design by Prof. A Grott. The Maisel Synagogue is currently used by the Jewish Museum as an exhibition venue and depository.
The Spanish Synagogue was built in 1868 on the site of the oldest Prague Jewish house of prayer (“the Old Shul”). It was designed in a Moorish style by Vojtěch Ignátz Ullmann. The synagogue has a regular square plan with a large dome surmounting the central space. On three sides there are galleries on metal structures, which fully open onto the nave. The remarkable interior decoration features a low stucco arabesque of stylized Islamic motifs which are also applied to the walls, doors and gallery balustrades. The interior, together with the stained glass windows, were designed by architects A. Baum and B. Munzberg and completed in 1893. František Škroup, the composer of the Czech national anthem, served as organist here in 1836-45.
The Pinkas Synagogue was build in 1535 by Aaron Meshullam Horowitz between his house “U Erbů” and the site of the Old Jewish Cemetery. After the World War II., the synagogue was turned into a Memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by the Nazis. On its walls are inscribed the names of the Jewish victims, their personal data, and the names of the communities to which they belonged. In 1968 the Memorial had to be closed because ground water had penetrated the building´s foundations. During work on the underground waterproofing of the building, a discovery was made of vaulted spaces with an ancient well and ritual bath. The Communist regime deliberately held up renovation work and the inscriptions were removed. Not until 1990 was it possible to complete the building alterations. Finally, in 1992-1994, the 80,000 names of the Jewish victims of Bohemia and Moravia were rewritten on its walls.
The Klausen Synagogue is located by the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery. It takes its name from the German word “Klaus” meaning “smal building”. “Klausen” (plural of “Klaus”) was the name of the originally three smaller buildings, which Moredehai Maisel, Head of the Prague Jewish Community, had erected in honour of a visit from Emperor Maximilian II to the Prague ghetto in 1573. After the destruction of the original Klausen by the fire of 1689, work began on the present Klausen Synagogue building which was completed in 1604. Further reconstruction of the Klausen Synagogue took place in the 1880s. The Klausen Synagogue held an important place in the history of Prague´s Jewish Town. It was the largest synagogue in the ghetto and the seat of Prague´s Burial Society.
The High Synagogue, financed by Mordechai Maisel, was finished in 1568, the same year as the Jewish Town Hall. The house was designed by P. Roder in Renaissance style. It was designed as a preaching place for councilors of Jewish Town Hall. In the center there were bimah, surrounded by seats. Mordechai Maisel gave pieces of Torah and silver tools to the synagogue. In 1689 it was destroyed by the Great Fire and later reconstructed. In 1883 the synagogue was rebuilt by J. M. Wertmüller. During this modification the facade was simplified to the modern appearance. In 1907 the eastern entrance was closed, and a new entrance was made facing Red Street (Cervena ulice). During the Nazi and communist rule, the synagogue was part of Jewish Museum and there was an exhibition of old Hebrew books.
The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest site of Prague’s Jewish Town and the oldest extant synagogue in Europe. It has been the main synagogue of the Prague Jewish community for more than 700 years. Built in the last third of the thirteenth century by stone-masons from the royal workshop who were working on the nearby Convent of St. Agnes, it is testimony to the important status of the then Jewish community of Prague. Originally called the New or Great Shul, it was not until the establishment of other synagogues in the late 16th century that it came to be known as the Old-New (Altneuschul). It also became enveloped in numerous legends and tales. According to one legend, the synagogue was protected against fire in the ghetto by the wings of angels transformed into doves, which is why it has remained miraculously intact to this day. Another legend has it that the attic of the synagogue is home to the remains of the Golem, the artificial creature made of clay that was animated by the Rabbi Loew in order to protect the Prague community. The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue with a medieval double-nave. It is a rectangular structure with a large saddle roof and Gothic gables, the thick outer walls of which are supported by buttresses. The main building is surrounded on three sides by low annexes which serve as a vestibule and women’s sections. Two early Baroque money boxes in the vestibule were used for collecting Jewish taxes from the entire kingdom.
Due to the similarity of the stone ornamentation to that of other early Gothic buildings in Bohemia, the foundation of the synagogue can be dated back to around 1270.
The Old-New Synagogue was always the main synagogue of Prague’s Jewish community.