A street in Josefov (the Jewish Quarter), the smallest district of Prague, Czech Republic; it is the site of the former Jewish ghetto, surrounded by Old Town Prague and the Vltava River
We spent a day walking around and visiting many sites in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, Czech Republic. As Jews began living in Prague as early as 970 A.D., the Jewish Quarter is one of the most historic districts of the city. At one point, the Jewish Quarter was home to approximately 25% of Prague’s population.
“The Jewish Quarter in Prague, known as Josefov, is located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River. Its torrid history dates from the 13th century, when Jewish people were ordered to vacate their disparate homes and settle in one area.
Over the centuries, with Jews banned from living anywhere else in Prague, and with new arrivals expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain joining them, more and more people were crowded in.
To add to this, inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter, or the Prague Jewish Ghetto as it also became known, were forced to endure structural changes. The latest occurred between 1893-1913, when a number of buildings were flattened, and the layout of many streets remodeled.
Fortunately, most of the significant historical buildings were saved from destruction, and today they remain a testimony to the history of the Jews in Prague. They form the best preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.
The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, including the Spanish Synagogue and Old-New Synagogue, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery, the most remarkable of its kind in Europe.
The monuments even survived the Nazi occupation in the 20th century. Adolf Hitler himself decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”. Indeed the Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from other occupied countries, transporting them to Prague to form part of the museum.
Today, these historical monuments, all except the Old-New Synagogue, form what is called the Jewish Museum in Prague…
The Old-New Synagogue requires a separate ticket. Built in the 13th century in early Gothic style, it is the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe, and is the main house of prayer for the Jewish community in the present day…
The Jewish Quarter is also the birthplace of the celebrated writer Franz Kafka, who is commemorated with a statue on Dusni Street.” — http://www.pragueexperience.com
Reconstruction of the Pinkas Synagogue (1950–1955), Prague, Czech Republic; photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum in Prague
“The Pinkas Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in Prague’s Jewish Town. Dating from the early 16th century, it was built as a private house of prayer for the family of Aaron Meshulam Horowitz at the edge of the Old Jewish Cemetery. After the Nazi occupation of Prague, the synagogue was vacated and converted into a warehouse of confiscated Jewish property. Abandoned after the war, the devastated synagogue was put into the care of the Jewish Museum in Prague, which set about it’s gradual restoration. In 1954-1960, the Pinkas Synagogue interior was turned into a memorial for the more than 78,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah from the Czech lands. Visitors are required to respect the solemnity of the site.” — signage in the Jewish Museum in Prague at the Pinkas Synagogue
The restored Pinkas Synagogue, viewed from behind the Bema, Prague, Czech Republic
On the walls on either side of the Ark of the Covenant are listed the names of the Nazi concentration and death camps to which the Czech Jews were deported; Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic
“This exhibition, ‘The Deportation of Jews from the Czech Lands, 1939-1945’, focuses on the deportation of Jews from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which took place as part of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. In 1939-1945, almost 81,000 of these Jews were deported to the ghettos in Lodz, Minsk, and Terezín and to the concentration, labor and extermination camps in the German-occupied territories of eastern Europe. More than 78,000 of them fell victim to the Shoah.” — signage in the Jewish Museum in Prague at the Pinkas Synagogue
Introductory wall text at the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic, explaining the 80,000 hand-written names on the restored walls of the Synagogue which now is part of the Jewish Museum in Prague
A small section of the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic, displaying the names of the Czech and Moravian Jews who perished under the hands of the Nazis in World War II
Two water color drawings by young Jewish children who perished in a Nazi death camp following their internment in Terezín concentration camp — in an exhibit titled “Beyond the Looking Glass – The Children’s Story, The Children’s Drawings from Terezín (1942 – 1944)”, Jewish Museum in Prague, Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic
“Immediately after German troops crossed the Czech-German border the early morning of March 15, 1939, the remainder of the truncated territory of the Czech lands was declared the so-called “Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia“.
“Literally overnight a number of people became in forest prisoners in the territory occupied by the Nazis. Immigration, by whatever route, was successful for only a paltry fraction of those who under the discriminatory provisions of the Nuremberg laws were designated as Jews. Of the total number of 118,310 persons that were registered as ‘Protectorate Jews’ by March 15, 1939 (In addition, there were German and Austrian Jewish refugees living in the unoccupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia), there remained in the ‘Protectorate’ about 80,000 after the definitive shutting off of all routes of escape.
“From the first day in the “Protectorate“ the Nazi authorities enforced a tough repressive policy against the Jews. They were fired from their jobs. Their property was confiscated. The absurd decrees went so far in this direction that the duty to surrender one’s property even applied to radios, bicycles, and skis. Free movement was severely restricted; as of 1940 everyone had to be concentrated in the cramped conditions of newly demarcated Jewish quarters. In Prague, the former Jewish ghetto in Josefov was designated for this purpose. Jews were for bidden entry to cafés, cinemas, theaters, and other public places, there were specially designated hours when they could shop, and at that only in selected shops and among a limited assortment of goods. After eight o’clock in the evening Jews were forbidden to leave their homes. They were allowed to ride the trams only while seated in the back, and they were not allowed on buses at all.
“On the edges of the parks or children’s playgrounds a notice appeared: ‘Juden Verboten’. Jewish children, whom moreover were expelled from all schools as of September 1940, could only make use of the playground of the Jewish club Hagibor or the Jewish cemetery in Old Town or the one in Żiżkov for their games. As of September 1, 1941, all Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David. This visible sign was connected with, particularly out the outset, an enormous psychological pressure to which all ‘people with a star’ were exposed. Only by virtue of this mark were they singled out from others at a glance. For the children this was a hard experience, and they quickly became adults during this time.
“It was extremely important that the children, who since the beginning of the occupation had to face daily the manifestations of persecution just like their parents, would not be continuously subject to depression, which could lead to a permanent feeling of skepticism. Not only was it necessary to maintain the continuity of their education, but also it was just as necessary to fill their time and avert them from the depressing sensation of chaos and hopelessness. Although this necessity was to become paramount only in the difficult conditions of the Terezín ghetto, and in particular the unimaginably horrifying reality of family camp B II at Auschwitz, the adults approached the children in this manner from the very beginning. They were greatly assisted in this endeavor by the leadership of the Prague Jewish community, at whose head was the active Zionist Dr. Jacob Edelstein, later the first chairman of the Council of Elders in Terezín.
“In addition to the possibility of attending the Jewish school, whose capacity was naturally insufficient, other, alternative forms of instruction were organized. Lessons were held in the mornings in the impoverished conditions of private apartments, the afternoons were set aside for sport and play, even though the space for it was considerably limited. From the outset the instructors were chosen by the community leadership from a number of young people of the hachshara Hechalutz. On account of their strong orientation toward Zionism, which was reflected even later in the education of the young in Terezín, a positive meaning was given to the children’s Jewishness, of which many of them had been unaware before the occupation. Yet the strengthened Jewish identity only afforded the children a slight relief from a life in continual fear of transport, which from October 1941 began leaving from the assembly area in Prague‘s exhibition hall, Veletrżní palác, primarily to the ghetto in Lodz at the beginning and then from the end of November of the same year to the newly established concentration camp in Terezín.
To spare the children in particular as much as possible the shocking reality, the Jewish self-government, therefore, tried to create from the outset a completely separate world for them, in which a normal, even innovative educational system founded on the highest moral values would be applied. In the summer of 1942 they succeeded in establishing children’s dormitories in several individual buildings. The children in them were divided up by age into so-called ‘Heims’. These were separate rooms of about 20 to 30 children. There was an instructor (madrich) at the front of each room. Considering the inadequate capacity of the dormitories, it was not possible for all the children to live apart from the adults; however, even those who remained with their parents were able to participate in the daily program of the Heim. Even in spite of extremely limited possibilities the program was fairly varied. Performances, recitation evenings, and lectures were organized. Several children’s journals were produced in Terezín. The most significant among them was ‘Vedem’, put out by the boys from dormitory I in L417 and coming out with weekly regularity for a year and a half. During this time it managed to amount to almost 800 pages…
“In the effort to create a protective atmosphere of support, the self-government enlisted the best instructors and provided the children with the best food and clothing. For this purpose there was established this so-called ‘Jugendfürsorge’, a department for the care of children and the young. But the most important question continued to be the education of the children, so necessary for the maintenance and further development of ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual spiritual values. Even though the organized education of Jewish children was strictly forbidden from the time of the expulsion from the schools, in the ghetto they managed after a certain time to obtain permission for instruction in crafts, drawing, and singing, to which was gradually included even the illegal teaching of languages, literature, history, and the fundamentals of the exact sciences. In this respect the Terezín children paradoxically received the best, namely the best teachers chosen from the top scientists and artists.
“In the context of this education at Terezín, drawing lessons occupied a certain privileged status, similar to the children’s theater. Primarily on account of the Viennese painter and graduate of Weimar Bauhaus, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was transported Terezín at the end of 1942, drawing lessons became an all-encompassing concept in which drawing was understood as a key to knowledge and to the acquisition of the fundamental principles of communication. Despite a quite specific plan of instruction, Dicker-Brandeis absolutely respected the personality of a child and left free space for his self-expression, released fantasies, and emotions. From this perspective, the drawing lessons had an invaluable therapeutic effect and significantly helped the children to bear of the oppressive reality around them.
“Drawing opened the way for the children up Terezín to memories, to the world from which they were torn. It enables them to see and describe sadness and a palling reality, but above all, it carried them away to a world of fantasy and pure imagination where good triumphs over evil, where free will and abundance reign, where there is paradise on earth. The children constantly expressed in their drawings the hope of their happy return home, often drawing roads and crossroads with signposts pointing to Prague. Only a small fraction of the children who passed through Terezín saw this hope fulfilled. The majority of them were transported further east and virtually all perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
“The almost four and a half thousand children’s drawings from Terezín, which since the end of the Second World War has created a component of the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, is not only an authentic document of the tragic persecution of the Jews, the victims of which quite indiscriminately included children, it is also a unique collection of the many times sole remembrances of those whose names would otherwise have remained completely forgotten.“ — signage in the Jewish Museum in Prague at the Pinkas Synagogue
Two photographs of the performance of the children’s play, Brundibár, in Terezín concentration camp, filmed in 1944 for a Nazi propaganda film, Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic; note that about 13 years ago a production of Brundibár, with a libretto by Tony Kushner and sets by the late children’s artist Maurice Sendak, was staged theatrically in both Berkeley, CA, and New York, NY
The Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic, is adjacent to the restored Pinkas Synagogue; founded in the 15th century, the Old Jewish Cemetery is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world, and is one of the most important historical monuments in the Jewish Quarter in Prague
Close-up of a headstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic
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