Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter in Prague, Czech Republic, dates from the 13th century when the Jewish people of Prague were ordered to move into this confined area. It is completely surrounded by Prague’s Old Town, or Stare Mesto. One of the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe, it is dotted with somber reminders of its past.
The golden age of the former Prague Jewish Ghetto was in the end of the 16th century. A few valuable historical buildings remain including six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. These monuments comprise the Jewish Museum. A couple of the synagogues have active congregations today.
It is believed that Adolf Hitler himself decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter. It was to be called the Museum of an Extinct Race.
I visited Josefov several times, always bundled up for the brisk walk which I usually made from the city’s Old Town Square. The cold winter weather was relentless.
The unusual 16th century Renaissance-style Jewish Town Hall with its clock tower rising high above the other historic buildings in the area always helped guide me to the center of the Old Jewish Quarter. One of the clocks on the tower has Hebrew numerals whose hands run counter clockwise because Hebrew reads from right to left.
The Pincas Synagogue, built in 1535, had been turned into a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia (formerly Czechoslovakia). As I gazed at the walls covered with names of Jews who perished, I felt a flood of emotion. That emotion transported me in my mind immediately to that very spot which I stood over 20 years ago when I last visited Prague. I stood there frozen for a moment, realizing the emotion I felt then hadn’t changed, despite my increased knowledge and exposure to the history of the Jews during my world travels over the years – or perhaps it was because of these travels that my emotions did not diminish.
The Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in the 15th century, is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world. It is twelve graves deep with ancient, inscribed tombstones crowding the site at precarious angles. A few with niches containing prayer notes caught my attention as I wandered through the graveyard. They reminded me of a similar site I had observed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where people tuck prayer requests between the ancient stones, as they have done for millennia.
One evening I enjoyed a classical concert held in the historic Spanish Synagogue. It was built in 1868 with impressive Moorish interior design, influenced by the famous Alhambra in Grenada, Spain. Sitting in the middle of this beautifully restored, colorful synagogue while classical music permeated the high Moorish arches kept me spellbound.
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