It is a former Jewish Quarter of Prague named after the emperor Josef II, who freed Jewish people from the ghetto. The Jewish Quarter was established as early as the 13th century and was separated from the Old Town by a wall. Jewish people were rarely allowed to leave their quarters and often suffered from pogroms and other antisemitic practices.
Six original synagogues survived WWII in Prague Jewish Quarter, such as Old-New Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue, and Pinkas Synagogue. There is also the Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery, which surprises people with its uneven terrain. You can visit it through the Prague Jewish Museum.
The history of the Prague Jewish Quarter dates back to the 9th century. First Jewish settlements were, most likely, located in Lesser Town, where later the remains of the oldest Jewish Cemetery were discovered. Nevertheless, in 1254, after the Lateran Council that condemned Jewish people for the killing of Christ, all Jewish people who lived in Prague were moved to the area in the north of the Prague Old Town. It was separated from the rest of the city by the wall, moat, and several gates. From then on, the lives of people in the Jewish Ghetto would depend on the sole will of the Czech ruler.
Growing European antisemitism was stimulated by the series of made-up rumors about the Jewish population, like one that said that they use the blood of the Christian children for their heretic rituals. Jewish people were persecuted, hunted down, expelled from their homes, and executed for the crimes they never committed all over the continent. In Prague, they suffered from pogroms (acts of violence aimed at a specific group), limited in their occupations, and, basically, considered to be the property of the king. The worst pogrom in Prague Ghetto happened in 1389 when the houses of Jewish people were set on fire and those who tried to escape the flames were massacred on the streets. It is estimated that 3,000 people died in this pogrom, which was later immortalized in the poem of the Jewish rabbi Avigdor Kara.
In the 16th century, the Jewish Quarter is going through its much-awaited urban development. The Town Hall and two new synagogues were added to the cityscape, as well as numerous houses for Jewish families. Although in 1595 there were 150 houses in the Ghetto, people were in dire need of extra living spaces. In 1703 Jewish Quarter was inhabited by 11,517 people, while the population of four other Prague districts was 11,618 citizens.
The 8th century was a turbulent time for the Jewish population in Prague, which, fortunately, ended on a positive note. Empress Maria Theresa expelled the Jewish people from Prague and the whole Holy Roman Empire at the beginning of 1745. Nobody knows what were the reasons behind the queen's decision, but she eventually changed her mind and Jewish people were allowed to stay. Some historians say, that Maria Terezia changed her mind after her Treasury presented her with the possible damage report from expelling hundreds of thousands of taxpayers, and she rushed to call it off. Unlike his vengeful mother, the son of Maria Terezia, Joseph II, the next ruler on the emperor's throne, had done good things for the Jewish Population of Prague. In 1792, Joseph II released the first decree that allowed people to move out of the quarter. Perhaps, he was trying to redeem his mother's deeds in the eyes of his subjects, or maybe the ideas of Enlightenment prevailed.
During WW2, those Jewish people who lived in the Jewish quarter were forcefully sent to the Jewish Ghetto Terezin, and then to other concentration camps, mainly Auschwitz. In 1945, after the camps' liberation, most of the survivors migrated to the USA, Canada, Israel, and other countries.
Nowadays, there are less than 1,500 people in the Prague Jewish Community.
Prague Sanitation was a 'cleansing' process done in the former Jewish Quarter and parts of the Old Town, where hundreds of old buildings were demolished. The area was rebuilt in a fashionable Art Nouveau style inspired by Parisian architecture.
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Author: Valeriia Zahradnikova and Vaclav Zahradnik, Prague guides certified by Prague City Tourism agency. Valeriia and Vaclav have worked in tourism for over 6 years and have guided thousands of Prague visitors.