WATCH: Prague, A Jewish Bridge to the Past

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Modern-day Prague: The church of Our Lady Before Tyn, center, and Prague cathedral, right, May 27, 2013.Credit: Bloomberg

In most cities of the world, you need to do some research to find the places of Jewish interest. Not so in Prague, where among the most popular tourist attractions are Jewish sites: Josefov - Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Golem representations and anything connected to the writer Franz Kafka.

The centerpiece of Josefov is the Jewish Town Hall, a 16th Century baroque building whose tower features the famous clock with Hebrew letters. Across the street is the Altneuschul, Old-New Synagogue, a 13th Century Gothic structure that is the oldest active synagogue in Europe.
Legend has it that it was built with stones from the Second Temple. It is here, in the attic, that the legendary Golem of Prague, a monster-like figure that was intended to protect the Jews of Prague, is believed to have resided.

Within a short walk are several other synagogues, all well preserved: The ancient Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls are inscribed with the names of the 80,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust. Nearby are the Klausen, Maisel, and the High synagogues. each contains religious and cultural artifacts representing an era of Jewish renaissance during the late Middle Ages, and again in the 19th Century, following the Emancipation. In fact, it was in recognition of the benign rule of Emperor Josef II, when the community flourished, that the Jewish quarter was named after the Hapsburg monarch.

The most iconic site in Josefov is the Jewish cemetery, where some 12,000 tombstones are layered, going back 600 years. The stones on the surface, sitting on unstable ground, are tightly crowded, tilting in all directions, making for an unforgettable site. Here the legendary Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and many others venerated sages and scholars are buried. The gravestones contain intricate and artistic engravings relating to Jewish heritage and the line of work of deceased.

Video via Jewish Discoveries

The Jewish Museum in Prague contains an extraordinary collection of Judaica, gathered from over 100 communities in Moravia and Bohemia that were destroyed or looted by the Nazis. These include precious ritual objects of silver, textiles, printed manuscripts, and thousands of documents. Part of the collection is housed in the Spanish Synagogue, a gem of Moorish architecture, its white stucco walls painted with intricate arabesques and geometric designs. The synagogue is used to hold concerts for Jewish music and cultural celebration of the holidays.

Outside the Spanish Synagogue is a sculpture of Kafka, an abstract figure and one of many in the city honoring its most famous writer. There is the Grand Hotel Europa in Wenceslas Square, a stunning Art Nouveau building where Kafka gave public readings. The Café Slavia, one of the coffee houses frequented by the Prague Circle, Kafka’s house on Radnice Street, and a square named after him nearby.

The Kafka Museum is a fascinating representation of the writer’s ambivalent attitude toward his Jewish heritage, but also his belief and support for Zionism. The museum contains notes and writings from his most famous novels, but also letters to his father in which he expresses himself about his Jewish faith and background.

A walk through the Old Town Square, a magnificent plaza of Rococo, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture, leads to the famous Charles Bridge. Among the statues lining the bridge is a 17th Century sculpture, one of Jesus crucified bearing Hebrew inscriptions, possibly a punitive act against the local Jews.

About thirty miles north of Prague is Terezin, also known as Therezienstadt, a fortress town that also housed a prison. There, the Nazis established a “camp-ghetto”, where some 140,000 Jews were taken; about 90,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps. Roughly 33,000 died in Terezin.

The Nazis used the camp as a propaganda façade, staging cultural events for visiting Red Cross officials. Many famous artists and musicians were deported to the camp, where they created and performed under the vilest conditions. Today, there is a museum at the camp, which features the works of interned artists, and drawings by children at the camp, many taught by Friedl Dicker Brandeis

There are about 3000 registered Jews living in Prague and other cities in the Czech Republic. Most are secular, although there are traditional Orthodox services held in the High Synagogue, mainly for visitors.
The Jewish community headquarters is located in the old Jewish Town Hall. There is a Jewish Old Age home, a school, and kosher restaurant. The main activities by the community leaders are to outreach to unaffiliated, and even unknown Jews, through cultural and social activities.