In the heart of Prague, on the banks of the Vltava River, lies the district of Josefov. This Jewish neighbourhood has an illustrious history and forms the setting for many tales by writer Franz Kafka, who lived here. Take the time to explore the cobbled streets and become acquainted with the culture, architecture and stories of Prague’s Jewish community.
Prague’s Jewish quarter has existed since the 13th century. Many Jewish people moved to this cramped neighbourhood around that time – at its peak around 18,000 people lived here. Today, only a small Jewish community remains in Josefov but you can still get a taste of its historic atmosphere. Although large parts of the district were redeveloped in the 19th century, the most important buildings and monuments remain intact. The 6 synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery are among Europe’s best-preserved Jewish monuments. These historical sites continue to remind us of a time when Jewish culture flourished here.
The well-known Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest existing synagogue, is located on the chic street of Pařížská. This place of worship, dating back to the mid 13th century, is still in use today. The jagged brickwork of its façade is a typical example of early Gothic style. Original ornamentation can also be found inside, such as the ornate wrought iron chandeliers. An interesting detail is the red flag with gold embroidered Star of David which adorns the western pillar. Emperor Ferdinand III presented this flag to Prague’s Jewish people at the end of the 17th century.
Alongside the Old-New Synagogue stands the elegant Jewish Town Hall which was built in 1586. Like many other monuments in Josefov, the town hall was built by Mordechai Maisel, one of 16th-century Prague’s richest men. Interesting features include the two clocks on its façade, the higher of which has Roman numerals, while the lower has Hebrew numerals and the hands turn anti-clockwise. The Town Hall contains a kosher restaurant which is open for lunch from 11:30 am - 2:00 pm and is recommended if you would like to sample authentic Jewish-Czech cuisine.
On the other side of the street is the Old Jewish Cemetery which was in use from 1478-1786. Thousands of gravestones are crammed in so close together that they seem to be leaning on each other. This mysterious place speaks volumes about Jewish history in Prague. Around 100,000 Jewish people are thought to be buried here. Because it was forbidden to expand the cemetery, the graves were dug in 12 layers. The most famous grave is that of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague.
Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), was a well-known rabbi, scholar and the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Prague. His memory is forever connected with a strange legend: the Maharal is reputed to have created a Golem from clay from the Vltava River which he brought to life using rituals and Hebrew incantations. This Golem, a being from Jewish folklore, would still be hiding in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue until such time as the Prague Jews needed its protection.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) spent most of his life in Josefov. The Kafka family lived at number 27 Dušní and a bronze statue just a few metres away serves as a reminder of the famous author. The statue’s sculptor, Jaroslav Róna, wanted to depict the short story Description of a Struggle, in which a friendly conversation between the narrator and an acquaintance turns into a fight. Kafka’s tale is set largely on the banks of the Vltava River and the writer himself can be recognised on the shoulders of the story’s mysterious and headless black figure.