History and legends of Jews from Prague and the Czech lands.

Author:Rehak, Robert
Position:Czech Republic: Land of Stories


Every stone in Old Prague speaks three languages: Czech, German and Hebrew, the languages of the three nations who have lived there together for more than 1,000 years. According to one legend, the first Jews arrived after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. One of the first written mentions of Jews in Prague is a 965 CE report by Jewish merchant and traveler Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub. Sent by the King of Spain, he was also the first person to describe the city itself, writing in his diary: "Fraga [sic] is the largest city in terms of trade. Coming here ... Slavs, Muslims and Jews."

During the Middle Ages, Jews in Europe faced the terror of oppression and pogroms. Would you accept the religion of the majority or die in flames? But in the Czech lands, something very interesting happened. In 1254, King Premysl Ottokar II announced: "Hear everybody! From now on: All Jews are my property." We might think that no one would want to be the property of the king, like fields or houses. But for Jews, it meant protection. Nobody could harm the property of the king! Little surprise, then, that 16 years later, Jews built the famous Old-New Synagogue in Prague. According to legend, they incorporated stones from Jerusalem into the synagogue's walls.

One great example of the confluence of Czech, German and Jewish cultures is the writer Franz Kafka, who was Jewish, wrote in German and knew Czech. From his friend Jiri Langer--known for his renowned book Nine Gates--Kafka learned about the secret teachings of kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. According to Gershom Scholem, who pioneered the academic study of kabbalah, Kafka found the "secular statement of the Kabbalistic world-feeling in a modern spirit," especially in his books like The Castle. Other prominent Czech Jews include composer Gustav Mahler, writer Max Brod and journalist Egon Erwin Kisch. Other European Jews have Czech connections, too: Sigmund Freud was born in Pribor, and philosopher Edmund Husserl was a native of Prostejov. We do not claim Albert Einstein to be of Czech origin, but he did spend two years in Prague. The relationship between Czechs and Jews has been deep, close and friendly. The two major exceptions are the Prague pogrom of 1389, in which 3,000 Jews died, and the accusations and blood libel made against Leopold Hilsner after the murder of a Christian girl in 1899 in Polna. Thomas G. Masaryk (who would become the first president of Czechoslovakia) could not accept that his nation would believe in the blood libel, and, acting courageously against public opinion, wrote many letters and articles in order to save Hilsner. After a new democratic state called Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, Jewish life flourished until the 1938 Munich agreement.

More than 80,000 innocent Czech Jewish men, women and children were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt) is a reminder not only of Jewish suffering but also of teachers like Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who taught the children in the camp to draw and express their emotions through art instead of passively waiting for death. The opera Brundibar by Hans Krasa, originally performed by children in the camp, is also a powerful testimonial to their experience. Today, the Czech Republic sits in the center of Europe, with one foot in Western Europe and one in the Slavic East. World travelers have likened Prague to Paris, with its beautiful streets, bridges and castles, cafes and restaurants. Thanks to the new 10 Stars Project you can visit forgotten synagogues not only in Prague, but also in Boskovice, Mikulov and Krnov in the east; in Ustek, Jicin and Brandys and Labem in the north; Plzeft and Breznice in the west; and Nova Cerekev and Polna in the south-central part of the country.

Most of the history and legends of Jews from Czech lands is still undiscovered. Maybe it is waiting for you. So see you "next year in the Czech Republic!"

Prague guide

Prague's Jewish Museum

Founded in 1906, the Jewish Museum in Prague is one of the world's oldest Jewish museums. It was created by Salomon Hugo Lieben, a historian, and August Stein, Prague city councilor and representative of Czech Jewry. It began with a collection of items that had been recovered from synagogues destroyed during the clearance of Prague's Jewish ghetto. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, they abolished the Jewish Museum Association, and the...

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