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Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Prague, Czech Republic

Many Jews settled in Prague from the 10th century on, enjoying a thriving culture. In World War II, Nazis decimated their population. Today synagogues-turned-memorials commemorate victims, and a small Jewish community survives in Prague.

Complete Video Script

Prague’s skyline of red roofs and towering spires can hide the fact that the city is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe.

Dispersed by the Romans 2,000 years ago, Jews and their culture survived in enclaves throughout the Western world. Jewish traders settled here in Prague in the 10th century.

In the 13th century, they built this synagogue — now the oldest in central Europe. Stepping into this venerable place of worship, and marveling at how this could have survived the tumult of the ages, we feel eight centuries of devotion.

The old cemetery reminds visitors that this Jewish community was one of Europe’s largest. With limited space and tens of thousands of graves, tombs were piled atop each other many layers high.

The Jewish word for cemetery means “House of Life.” Like Christians, Jews believe that death is the gateway into the next world. A walk through here affords a contemplative moment in a serene setting.

About a hundred years ago, Prague’s ramshackle ghetto was torn down and rebuilt as the attractive neighborhood we see today: fine, mostly Art Nouveau buildings.

The few surviving historic buildings are thought-provoking and open to visitors. This synagogue is now a museum, filled with historic and precious Judaica.

Even as Nazis were destroying Jewish communities in the region, Czech Jews were allowed to collect and archive their treasures here. But even the curators of this museum ultimately ended up in concentration camps.

Nearby, another synagogue is now a poignant memorial to the victims of the Nazis. Of the 120,000 Jews living here before the Nazis came, only 15,000 lived to see liberation in 1945. These walls are covered with the handwritten names of over 78,000 local Jews who were sent to concentration camps. A voice reading the names of the victims provides a moving soundtrack. Family names are in red, followed by first names, birthdays, and the last date that person was known to be alive.

Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish religion endured and a small Jewish community survives in Prague to this day.