Named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, whose reforms made life a little easier for the Jews of Prague, Josefov packs more history within its tiny boundaries than many small countries. From being the birthplace of Kafka to the hiding place of the Golem, Prague’s Jewish quarter has repeatedly found itself at the centre of historic happenings and events. Here, we explore its maze of back-alleys and narrow lanes to uncover the best places to visit on a trip to this captivating corner of the city.
Rather confusingly, the “Old-New” synagogue was never very new, but thanks to the fact its Hebrew sounds very like the Yiddish “Old-New”, the label soon stuck. One of Prague’s first gothic buildings, according to legend the body of the Golem created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel still lives in the attic. Created to defend the Jewish community from pogroms, it was ‘deactivated’ when it grew addicted to violence.
A sweet melancholy lingers around this patch of 12,000 crumbling stones and 10,000 graves. Some of its most conspicuous are those of Mordecai Maisel, the Jewish finance minister who managed to negotiate the alleviation of the Jewish ghetto’s strict rules and regulations, as well as Avigdor Kara, the court poet to King Wenceslas IV.
The birthplace of Prague’s most famous writer, (author of The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis), Franz Kafka, is marked by a plaque in Josefov. He lived on the corner of Kaprova and Maiselova street for two years (1883-1885), until the Kafka family moved to a house on Wenceslas Square.
Technically outside the Jewish quarter but so close that it breathes down the neck of the adjoining Jewish Cemetery, the Museum of Decorative Arts was built as part of a European movement that encouraged people to return to the aesthetics that had been destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. A feast for the senses that includes textiles, prints, photography, glasswork, furniture, tapestries and porcelain, even its gorgeous ceilings offer hours of entertainment.
Not a single site as such but a collection of four synagogues, the Nazis shockingly preserved the Jewish Museum as their intended symbol of “an extinct race”. Today, it stands instead as a symbol of survival, and of the history and heritage of the Jews who lived in Josefov. Entrance to the museum includes access to the Spanish, Pinkas and Klausen synagogues, as well as the cemetery and Ceremonial Hall. The Spanish synagogue is perhaps the most interesting. Named for the Spanish Jews that came to Prague after being expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, its Moorish Revival style sets it apart as building of great beauty.