A to Z Abroad: Jewish Quarter (Prague)

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Tucked into a small sector of Prague is the Jewish Quarter. Known locally as Josefov, this part of Prague was once a Jewish ghetto. Today the area still thrives as a community that both preserves and furthers Jewish culture.

As early as the 11th century, Jews were forced to live within the confines of Josefov behind a wall. Despite the separation of Jews and the rest of Prague, the people within the ghetto were often subjected to pogroms (organized massacres) throughout the 13th and 14th centuries.

However, by the 16th century the Jewish Quarter reached a period of prosperity when a philanthropist by the name of Mordecai Meisel poured money into area. This allowed for the building of a town hall and two synagogues (which all still stand today).

Architecture in The Jewish Quarter, Prague
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Not much of the original Jewish Quarter remains as it was largely demolished in the 19th century to make way for a city initiative to remodel Prague after Paris. The only original landmarks to remain are six synagogues, the town hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

My fascination with old cemeteries naturally led me to the gates of The Old Jewish Cemetery.  The grounds are a reminder of the impact of discrimination and subjugation, but also a glowing tribute to the tenacity of humanity.

From the early 15th century to 1787, Jews were forbidden to bury their dead outside of their district.  There’s no way to know how many graves are in the cemetery, but estimates put the number at about 20,000. Some sections of the graveyard go about twelve layers deep, while approximately 12,000 tombstones are visible at ground level.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

On many of the gravestones, bits of folded paper and stones can be found.  In the Jewish tradition, it is customary to leave stones instead of flowers. Stones come from the earth and therefore represent the journey of returning to the earth after death.  The stones are often placed on top of folded pieces of paper which are written notes of wishes, as it is an old belief that the dead can grant wishes.

Stones and Wishes
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

As if Prague doesn’t offer enough of a historical and cultural kaleidoscope, the Jewish Quarter provides yet another opportunity to walk back through time and alter your perspective.

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Information Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josefov

http://www.prague.cz/old-jewish-cemetery/

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013