Two of the most amazing synagogues are in Prague: Pinkas Synagogue and Jubilee Synagogue. More about both in a moment. First some history.
Unlike nearby Warsaw, Poland, the city of Prague, Czech Republic, did not suffer much during World War II from bombing. Its Jewish population was, like Warsaw, confined to a Jewish sector or ghetto, but the ghetto in Prague dated from the Middle Ages when the Jews were placed under the protectorate of a tolerant king. The Nazis sent Jews from the Prague ghetto to Terezin, the “model” concentration camp nearby, where they were relatively well treated (in comparison only to other concentration camps) and the Nazis could show off to the League of Nations how well their prisoners fared. Still many Jews disappeared or were murdered.
Today the Jewish Quarter in Prague, known as Josefov, is an amazing historical site, like a skeleton preserved in formaldehyde in a bottle. It is, to me, the best site to see in Prague as it remains today pretty much the same as it was during the War, minus its population, of course. Today the Jewish Quarter is surrounded by high-end fashion shopping. If you don’t look for it specifically, you might walk right past it. The Quarter is one large outdoor museum. You pay an admission at any one of a number of sites within the museum perimeter. This ticket grants you access to all the sites in the area with the exception of the Old-New Synagogue which has a separate charge and is the one synagogue in the area that still functions. Another functioning synagogue, within two blocks of the Prague train station, the Jubilee Synagogue, is also still operating, and is a must-see for its stunning architecture.
When I spotted the Jubilee Synagogue I was down the street and thought it looked like an interesting mosque, with ornately designed windows with moslem-style arches, reminiscent of the Arab styles in Cordoba, Spain. As I approached this magnificent building and realized it is a synagogue, I was astounded at its magnificence, the most beautiful exterior of a synagogue I have seen. I was unable to get inside as I was there after the open hours posted in English on the gate.
Back at Josefov, one of the most impressive and memorable sites inside the Jewish Quarter is its Jewish cemetery. Here the Jews buried their dead one on top of another, as they were limited in space to the small graveyard allowed to them. The tombstones lie almost side by side and face to face. You can read the dates of some of them, but most are inscribed in Hebrew. Since the cemetery is poorly maintained, many of the headstones have tilted as the earth has moved below them over the centuries, creating a graveyard scene right out of a scary movie. Although somber, don’t miss this.
There are 5 other non-functioning synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. Your knees buckle when you enter Pinkas Synagogue where the walls are inscribed with the names of all the members of the Prague Jewish community who lost their lives in World War II, an overwhelming visual reminder of how atrocious the war was for the Jews of Prague. The walls go on for several rooms in writing so small that you have to be right up against the wall to read the names.
After the War, it was hard for the Jews to recover as communism took hold in Prague with its anti-religion beliefs. Still, a small Jewish community in Prague lives on, celebrating its traditions but no longer confined to the Jewish Quarter.
Josefov gives a rare glimpse of a community the Nazis sought to eradicate. This glimpse back in time will send chills up your spine and be an experience you will not soon forget.