Jewish Quarter of Prague. The Golem.

Jewish Quarter of Prague. The Golem. (21)

Few places in Prague have had such a complex and convulsive history as the Jewish Quarter: within its boundaries they have experienced persecutions, fires and massacres. And, without doubt, very little of this history can be seen reflected in the district we know today, because the ghetto was subjected to a process of complete change in its appearance as well as a change in its inhabitants.

The first Jewish settlements in Prague date back to the 10th century. In time it would become one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe.

For centuries the Jews lived here confined and separated from the Christian population, which was the majority. Even when they ventured out they had to wear a yellow hat and other distinctive signs that identified them outside the limits of the ghetto. This was just one of the laws decreed to repress this community.

Nevertheless, there are examples in history of some governors who tried to improve the conditions of life of the Jews of Prague. In 1254, the king prohibited anti-Semitic violence and tried to guarantee religious freedom for the whole population. However, there were many powerful people who continued abusing the Jewish people. Just one hundred years later, in 1389, Easter resulted in a massacre of 3,000 people. Many of these massacres ended in terrible fires. The inhabitants of the ghetto became so skilful in putting out fires, that ironically they became the firemen of the Christian districts.

In the 18th century, Emperor Joseph II made an effort to reduce discrimination and gave the Jews more rights so that they could participate in all spheres of Prague life. Since then and in his honour, the Jewish Quarter began to be called Josefov.

Seeing as the land given over to the Jews never increased, the district grew on top of itself and the houses were piled up and built one on top of another. The ghetto became an insalubrious labyrinth of alleyways, courtyards and slums. The wealthier Jews began to move out of the ghetto to other more comfortable areas, so that by the 19th century only the very poorest lived in the Jewish Quarter. In 1861 the neighbourhood was finally added to the city as just another district.

It is not this insalubrious and miserable setting that you will come across if you visit the Jewish Quarter of Prague, since a few years later, at the end of the 19th century, a big urban planning operation began that would demolish practically everything and build wide avenues, with elegant modernist buildings.

The surviving parts of the old ghetto are the town hall, some synagogues and the cemetery. Of course, these places do conserve the memory of what the ghetto was.

If you are a fan of horror and fantastic stories, then you should know that Prague has preserved the legend of Golem since the 16th century.

Tradition tells that the powerful Rabbi Löw, to who magic powers were attributed, created a human, though gigantic, figure from clay and gave it life by placing a magic parchment in its mouth. This figure, the Golem, would become the ghetto’s protector as well as the faithful servant of Rabbi Löw, who could turn it back in to clay again just by removing the parchment from its mouth. One evening before the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, the rabbi forgot to take out the parchment. The Golem went crazy and began to wreak havoc all around the ghetto. When he found him again, the rabbi took away his power for ever.

The legend states that its remains were hidden in the synagogue. Although, who knows, there are also many who say that at night a desolate and gigantic figure wanders among the tombs of the Jewish cemetery.

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website