The Jewish Museum in Prague

Old-New Synagogue is still in use as a house of prayer

The Jewish Museum in Prague consists of exhibits in four of the old Synagogues and the Ceremonial Hall, along with the Old Jewish Cemetery which extends from the courtyard of the Pinkas Synagogue to the rear of the Ceremonial Hall and the Klausen Synagogue.

There are two other Synagogues in the old Jewish quarter that are still being used as places of worship, so they have no exhibits. One of them is the Old-New Synagogue, shown in the photograph above, which dates back to the 13th century; it is open to the public as part of the museum, except on Saturdays and Jewish Holidays. The other one is the High Synagogue which is in the same building as the Old Town Hall; neither the town hall nor the High Synagogue were on the museum tour when I visited Prague in October, 2000. Some tourist guidebooks for Prague mention the textile exhibits in the High Synagogue, which were not open when I visited.

One ticket, which could be purchased for 450 Kc in 2000 at any of the sights or at the Matana travel agency at number 15 Maiselova street in Josefov, will allow a person to enter five of the synagogues, the Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. All the sights are open at 9:00 a.m. daily except on Saturdays and Jewish Holidays. The printed ticket looks like a credit card receipt and has an entry time for each synagogue, a system that is designed to rush tourists through the tour, allowing about 30 minutes at each sight. There were so many interesting exhibits in the synagogues that I found it impossible to adhere to my assigned entry times, but none of the synagogues denied me admission because I was behind schedule. Even though the Old-New Synagogue is still in use, tourists must still pay to enter it, although when I was there, several people claimed that they only wanted to go inside to pray.

The Jewish Museum in Prague has one of the most extensive collections of Jewish art, textiles and silver in the world; there are 40,000 exhibits and 100,000 books. The collection is unique because everything in the museum was gathered from Bohemia and Moravia and it represents Jewish history and heritage in the present Czech Republic.

The Jewish Museum was founded in 1906 in order to preserve artifacts that were saved when all the buildings in the old Jewish quarter were demolished at the turn of the century, including some of the synagogues. Dr. Hugo Lieben and Dr. Augustin Stein were the leaders in the founding of the museum. Only six synagogues, the Ceremonial Hall, the Old Town Hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery were left standing when the old Jewish quarter was torn down because it had become a rat-infested slum that was a major health hazard.

The Nazis closed The Jewish Museum soon after they occupied Bohemia and Moravia, the two states which now make up the Czech Republic, on March 15, 1939. Prague is located in Bohemia.

After the Nazis started liquidating the Jewish communities in what is now the Czech Republic, Dr. Stein proposed to the Germans that they set up a museum to hold all the objects that the Nazis were confiscating from the synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia. Following long negotiations between the Nazis and the Jewish leaders, the Nazis approved the project and in 1942, the Central Jewish Museum was created. Consequently, memorial objects from the synagogues in the Czech Republic were saved and they are now on display at four of the old synagogues: the Pinkus Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue.

Although he didn't originate the idea of the museum, Hitler became enthusiastic about the project. Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I, and on January 30, 1939, he had predicted that, in the event of another world war, European Jewry would be annihilated. In 1942, he thought the Germans would emerge victorious in World War II and that all the Jews would be gone from Europe; he was planning to call the Jewish Museum in Prague the "Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race."

During World War II, Jewish artifacts from all over Europe were brought to Prague and stored in preparation for this museum. As it turned out, the artifacts that were saved by the Nazis ended up in a museum in Prague, but thank God, it is not a museum of an extinct race.

After the defeat of the Fascists in World War II, Czechoslovakia became a Communist country in 1948. Under Communism, all property is owned by the state, so in 1950 the Jews were forced to transfer ownership of the Jewish Museum to the state, and a number of restrictions were imposed. After the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, the Museum buildings and their exhibits were returned to the Jews on October 1, 1994. At this time, The Jewish Museum in Prague was founded as a non-state organization.

In 1996, the Educational and Cultural Center was established as part of the Museum complex. It is located on the corner of Maiselova Street and Siroka Street in the heart of Josefov. The purpose of the center is to give visitors a detailed account of the history of the Jews, particularly the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia. The Center is a teacher training institution recognized by the Czech Ministry of Education. The program at the Center includes lectures, seminars, tours of Josefov, movies, concerts, debates and literary evenings.