History of Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter in Prague

Hebrew Clock in Old Jewish Quarter

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Josefov is the Hebrew clock on the top of the Old Town Hall. In the photograph above, the Hebrew clock is the one on the roof just below a regular clock. The Hebrew clock has numbers in Hebrew and runs backwards. At the bottom of the photograph, you can see the roof top of the Old-New Synagogue. The High Synagogue is adjacent to the Old Town Hall on the left.

In 1850, the former Jewish quarter in Prague was incorporated into the city and was named Josefstadt (Joseph's city) in honor of Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Empire which ruled over what is now the Czech Republic in the 18th century. Joseph II was an enlightened monarch who gave the Jews in Prague their civil rights in 1781 when he issued the Toleration Edict. This edict rescinded the old law that required the Jews to wear distinctive caps or the yellow Star of David on their clothing, a law which had been in effect since the 11th century.

The edict also allowed the Jews to attend public schools with the Christians for the first time and to engage in occupations that had previously been forbidden. With permission from the authorities, the Jews could now live outside the walled ghetto, the area which is now called by the Czech name Josefov. The gates in the ghetto wall were removed by order of the Toleration Edict and the curfew was rescinded. The purpose of the edict was to create a strong centralized state in which all the people would be integrated into a single political and economic system, instead of having the Jews as a minority group in a separate state within a state.

Ironically, Joseph II was also the monarch who, in 1780, ordered the construction of a military garrison at Theresienstadt, 60 kilometers northwest of Prague. From November 1941 until the war ended on May 8, 1945, the Nazis used Theresienstadt (now called Terezin) as a walled ghetto where the Jews once again had to wear the yellow star. Theresienstadt was also used as a transit center from where the Nazis transported 86,934 Jews to the death camps as part of their Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

Jews had first settled in Prague in the 10th century, near the Prague castle which is just across the Vltava river from Josefov. At the time of the First Crusade in 1096, the first recorded pogrom took place in Prague when Jews were systematically killed by the Crusaders. This violence may have been what prompted the Jews to move to the present Josefov quarter of Prague, near the Old Town, in the 12th century. In the 13th century, the Pope decreed that the Jews should be segregated from the Christians and a wall was built around the Jewish quarter.

The Jews participated in the revolutionary activity throughout Europe in 1848 which finally brought equal rights for the Jews; the walls of the ghetto were torn down, allowing the Jews to live anywhere in the city of Prague. This caused a number of violent anti-Semitic protests by the Czechs in Prague. With the granting of equal rights to the Jews, there was also pressure put on them to assimilate, instead of maintaining their separate culture. To assimilate or not to assimilate: that was The Jewish Question. In the 19th century, The Jewish Question was widely discussed; even Karl Marx wrote a dissertation on the subject.

When the wealthy Jews moved out of the former ghetto, it soon became a slum as other poor people moved in. By 1890, the former Jewish quarter had a population of 186,000 people, but only 20% of them were Jewish. In 1893, the city decided to completely demolish the whole Josefstadt quarter, leaving only 6 synagogues, the old Jewish cemetery, the Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Town Hall, which are collectively known as the Jewish Museum.

Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov