Stories of Jewish Prague

Stories of Jewish Prague

Sories 1In the 20th century, the Czech Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia were to contribute some of the leading figures of modern European culture: Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud among many others. But this assimilation was preceded by a thousand years of segregation and even violent persecution at the hands of the region’s Czech and German populations. The earliest records of a Jewish presence in Prague date from the 10th century. By the 11th century, Christian Crusaders bound for the Holy Land carried out the first of several devastating pogroms suffered by the Jewish community.

By the 13th century, Jews were forced to live within a walled ghetto, where they remained for 600 years, until 1848. Yet, within those walls, a rich culture and community life developed. Important rights of self-administration were granted to the ghetto from its beginnings because the city depended on its Jewish minority for financial services which medieval religious doctrine barred Christians from performing. In many respects, Jews thrived in Prague, coming to number a quarter of the city’s inhabitants and, by the 17th century, emerging as the largest Ashkenazi community in the world.

Stories 2Your 3-hour walking tour of the Jewish Quarter in the company of a Jewish Studies scholar focuses on the collection of buildings, exhibitions and sites that makes up the Jewish Museum: the five remaining synagogues, the Old Jewish Cemetery and Jewish Town Hall. We begin at the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. Built around 1270, it is also among the oldest Gothic structures in Prague. Prohibited from practicing masonry, the Jews hired Christians to build the synagogue. At the heart of Jewish culture and learning in Prague for more than 700 years, this synagogue serves as the backdrop for our discussion of Jewish religious and social customs during the medieval period.

Visiting the Renaissance-era Town Hall built by Mordechai Maisel enables you to envision the golden age of Prague’s Jewish community. Maisel, the mayor of the Jewish Quarter who became Rudolf II’s Minister of Finance, used his fortune to pave the ghetto’s streets, support Jewish organizations and provide charity for the needy. At the same time, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1525-1609) was becoming legendary in Europe for his prolific theological and philosophical writings. Rabbi Loew is celebrated in Prague folklore as the creator of the Golem, a monstrous living being made from clay from the banks of the Vltava River. According to one version of the story, the Golem was created to defend the Jews from anti-Semitic attacks.

Stories 3As you continue to move through one of the largest collections of Judaica in the world, the paradoxes of the Jewish experience in Prague become manifest. In 1745, the entire Jewish population was expelled by Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. Yet, only a few years later, facing a financial recession, Prague’s residents demanded their return. In 1782, Maria Theresa’s son, Josef II, issued the Edict of Toleration, granting the Jews religious freedom, eliminating professional restrictions, and allowing Jewish children to attend schools and universities. A grateful community renamed the ghetto district “Josefov,” as it is still known today.

The increasing liberalism and toleration set in motion by Josef II were swamped by the genocidal nationalism of Nazi Germany. Prague’s Jewish community, at the moment of its greatest assimilation, was decimated by the Holocaust. We’ll consider the political, economic and ethnic tensions that led to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and discuss the implementation of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” in Prague. We’ll also discuss the Jewish experience during the communist years and look at the fragile revival of Prague’s Jewish community taking place today.

Vadim ErentVadim Erent Born in St. Petersburg, Vadim immigrated to the USA at 13. He did graduate work in Slavic Studies at the University of Chicago, then spent a decade travelling through the United States as an interpreter for the US State Department. He has lived in Prague since 2003. An art critic and literary historian, he contributes articles to Literaria Pragensia Books, the affiliated press of the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University. Vadim’s photography has been featured in Vlak Magazine, Grasp Magazine, The Humanities Review and Streetnotes. He is editing a book of essays on Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, to be published by Literaria Pragensia Books in Fall 2015. After years of giving tours of Prague to friends and family, he founded Insight Cities to offer in-depth experiences to a wider group of visitors. Vadim is married to Insight Cities co-founder Bonita Rhoads. They are the parents of a little Pražačka, Lucy, born in Prague in 2008.
Bonita RhoadsBonita Rhoads Bonita Rhoads earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University in 2009. She was a lecturer at Charles University in Prague and an assistant professor at Masaryk University in Brno (the Czech Republic’s second city) for a decade before leaving university teaching to run her scholar-led guided walks company, Insight Cities. A native of New York City, Bonita moved to Prague in 2003 along with her husband, Vadim, co-founder of Insight Cities. She publishes on topics in nineteenth-century British and American literature. Her delight in her remarkable adopted city led her to become a dedicated student of Prague’s cultural and political history.
Kateřina PrůšováKateřina Průšová After studying Medieval Architecture at the Università per Stranieri, Perugia, Italy and Art History at the Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier III, France, Kateřina Průšová received her PhD from the Institute of Art History in the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, Prague. A lecturer in Art History at both Charles and Anglo-American Universities, she is also an official guide of the Prague Jewish Museum, a docent for the National Gallery on the collection of old masters at the Sternberg Palace, for the St. Agnes Monastery, and for the newly opened exhibition of Alfons Mucha’s The Slav Epic at the Veletržní palace. In 2010 and 2011, she was a guest lecturer on Medieval Art at the University of New Orleans.
Jan richterJan Richter Since 2007, Jan has been a producer and journalist for the leading news radio station in the Czech Republic, Radio Prague (the Czech equivalent of the USA's NPR). In addition to hosting a regular 30 minute show on current national affairs, he also provides analysis and reporting for the English language service of the station on topics ranging from contemporary Czech culture and business to Czech history. Jan took his MA in History from Masaryk University in Brno. Fluent in Spanish (as well as English), Jan spent two years teaching in Latin America, then became the first translator of Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries into Czech. Jan's fascination with the turmoil of the twentieth century also led him to spend six years (2001-2007) as a historian and curator for the Regional Museum in the Moravian town of Mikulov, where he prepared exhibitions on Czech Jewish history, World War II history and post World War II development. Outside his busy work schedule, Jan always appreciates a good night out with taroky, a rapidly disappearing Moravian card game. For visitors interested in the war years, the communist and post-communist periods in Prague, Jan is your guide.
Hana KubatováHana Kubatová Hana Kubatová recieved her PhD in Modern History at the Charles University in Prague and her MA in Nationalism Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. While writing her dissertation (book version to be published Fall 2012), she was a research fellow at the Heinrich Heine University in Germany, the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Tel Aviv University in Israel and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Hana is the recipient of various awards, including the Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellowship from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Marie Curie Fellowship for Early Stage Training from the European Commission, the Felix Posen Fellowship from the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Israel Government Scholarship, and the Gisela Fleischmann Scholarship from the Milan Simecka Foundation. She is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague and a lecturer at Anglo-American University. Hana teaches and publishes on modern Jewish history, as well on the social history of WWII and European nationalism.
Alex WentAlex Went Alex Went attended Cambridge University, where he took his MA in English Literature. Since first visiting Prague in 1991, he has developed a close association with the city, and has adapted a number of Czech works in translation for the stage, including Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude and The Diary of Petr Ginz, a moving account of the life of a Jewish boy in 1940s Prague. As well as being an accomplished writer and poet, Alex is the curator of The Prague Vitruvius, an online guide to the history of the city's architecture.
Hana NIchtburgerováHana Nichtburgerová Hana Nichtburgerová handles public relations for the European Shoah Legacy Institute, a public benefit corporation which cooperates with governments, non-governmental organizations and experts to foster the restitution of Jewish cultural assets stolen by the Nazis and to promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance. As an undergraduate, she spent an exchange year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst taking courses in Jewish Studies and Philosophy. She obtained her MA in Jewish History, Jewish Literature and Philosophy from the College of Jewish Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. In Israel, she studied Hebrew in Haifa while also participating in the Ramat Rachel Archeological Project. Hana is fluent in English and German and conversational in Hebrew.
Max BahnsonMax Bahnson Max Bahnson was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Having fallen in love with the beauty and the magic of Prague, and not just its beer, he moved to the city for good in 2002. Max is a writer and a blogger on the topic of Czech beer and is considered to be one of the leading authorities on the subject. He authors a regular column in The Prague Post under the pen name Pivní Filosof, The Beer Philosopher, and is a regular contributor to specialized magazines in Spain, the US and the Czech Republic.
GeorgeGeorge Thompson A citizen of the United States, George has lived in cities around the world. He has degrees in physics, the Japanese language and in architecture. George has a passion for uncovering the details in all that surrounds him which has led him to discover hidden and overlooked sites in the Golden City. His tours are bent toward exploring the beauty of the buildings and gardens of Prague that express the ideas and culture throughout the city’s long history. He loves photography and will point out photographic shots along the way. George's work experience in small-town preservation and the urban fabric of community development lend insight into Prague's history.
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