Prague, Czech Republic: Jewish Quarter

Prague’s skyline of red roofs and towering spires
can hide the fact that the city
is home to one of the oldest Jewish
communities in Europe. Dispersed by the Romans
2,000 years ago, Jews and their culture
survived in enclaves throughout the Western world. Jewish traders settled here
in Prague in the tenth century. In the 13th century,
they built this synagogue, now the oldest
in Central Europe. Stepping into this venerable
place of worship, you’re marvelling at how
this could have survived the tumult of the ages. We feel eight centuries
of devotion. The old cemetery
reminds visitors that this Jewish community
was one of Europe’s largest. With limited space and tens
of thousands of graves, tombs were piled atop
each other many layers high. The Jewish word for cemetery
means “house of life.” Like Christians,
Jews believe that death is the gateway
to the next world. A walk through here affords
a contemplative moment in a serene setting. About a hundred years ago,
Prague’s ramshackle ghetto was torn down and rebuilt as the attractive neighborhood
we see today — fine mostly Art Nouveau
buildings. The few surviving
historic buildings are thought-provoking
and open to visitors. This synagogue
is now a museum, filled with historic
and precious Judaica. Even as Nazis were destroying Jewish communities
in the region, Czech Jews were
allowed to collect and archive
their treasures here. But even the curators
of this museum ultimately ended up
in concentration camps. Nearby, another synagogue
is now a poignant memorial to the victims of the Nazis. Of the 120,000 Jews living here
before the Nazis came, only 15,000 lived to see
liberation in 1945. These walls are covered with
the handwritten names of over 78,000 local Jews who were sent to
concentration camps. [Man speaking foreign language] STEVES: A voice reading
the names of the victims provides a moving soundtrack. [Woman speaking
foreign language] STEVES: Family names are read,
followed by first names, birth dates,
and the last date that person was known
to be alive. [Man reading names in Czech] Despite the horrors
of the Holocaust, the Jewish tradition endured,
and a small Jewish community survives in Prague
to this day.


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