Most of the Jewish Quarter was destroyed in the early 20th century to make it posh and Parisian, and in addition a bit more resilient to floods and fires. This is partly why you see the weirdly different ground levels between the synagogues and the other buildings, as the ground was actually raised when they rebuilt the area.
When they tore up the Jewish Quarter, they did so because it was derelict, overcrowded, and a huge firehazard. And before that time, Jews didn't have the freedom to live where they wanted. After the Edict of Tolerance by the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, though, this changed and Jews were free to live outside the ghetto. That meant now the quarter could be restored and renovated.
random street in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter
They left the synagogues which are all still standing, active, and open for tourism. You can't get the feeling of the old, crowded, and poor ghetto that once was, but rather you can buy some super-expensive clothes, as all the top designers, including, ironically, Hugo Boss, have a storefront in this area now. Another weird fact is that the synagogues managed to survive WWII as Hitler had thought the district so nice, that he was going to use it as a huge "Jewish museum", to highlight his version of the history of the soon-to-be-eradicated people.
Here's a list of all the old buildings that still exist though and that you can take a look at. Also click here to see them all pinned on Google Maps.
The Jewish Town Hall
This was the main meeting point for the Jewish community and was built in 1586 by the mayor Mordechai Maisel, whose projects created a "golden age" of Jewish life in Prague. The building is in the Renaissance style but had a Rococo makeover in the 1700s. It features two clocks: the top one with Roman numerals and the bottom one with Hebrew numerals (that is to say, Hebrew letters). It now serves as the main building of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
the Old-New Synagogue next to the Town Hall
It might seem to blend in with the rest of the buildings nowadays, but back in the day of the ghetto, the town hall really stood out as a masterpiece of architecture. That said, the synagogues were obviously the more important buildings to the community. This one isn't open to look at, but you can see the clock tower.
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The synagogue with the most confusing name is the oldest one that still stands in Europe and has been active for more than 700 years. It was built by the same masons that worked on the St. Agnes Convent and was originally called the Great Shul or the New Shul (Great School or New School), and wasn't called the Old-New Shul until after the construction of later synagogues.
the Old-New Synagogue
There are a ton of legends that surround the Old-New Synagogue. One has it that the synagogue was built from blocks of the Temple of Solomon, brought over by angels who carried it over all the way to Bohemia, by agreement that if the Temple were restored, they'd have to bring back the blocks. Another has it that the remains of the golem are stored in the attic.
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The Spanish Synagogue is the newest of the bunch, but ironically built on the site of the oldest synagogue in Prague, which was called the Old Shul. So perhaps it would be the better bearer of the name of the "old-new", but that's another story. The Old Shul was too small though, so they tore it down in 1867 and built a new one in the Moorish Revival style, hence why it's now called the "Spanish" Synagogue, even though it was first called the Geistgasse-Tempel, or the Temple on Spirit Street. Some people think it belongs to the Sephardic community, because of the Moorish style, but actually belongs to the Reform congregation, the Moorish style chosen just for its coolness and jazz.
Today it contains an exhibition on Jewish history in Czech lands, centered around the Emperor Joseph II, along with plenty of pictures of how the Jewish ghetto looked before it was torn down.
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This is the second oldest synagogue in Prague, and it's pretty small and homely, as are its beginnings. In 1535, Aharon Meshulam Horowitz tore down his house and built a synagogue for his family. Like the other older buildings of this area, it was below (the new) ground level, and was thus flooded often. So in 1860, they raised the floor by 1.5 meters. But then they lowered it in the 1950s to be the original level, which was now lower than the street level, which had been raised in the early part of the century. Nothing is simple here. On the interior of the walls in the synagogue are inscribed the 78,000 Czech and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
There is also an exhibition showing pictures drawn by the children of the ghetto in Terezin. In the day, Terezin was used as a propaganda mill for the Nazis. They arranged pictures of Jews doing sports, looking happy, and living comfortably, so that Jews and the rest of the world wouldn't suspect the dark truth of what was really happening. There was some resistance to this though, as one art teacher there, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, decided to tell his students to paint the truth. Dicker-Brandeis and most of his students would later die in Auschwitz.
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The synagogue was built during the golden age of the ghetto in the 16th century. It's called "Maisel", because it was the private synagogue of the mayor, Mordecai Maisel, who had ordered its construction (the same guy who had overseen the building of the Town Hall). The synagogue that's standing now isn't the original one though, as it has burned down several times in its history.
the Maisel Synagogue
The synagogue houses an exhibition about Jews in Bohemia, with computer screens that show maps of different Jewish settlements and famous Jews from the area.
U starého hřbitova 3a
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The largest synagogue in Josefov, the Klausen was built on the remains of an earlier synagogue complex that was destroyed in a fire in 1689. It's right next to the cemetery and offers a score of beautiful architectural motifs, especially Jewish Baroque. The complex that was there before had been built by Mordecai Maisel and included several synagogues and a Talmudic school (they were called the Klausen, hence the German plural).
Klausen Synagogue down the Jewish Souvenir Street
It now contains an exhibition on Jewish Customs and Traditions, teaching about the Tanakh and the Talmud, along with an unfurled Torah scroll and different ornaments used during Jewish services.
The Old Jewish Cemetery
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The Old Jewish Cemetery, a quiet and peaceful place tucked away in the otherwise chaotic and crowded Prague, is one of the oldest Jewish burial grounds in the world and regularly makes the top ten best cemeteries lists on National Geographic and Buzzfeed (what a list). It dates from the 1500s–which is considering the history of the Jewish people in general, not really that old. The area isn't that big, and considering that during the height of the ghetto there were over 18,000 people living in the neighborhood, means that bodies had to be buried on top of each other, some graves going more than 10 bodies deep. There are 12,000 tombstones crammed into the location, and them running out of space there was partly what led the Jewish community to team up with their Christian neighbors in the Old Town and New Town to buy up land over in Vinohrady and carve out space for another graveyard (part of which was later destroyed by the Communists and used for Žižkov Tower).
the crowded and beautiful Jewish cemetary
At the entrance of the cemetery (which is on the far end from the Klausen Synagogue, from the 17. listopadu side), there's the old burial preparation building, which is now a Holocaust memorial.
I've only visited the cemetery so far (though I plan on visiting the other synagogues before leaving Prague) and I must say, though it is a unique and peaceful place, the sanctity of it is somewhat ruined by the combination of the steep price and the clear and un-obscure feeling that you're on a tourist track. There's even a definite path made of stone to guide the tourists through.
On a weird note, one of the neighboring buildings seems to have decided to make a long, Christian stained glass exhibition above the cemetery, as a final sticking it to the Jews from the Christian community.
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There's one more synagogue of note in the city center, though it's not remotely near Josefov. This stunning, Moorish Revival temple is situated on a quiet, out of the way street in New Town right between Henry's Tower and the train station. It's a weird mix of Moorish architecture with art nouveau color and glamour, making for a truly unique structure that jumps out at you in an otherwise gray part of town. It's so Moorish, in fact, when I first saw it I thought it was a mosque. But then upon noting the other details, the Hebrew writing and the Magen David on the window, I realized it was actually a synagogue.
It was originally called the Jubilee Synagogue and was built in 1906 in honor of the 25th anniversary (or silver jubilee) of the rule of Emperor Franz Joseph I (who had made a lot of reforms vastly improving the lives of Jews).
Since Franz Joseph got his butt handed to him on a silver platter in World War I, and the Czech lands gained their independence in the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic, they renamed the synagogue. It was no longer associated with that loser Austrian, but now with the capital of the Jewish homeland.
Many Jews would too soon learn to miss that old man.
This is all taken from my latest book, Facetious Guide to Prague. Read it and learn more about the Jewish history of Prague, along with everyone else's. Check it out here on Amazon.