Located in the north of the Old Town, the former Jewish Quarter (Josefov) has been a ghetto since the end of the 12th century. It was named after Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790). During the Nazi occupation of 1939-1945, the lively Jewish community was almost destroyed. Only ten percent of the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia survived the Nazis. Today only a very small community of Orthodox Jews remains in this area.
When entering the quarter down Maislova (the street behind St. Nicholas’ Church near the Old Town Square), the first synagogue to be encountered is Maisel Synagogue. Founded by the mayor in 1590, its Neo-Gothic exterior shelters an exhibition of synagogue silver.
At the heart of the ghetto lies the Old Jewish Cemetery. Called the “House of Life” in Hebrew, this unique cemetery was established in the 15th century and remained in use until 1787. It is the oldest Jewish burial ground in Europe and contains almost 20,000 graves in a very small plot of land. To fit all the graves, more earth was brought in and the remains were layered as many as ten times deep.
Bordering the cemetery are two synagogues. The Pinkas Synagogue was established in 1479 and today houses the Memorial of Victims of the Holocaust. The walls are inscribed with the 77,297 names of Jewish citizens from Bohemia and Moravia who died in concentration camps. On the north side of the cemetery is the Klausen Synagogue which dates from 1680 and contains more than 200,000 Hebrew manuscripts and the old prints, many rescued during the Second World War. Next door is the former Ceremonial Hall. Built in 1908, it now houses children’s drawings from the concentration camp in Terezin.
On the other side of Maislova stand three important buildings.
- The Jewish Town Hall – donated to the ghetto by Mayor Maisel in 1586. Originally Renaissance in style, it was given a rococo revamp in 1765 when the clock tower was added. The figures on one clock are in Hebrew and therefore need to be read from right to left. The hands turn backwards.
- The Old New Synagogue (Staronova Synagoga). Dating from around 1270, it is one of the oldest synagogues to survive in Europe. Architecturally the most interesting in the Jewish Quarter, it is still used by today’s Orthodox Jews.
- The High Synagogue was originally part of the Jewish Town Hall and now houses the museum of sacred textiles.
Further north on an embankment of the river Vltava, sits St. Agnes Convent (Klaster sv. Anezky Ceske). Founded in 1233 by King Wenceslas I at the request of his sister Princess Agnes who had just joined the Order of the Poor Clares, it was the first early Gothic building in Prague. Agnes became abbess two years later and the convent was the scene of many important state events. Its construction finished around 1282 when Agnes died. The Clares left the convent in 1782 during the turbulent Hussite period and it remained unused for a long time. The convent’s buildings were eventually taken over by families and artists seeking homes. During the slum clearances in 1893, the “Association for the renewal of St. Agnes Convent” was founded. One of its purposes was to create a social institution, which would continue with the original, charitable activities of Abbess Agnes who had started a hospital. The association began with reconstructing the Church of the Holy Saviour and parts of the other churches. Restoration was finally completed in 1980. Today, the convent holds a permanent exhibition of 19th century Czech painters and sculptors. Its beautiful ambience also serves for temporary exhibitions and concerts. In 1989, four days after Agnes was officially canonised by Pope Jean Paul II, the Velvet Revolution began and the people of Prague gained their freedom.
In the south-western area of the Old Town, away from the heavy traffic, lies Bethlehem Square and the chapel of the same name. Bethlehem Chapel was founded as a church for preaching sermons in Czech, a gathering place, where representatives of the Czech intelligentia – the masters of Charles university, would speak from the pulpit. The building was sponsored by the rich Old Town citizen Krisand protected by the influence of Hanus of Mulheim, a courtier of King Wenceslas IV. These two leading figures signed the foundation charter in 1391. During the construction compromises had to be made because of objections from the Priest of the neighbouring St. Philip and St. Jacob church, who defended his parish’s rights. It could not become a cathedral but merely a chapel. Nevertheless, because of its size it does not look like a chapel.
Very few religious ceremonies were ministered in the chapel. It was reserved especially for preaching sermons in Czech. It could accommodate a congregation of three thousand listeners, and because there was a sermon three times on Sundays and religious feasts, almost all the Czech citizens of Prague gathered in this place, including Queen Sophia. People even stood outside to listen.
The plain interior does not remind us in any way of a Gothic cathedral. It was designed to emphasise the pulpit and not the altar. Here the word of the preacher alone dominated. Adversaries of the reformation movement mockingly called the chapel a barn.
The most popular and most important in the order of Bethlehem preachers, master John Hus, covered the chapel walls with texts. The latin version of Hus’ treaty De sex erroribus (About the six heresies) covered the whole northern and a part of the southern wall. Two other short Czech texts were painted – the Creed “I believe in God…” and the Ten Commandments. Hus’ successor Jakoubek ze Stribra enriched the chapel with two more texts, with which the Holy Communion of both the Body and the Blood of Christ was propagated. The remnants of the texts, which were preserved after the destruction of the chapel, belong to the most important finds during the renewal of the building. Writing on walls in itself was something unusual in that period. On the walls are also an enlarged reproduction of the John codex and the Reichenthal chronicles.
New vaults were built in the chapel in the year 1539. Whether the work was done thoroughly or not, it started to crack and threatened to collapse. This was one of the reasons why its demolition was proposed. There were also commercial and of course religious/political reasons for this. The sanctuary was disposed of in 1786. Part of the walls were used for the construction of sheds and later for a block of flats. It seemed that the fate of this historically important sanctuary was sealed, that Bethlehem Chapel no longer existed. But its myth was not forgotten. In the 19th century, many pilgrimages to Kostnice and Bethlehem Square were organized. Professional examinations proved that the main part of the original walls, the portal, windows and a part of the texts had been preserved. In the 1940s, the decision was taken that it should be renewed according to the original plans.
Directly south of the Old Town Square, you come across the Carolinum, one of the original buildings belonging to Charles University which was established in 1348. A Gothic oriel window from 1370 can be seen in the south wall. Rebuilt in Baroque style in 1718, the Carolinum was torched by the Nazis as they retreated in 1945. Today it is used for graduation ceremonies.
Almost next door is the Tyl Theatre where Mozart conducted the premiere of his opera Don Giovanni on October 29th 1787.
Continue southwards from here and you reach the New Town (Nove Mesto). This is the city’s main commercial and business district, part of which is known as the “Golden Cross” due to its high property prices. Most buildings were constructed in the late nineteenth-century and many have rich decorated Art Nouveau facades. The central point of the New Town is Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square). Once the site of a horse market, today it is more of a wide boulevard than a square. Rising up from the streets of the Old Town towards the National Museum at the southern end, it is about 700 yards long and 60 yards wide. Looking down from the top of the street is the eighty-three year old statue of St Wenceslas (sv Vaclav) with four other patron saints of Bohemia (St. Procopius, St. Adalbert, St. Ludmilla and St. Agnes).
Although not particularly exceptional as a high street with its hotels, cinemas, fast food places and travel offices, it remains the symbol of the city’s resistance. Many Czech historical events are connected with this place: including the declaration of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the “Prague Spring” of 1968, and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when the monument was used as a national political noticeboard. Every visitor to Prague should see the eternal flame memorial to those killed for speaking out for the country’s freedom.