Skip to main content

Europe in the World: Perspectives on Communities: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Community in Prague

A 2013 student scholarship competition and exhibit in Olin Library, sponsored by the Library with a grant from the Cornell Institute for European Studies

The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Community of Prague, by Amy Frieder (U, ILR): scholar's statement

  The Jews of Prague experienced many trials and tribulations, from their rise during the Prague Renaissance, when the Jews there thrived and almost doubled in number, to their fall during the Holocaust, during which two-thirds of the Jewish population of Prague perished and half of those remaining emigrated to the new state of Israel after the war.

This digital art piece features Hebrew letters inscribed on a tombstone from the Old Jewish Cemetery in the background, the top of the old Jewish Town Hall in Prague’s Jewish quarter in the middle ground, and yellow Star of David badges that Jews were required to wear during World War II in the foreground.

The Jewish Town Hall was consecrated in the early 18th century during the Jewish emancipation; the Jews were given civil equality during this time. The Jews accounted for about 25% of Prague’s population, and more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. The Jewish Town Hall was the center for Jewish life and is a symbol of the positive place that Prague was known as in the world of the Jews at the time.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe, was used from 1439 until 1787. The cemetery was located on such a small plot of land that around 14 tombs had to be stacked one on top of the other in order to fit all of the deceased. Famous rabbis including Rabbi Loew (known as the Maharal) and Rabbi Avigdor Kara were buried there, and because of that, Hitler ordered that this cemetery be saved - rather than destroyed like most other Jewish cemeteries were - in order to preserve it as part of a museum.

The yellow Star of David badges were required to be sewed onto Jews’ clothing during the Nazi regime in order for the Jews to be easily identified. The yellow badges in this piece are on display at the Terezin concentration camp, where many Czech Jews either perished or were held until being sent to Treblinka or Auschwitz. Starvation, disease, and malnutrition ran rampant there, and only 132 children were known to have survived. Thus, these badges represent the fall of the Jewish community in Prague, and the stars on the outer edge which are orange and reddish in color are a symbol of the fire that was used to cremate the Jews’ bodies.

Today, the Federation of Jewish Communities reports that only about 3,000 Jews remain in the Czech Republic. Prague’s rich past as a center for Jewish life provides many historical sites that Jews from all over the world visit, but also a rich future as a vibrant Jewish community is still possible, as Czech Jewish organizations have grown since the end of the communist era.

Web Accessibility Assistance