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Five Synagogues in Prague (and One Cemetery)

Five synagogues in Prague and a cemetery are what remains of Prague’s once-thriving Jewish neighborhood. Under the umbrella of the Prague Jewish Museum, they are open to the public, each serving a different function. Tourists can buy a ticket to all or part of a route through all the Prague synagogues.

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The Maisel Synagogue

Originally built in 1592, rebuilt in 1689 after a fire, and renovated in 1893-1905, the Maisel Synagogue is devoted to Jewish history in Bohemia and Moravia up to the 1780s. This is the most “museum-like” synagogue of Prague, in that it displays historical objects but also allows visitors to explore documents through touchscreens.

The Spanish Synagogue

The Spanish synagogue is by far the most ornate of the Prague synagogues, and it’s also the newest. Built in 1868, the interior is done in a “Moorish” style.

The interior of the Spanish synagogue, one of the Prague synagogues, is very ornate with geometric patterns covering everything. Straight ahead is the torah arc, under an ornate arched structure. Above the structure is a round window with star-shaped leaded glass. The whole wall is framed in an arch as well. Along both sides of the picture the balconies of the "women's gallery" are visible, worked with intricate patterns of Stars of David.
interior of the Spanish Synagogue

Display cases around the ground floor and upstairs in what was once the women’s section tell the story of the Jews in Moravia and Bohemia from the 1780s on. It is a history of increasing civil rights and increasing assimilation, and of prominent members of the community like Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka. The story ends with the Terezin ghetto, the Holocaust, and, briefly, Jewish history since 1945. Upstairs is an exhibit of silver from synagogues in Prague and the rest of Bohemia and Moravia.

Note: The Spanish Synagogue is, unfortunately, closed until the end of 2020. Do check out the exterior; it’s beautiful too!

In a small square, with apartment buildings surrounding it, next to a tree, the statue depicts a man, his feet submerged in water? mud?, carrying a smaller man on his shoulders. The man sitting on his shoulders looks like a normal man, in a jacket, wearing a hat. But the man doing the carrying has no head. Instead, the collar of his jacket gapes and no chest or head are visible: just a hole.
A statue dedicated to Kafka stands outside the Spanish Synagogue.

Also explained here is the history of the Prague Jewish Museum itself. Many of the objects in the museum’s collection came from synagogues that the government tore down at the turn of the 20th century. Urban renewal and improvement of sewage and other services meant destroying the dilapidated Jewish ghetto in Prague.

The museum closed down when the Nazis took over. Starting in 1941, as whole Jewish communities outside Prague were being deported to concentration camps, Jewish leaders asked permission to start up the museum again with items from all over Bohemia and Moravia. The Nazis agreed. Most of the museum’s staff were eventually deported too in 1944.

I was astonished and saddened to read that Jewish leaders in Prague cooperated with the Nazi rulers, who clearly had a very different intention: presumably they meant it to become a museum about an exterminated people. Yet this collaboration between Prague’s Jews and the Nazis was what allowed all of these objects, as well as these five synagogues, to be preserved.

The Pinkas Synagogue

The Pinkas synagogue, dating from 1535, was made into a Holocaust memorial in the 1950s. The Soviet invasion in 1968 closed it down, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, and after a renovation, it was reopened in 1995.

I found this to be a very moving memorial. Not much is left of the original synagogue besides the building itself, the bima (the raised section in the middle where the torah was read), and the torah ark.

Looking down from the "women's gallery" the bima is in the center of the photo and a number of people are around it. The walls from this position look blank white.
The interior of the Pinkas synagogue, with the bima in the center. It’s hard to see, but the grey parts of the walls are the lists of names. Each line of text is about 2 centimeters high and the names between the columns extend well above people’s heads.

Instead, the walls are covered with names: almost 80,000 names of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews who died in the Holocaust. So many names, covering all of the walls. It gave me an overwhelming understanding of the sheer number who were killed. And if 80,000 is this many, how can you ever understand 6 million?

The photo is a close-up of a small portion of a wall. Each family name is painted in red, while all the people with that name follow, with only the first letter in red and the rest in black. So, for example, it reads "*HEIN EGON 29.I1915-19.X1944*"
Part of a very long list of Hellers on the wall of the Pinkas synagogue. Were we related? I don’t know.

Upstairs, I couldn’t help but cry. There, in cases, hung dozens of pictures drawn by children at Terezin ghetto, where most of the Jews from this area were imprisoned before deportation. The community tried to maintain a sense of normalcy at Terezin, for the childrens’ sake, including makeshift schools. These drawings and paintings show everyday, ordinary scenes from the children’s lives or their imaginations.

The very sketchy drawing is done with pencil in two colors: red and black. In it, peole are climbing up ladders to holes in the walls, presumably bunks. They are handing things up or down the ladders to each other.
This drawing, by Hana Kalichova (1931-1944), depicts cleaning in the girls’ dormitory at Terezin.

Almost all of these young artists died in Auschwitz.

The Old Jewish Cemetery

Next to the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. The people buried here are not victims of the Holocaust, who have no graves. This cemetery is far older, used by the Jewish community from 1439 to 1787. Because the city would not allow the Jews to expand the cemetery, they had to improvise.

To deal with their cemetery’s overcrowding, the Jews of Prague simply buried their dead on top of earlier graves. They would remove the gravestones, add a layer of dirt, and place both the old and the new stone on top. This continued for centuries. For this reason, the graveyard is higher than the surrounding streets, and the 12,000 gravestones crowd and lean against each other. Visitors can walk a path through the cemetery, reading the stones (mostly in Hebrew). Many have decorative details; others, just words.

This photo shows just how close together the gravestones are: some lean against others. All are grey or brownish and a few have a bit of moss growing on them. One large one leans at a steep slant against another. Some carving is visible in Hebrew (I think).
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

The Ceremonial Hall

This neo-Romanesque building (1906) was home to the Prague Jewish community’s burial society. Their meeting room was upstairs, while downstairs was where the traditional washing of the dead took place. Paintings from the 1700s show the steps of the ritual.

The Ceremonial Hall is right next to the Old Jewish Cemetery and on the Jewish Museum's route of the synagogues in Prague. It has three main stories and an additional small cupola in one corner. The building is made of stone bricks. The windows are small and arched. The entrance is arched as well, and is on the far left of the building.
The Ceremonial Hall is right next to the Old Jewish Cemetery and on the Jewish Museum’s route of the synagogues in Prague.

If the rituals around the Jewish tradition of preparing and washing their dead interest you, you can learn about them in detail in the Ceremonial Hall. It was certainly more than I wanted to know!

If you’re interested in post-war Prague, read my article about 3 places to visit to learn about Communist Prague.

The Klausen Synagogue

This synagogue was one of the most important and largest of the Prague synagogues. Today, as part of the Prague Jewish Museum, it houses an exhibit on Jewish traditions. I just skimmed the displays, since most of the objects were familiar to me, but it would be useful for anyone who doesn’t know the basics of Jewish rituals and beliefs.

The interior of the Klausen Synagogue, one of the Synagogues in Prague, seen from upstairs in the "women's gallery." A high, baroque structure frames what would have been the torah ark in the opposite wall. On either side of it is a large, arched window, letting in a lot of light. Below, on the ground floor, various display cases line the walls and down the middle. People are standing and looking at them here and there.
The interior of the Klausen Synagogue

As I was wandering through this synagogue, a man nearby, clearly an Orthodox Jew, judging from his clothing, began to sing. It was Hebrew so I don’t know if it was a standard prayer, or a song of mourning, or what. He sang softly, to himself, and I think he wasn’t aware that anyone was listening. I found the sad notes of the song charming, and wonderfully appropriate to the bittersweet feeling of this museum.

The Old-New Synagogue

The only active synagogue remaining in what used to be the Jewish ghetto, the Old-New Synagogue is also the oldest, dating from the 13th century. It was always the most important, even after the addition of other synagogues in Prague.

One of the synagogues in Prague, the Old-New synagogue is plastered in an off-white color. The roof has a high peak and there are only a few arched windows.
The Old-New Synagogue

Looking like it would have  in the Middle Ages, with a bima in the center, this building has the most atmosphere of all of the synagogues. Perhaps this has to do with the medieval architecture: vaulted stone ceilings and gothic arches. Or perhaps it’s the fact that it’s still in active use. The male congregants, traditionally, sat or stood along the walls. The female members were in an adjacent room, listening through an opening in the wall.

A square wooden structure (the bima) with tall fencework around it in the center of the room. Seats with desks along the side. The ceiling isn't visible in the picture, but it's clear that it's quite high. A bit of the gothic vaulting is visible on the far wall. A chandelier hangs at the far side of the room, and smaller hanging lights surround the bima in the center.
Inside the Old-New Synagogue

The Jerusalem Synagogue, a.k.a. the Jubilee Synagogue

If you’re counting, you’ll see that while I said five synagogues, this the sixth that I’m listing. The Jerusalem Synagogue is not part of the Jewish Museum collection. It was built in 1905-6 in the Moorish style, like the Spanish Synagogue, and has been in continous use, except for the war period, when it was used to store stolen Jewish property.

I haven’t been inside because when I visited it in February 2020, it was closed for renovation, but I’ve heard it is as beautiful inside as outside. Like the Old-New Synagogue, this one is in active use. It’s away from the others, on the other side of the old city.

The Jerusalem Synagogue: you can see that much of the building was shrouded when I visited, but it’s still a striking design.

Visiting the synagogues of Prague

A clever solution to the question of how to present a Jewish museum, the decision to use the five remaining synagogues in the old Jewish quarter to house the collection was brilliant. Each building is, in effect, a different wing of the museum. Except for the Old-New Synagogue, they’re not active synagogues anymore, and it would be a shame to convert them to some unrelated use.

I would certainly recommend visiting the synagogues in Prague, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. If you don’t have time for them all, see the Old-New Synagogue because it’s so old and atmospheric. See the Spanish Synagogue because it’s beautiful. If you don’t know much about Judaism, go to the Klausen Synagogue. And in any case stroll around the cemetery, just because it’s so unusual. If you can, at least walk by the outside of the Jerusalem Synagogue as well.

Visiting the Jewish Museum in Prague

Tickets: You can buy tickets at the Information and Reservation Centre (Maiselova 38/15), the Spanish Synagogue (Vězeňská 1), the Klausen Synagogue (U Starého hřbitova 3a) or the Pinkas Synagogue (Široká 3).

The price to see all five locations (except for the Spanish Synagogue, which is closed for renovation until the end of 2020) is CZK500 (about €20 or $22), less if you choose not to see them all.

  • If you want a bit more information about what you see as you explore the synagogues, take this guided tour, which includes skip-the-line tickets.
  • Get your Guide offers a whole list of tours of the Jewish Quarter, some of which include admission and some of which don’t.
  • If you want to visit Terezin concentration camp as well, this tour will take you there from Prague and includes transportation, admission and a tour guide.

Hours: The Jewish Museum in Prague is open daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays: November-March 9:00-16:30; April-October 9:00-18:00.

The Old-New Synagogue is open daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays: November-March 9:00-17:00; April-October 9:00-18:00. On Fridays it closes an hour before Sabbath.

The Jerusalem Synagogue: Jeruzalémská 1310/7. Hours: Sunday-Thursday 10:00-17:00 and Friday 10:00 until two hours before sunset. Admission: CZK80.


Have you visited Prague and seen the Prague synagogues? What did you think?

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Text: Rachel's Ruminations
Five Synagogues in Prague (and one cemetery)
Image: the interior of the Spanish synagogue

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