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Jews in the Bohemian Lands, 19th-20th Centuries

The exhibition is on the ground floor and in the upper-floor gallery of the Spanish Synagogue.

From the Reforms of Joseph II to the Granting of Equality to Jews in 1867

Jewish life in the Bohemian lands underwent major changes from the end of the 18th century and during the 19th century. These changes were set in motion by the reforms of Joseph II (1780–1790). Over time, several discriminatory regulations were abolished and the conditions of life eased, in particular with regard to education, business, and family life. One of the centres of Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) was established in Prague, promoting the spread of secular education via the new German-Jewish schools. Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Science of Judaism) laid the foundations for the modern study of Jewish culture and history. The first Society for Regulated Worship in accordance with the Viennese rite was founded in Prague’s Old Shul (Old Synagogue) in 1835. The composer of the Czech national anthem, František Škroup, served as choirmaster here between 1835 and 1845.

The main discriminatory measures against Jews were abolished after the revolution of 1848–49. Equal civil rights for Jews were guaranteed by the constitution of 1867, which gradually enabled them to participate fully in the life of a modernizing society. The new cultural identity of the Jews in Prague was reflected in the construction of a new temple – the Spanish Synagogue – in 1868. In the exhibition, the development of Jewish emancipation is illustrated by unique period documents and prints, as well as selected examples of synagogue textiles and silver cult objects. The display cases are enlivened by portraits of prominent figures and examples of their works, drawing attention to traditional Jewish learning, enlightenment, education and science.

From Emancipation to Integration – Searching for Identity

For a considerable portion of the Jewish population, the culmination of the emancipation process meant an attachment to German liberalism, enabling them to integrate linguistically and culturally into society. A little later, the 1870s saw the intensification of a movement that sought to connect and cooperate with members of the Czech nation and to promote Czech linguistic and cultural assimilation. Under the influence of nationalistic sentiment, the 1890s saw increasing manifestations of political antisemitism, as well as the spread of a number of blood libel rumours (the Hilsner Affair). This wave of antisemitism at the end of the 19th century put in doubt the possibility of settling the Jewish question by means of German or Czech assimilation. Not wishing to join the efforts to achieve German or Czech assimilation, Jews of the younger generation sought to renew their own religious and cultural traditions. They endeavoured to affirm their identity by strengthening the self-confidence of the Jewish nation and by developing the social, cultural, and sports activities of Zionist associations and organizations. The Zionist movement focused on promoting Jewish culture and ethnic rights, and on gradually supporting efforts to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The First Czechoslovak Republic, which was in existence from 1918 until 1938, brought prosperity and new opportunities for the Jewish community. Jewish nationhood was acknowledged and Jews played an important role in the country’s economic and political life. The display cases on the ground floor of the Spanish Synagogue draw attention to the contributions made by Jews to the economy and culture of the new state. The Jewish involvement in the development of industry is represented by a number of prominent, and still thriving, enterprises, which were founded by Jewish entrepreneurs. The exhibition also features prominent Jewish figures who were active in cultural life – German- and Czech-language writers and poets, as well as visual artists and scientists. Info boxes on the three rear benches in the ground-floor space contain profiles of hundreds of other figures who were active in German- and Czech-language literature, theatre, film, traditional and modern music, visual arts, and architecture.

The Holocaust of Bohemian and Moravian Jews (1939–1945)

Among the significant merits of the new exhibition, in comparison to the previous one, is the considerable expansion of the space and content of the section on the Holocaust of Czech Jews (from the Munich Agreement in September 1938 until the end of the war in May 1945). This topic is focused on in the entire upper-floor gallery of the Spanish Synagogue. Twelve all-glass display cases and ten audiovisual screens mounted on the wooden benches provide information about the full story of the persecutions, escapes, confiscations, and deportations to concentration and extermination camps. A separate display case focuses on culture in the Terezín ghetto, where a number of prominent musicians, artists, and writers were active. Of exceptional value are the children’s drawings that were made in drawing classes under the supervision of the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944). In total, 35 transports were sent to ghettos, concentration camps and extermination centres in the “East”; from the end of October 1942, most went directly to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. The Nazi genocide claimed the lives of more than 78,000 Jews from the Czech lands and led to the demise of most of the local Jewish communities.    

Archival documents and photographs from the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague document the persecution of the Jews in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the mass deportations, and life in the Terezín ghetto. Touch screens mounted on benches in the upper-floor gallery provide additional information on the contents of each display case. They contain a database of personal stories, photographs, unique documents, and personal testimony from Holocaust survivors. For example, visitors can follow the fate of the Kohn-Trattner and Sud families from before, during and after the war almost through to the present. Jews were actively involved in the anti-Nazi resistance at home and abroad from as early as the summer of 1939. They formed an important component of the domestic resistance in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, in various illegal organizations, and in all of the national resistance groups. In addition, they became an integral part of the Czechoslovak Foreign Army and other allied troops. They fought on all fronts of the Second World War and made a significant contribution to the restoration of Czechoslovakia.

The Fate of Jews in the Czech Lands after 1945 and under the Communist Regime

A major new aspect of the exhibition is its closing section, which is located in the upper-floor winter prayer room. The focus of this section is on the post-war history of Jews in Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1989 and the following years. Supplementing information via the use of large-scale projections of rare period footage and info boxes, this section draws attention to some previously little-known aspects of post-war Jewish life in Czechoslovakia – for example, the renewal of religious services in the Old-New and Spanish synagogues, and efforts to reconstruct Jewish life after the Holocaust catastrophe with the support of foreign organizations (in particular, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also known as the Joint). The latter notably assisted in the organization of the Bricha Movement, which helped refugees from Poland and other war-torn Eastern European countries escape via Czechoslovakia to Western Europe and Israel or overseas.

Hopes for a new beginning were soon dashed by the antisemitic Communist regime, which before long began persecuting Jews and organizing show trials of alleged foreign agents and Zionists. Such individuals were arrested, fired from their jobs, and persecuted by the police. Life for the local Jewish communities, which were subject to strict supervision by the state police and the Communist authorities, was no less difficult. Apart from a brief easing of conditions under the regime in the late 1960s, this situation lasted until the collapse of Communism in late 1989. Moreover, Jewish monuments, synagogues and cemeteries were often deliberately destroyed throughout the Communist period.

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