Jews have been settling down on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia most probably since this region in the heart of Europe has seen the marches of Roman legions which were accompanied by Jewish merchants, securing their supplies. However, the first written evidence documenting Jewish presence dates back to the 10th Century CE.
Significant is the first ever report about Prague as a Slavic site, a stone-built city, which comes from a travel diary by Ibrahim ibn Jacob, a Jewish merchant and envoy of the caliph of Cordoba from 965 CE.
The famous Old-New Synagogue of Prague was built in Gothic architectural style around 1270 and today is the oldest functioning synagogue of Europe. Important was the school of Rabbi Jehuda Löw ben Bezalel, the famous “Maharal mi Prag”, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, appearing in many legends including the one of the Golem. He is buried in the famous Prague Old Jewish Cemetery, together with other personalities of their time, as the astronomer David Gans, on whose tombstone the star of David is said to appear for the first time in history, or Mordechai Maisel, the treasurer of Emperor Rudolph II, etc.
Prague was also famous for its medieval Jewish publishing house founded by the Gersonides family. Other Bohemian and Moravian towns were also significant (Kolin, Mikulov-Nikolsburg, Boskovice etc.) where many important rabbis and scholars resided.
In medieval times the Jews lived under the protection of Czech kings who often used them as a good source of income. This relatively peaceful coexistence came to an end – as anywhere in Europe – by the crusades. The worst pogrom in Prague took place in 1389 (the elegy by Avigdor Kara describing it is read in the Old-New Synagogue every Yom Kippur until today). In years that followed Jews had witnessed good times, e.g. the “Golden Age” during the reign of Rudolph II, and bad times when they had to face several expulsions, like the one in 1745 – 1748 ordered by Empress Maria-Theresia.
The reforms by Emperor Joseph II meant, however, for the community a beginning of freedom which was fully granted in 1848 by the new constitution. After becoming equal citizens the Jews were able to integrate into all spheres of public life and played a significant role in the commercial, cultural and scientific life of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here are the roots of famous Czech Jews such as Franz Kafka and the Prague Circle, a group of Prague Jewish German-writing authors, Sigmund Freud, born in a small Moravian town called Pribor, or Gustav Mahler who lived his childhood at the town of Jihlava. Albert Einstein spent his most productive years in Prague, teaching at the University.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who became the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918 distinguished himself in early times of his professional career as philosophy professor during the so-called Hilsner trial (a blood-liable trial which arose sentiments similar to Dreyfuss affair) for his condemnation of antisemitism. Later he was also the first ever state president who visited Mandatory Palestine.
During the existence of the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) Jews enjoyed unprecedented freedom, equality and safety. Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population numbered to 350.000 by 1930 of which 120.000 resided in Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic), 120.000 in Slovakia and the rest in sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, a region annexed in 1945 to the Soviet Union, in today’s Ukraine. After 1933, the Jewish population rose even to more than 400.000 due to the influx of German Jews who escaped after Hitler took power and viewed rightfully Czechoslovakia as the only island of freedom and democracy in at-that-time Europe.
The Shoah was an absolute disaster for Czech Jewry. It started here as first in Europe by expelling the Jewish population from the so-called Sudeten-German regions after Munich Appeasement in 1938, and it ended as last by disclosing the Terezín concentration camp only in fall 1945 after the typhoid epidemic. Only about 30.000 Jews remained to recreate Jewish life in Bohemia and Moravia by 1945-1946. Within only a short period of time they had to face another challenge when Communists took power in February 1948. Those who stayed in the country (immigration to Israel was possible only for some time) went through anti-Semitic period marked by the so-called Slansky trial in early fifties, they enjoyed some freedom in late sixties, ended by the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968 after the collapse of Prague Spring (again many Jews left the country), to be completely downed by the Communist “normalisation”.
It was the Velvet revolution in November 1989 which brought back freedom to Czech society and its Jewish Community. In one of his first speeches as President – on New Year 1990 – Václav Havel addressed several issues which were of utmost concern to the Czech Jewish community – reestablishing diplomatic relations with Israel (broken in 1967 after the Six-Days-War) and restitution of property confiscated by the Communists, including the Jewish one. President Havel became one of the most active advocates of this process, though not always his moral appeal was heard. Jewish topics were brought to public and gained an enormous sympathy and support from the wide circles of Czech population. The image of Jews as victims of the Holocaust which for twenty years could not have been mentioned, as well as their commitment in the fight against Communism, played a substantial role.
Apart from Prague, in which the great majority of Jews has always been living, there are nine other Jewish Communities in the territory of the Czech Republic today, notably in Brno, Decin, Karlovy Vary, Liberec, Ostrava, Olomouc, Plzen, Teplice and Usti nad Labem. Altogether, Czech Jewish communities list approximately 3.000 members of which around half reside in Prague. This number is almost constant for at least two decades from the Velvet Revolution in 1989, though the average age was high at the beginning. It means that the same number of elderly Jews which the communities lost due to natural causes was replaced by newcomers.
Many individual people of various backgrounds living in the Czech society are discovering their Jewish roots and are finding their ways back to Judaism. In recent years, the community has been also bolstered by the presence of foreign Jews from Eastern and Western Europe, Americans or Israelis presently working and living in Prague and some other cities. Some of these names are famous in their German transcription, such as Pilsen or Karlsbad.
The Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, housed in the celebrated 400-year-old Jewish Town Hall, is the leading communal organization. It serves as an umbrella organization to Jewish Communities as well as other Jewish societies, such as B’nai B’rith, Union of Jewish Youth or the Terezin Initiative, a gathering of Czech Shoah survivors. The Federation represents the Czech Jewish community vis-à-vis the Czech political authorities, the President, the Parliament and the Government, as well as in all foreign relations.
At the same time it is the voice of the community, appearing frequently in media, fighting against all acts of antisemitism and intolerance and speaking up for Israel.
The Federation is also a founder of several institutions. The most important one is the famous Jewish Museum in Prague, however a substantial role is played also by the Foundation of Holocaust Victims or the Sefer Publishing House. The Federation initiated e.g. also the foundation of the European Shoah Legacy Institute which is dealing with restitution of Jewish property on a world level.
There are many other active organizations playing an important role in the Czech civic life, such as the Czech-Israeli Chamber of Commerce, promoting economic cooperation between the two countries, or the Franz Kafka Society promoting Jewish culture, or the Society of Christians and Jews, leading a religious dialogue and many more.
Several Universities in the Czech Republic are offering Jewish education, namely the Charles University of Prague or the Palacky University in Olomouc. Besides that there are many other institutions which include Jewish studies into their curricula, some of them offering this to foreign students, such as the New York University in Prague or Western Michigan University Prague Summer Programme .
The Jewish Museum in Prague has founded an unique facility for education offered to wide public, namely The Cultural and Educational Centre. It is offering every-day programs and its spectrum reaches from lectures on religion, personalities or history to discussions and meetings with artists, actors, film-makers etc. After a huge success, the same format was introduced in the second largest town of the Czech Republic and the unofficial capital of Moravia, Brno.
The Prague Jewish Community is the founder of Lauder School. It includes a kindergarten, an elementary school and a high school. It is open to pupils and students of all Jewish backgrounds and/or true interest in education in Jewish tradition. The elementary school was established in 1997, the high school opened in 1999. Another important moment came in 2009 when the high-school changed its educational program to an 8-year format. In the same year its own kindergarten opened, being the second Jewish kindergarten in Prague. The school offers also a program of Jewish education and Hebrew language to public.
An unique place for education is represented by the Terezin Memorial. This state institution, cooperating closely with the Federation of Jewish Communities, offers not only visits to former concentration camp and Nazi prison for Czech political prisoners, but also a variety of programs and seminars for teachers and scholars. It is closely cooperating also with Yad Vashem, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Polish State Museum in Auschwitz etc.
A Jewish journal called Rosh Chodesh, published by the Federation, appears monthly, and there is also a radio program called “Shalom Aleichem.” Besides that most Jewish Communities have their monthly magazines and/or web sites. The Federation has launched also an internet Jewish News and Information Service (Židovský tiskový a informa?ní servis), offering daily breaking news from the country, from Israel and from the diaspora.
Every Jewish Community has its own independent social program, servicing namely the needs of the elderly, many of them Shoah survivors. Besides health-care this type of services provide medication or any type of required assistance. The Hagibor Social Care Facility, one of the major projects of the Prague Jewish Community, was inaugurated in 2008. The main goal of this project is to provide a wide range of social services for elderly. This includes pleasant accommodation, nursing and social care, quality meals, social and therapeutic programs, individual and group activities. Special emphasis is laid on an individualized caring approach to clients and the human dignity of each of Hagibor user is a priority even during unfavorable life situations.
Every Jewish Community in the Czech Republic has regular services, however only Prague offers services every morning and afternoon. Prague synagogues are having at least three types of Shabbat services, during High-holidays and other important Jewish Festivals there are gatherings in at least six synagogues.
The Chief Rabbinate of Prague oversees the religious services in the country. It provides ritual services, as the Prague mikvah, or can organize bar- and bat-mizvahs or weddings. It is issuing a list of kosher products available in Czech stores and is providing ritual supervision in some of Prague kosher restaurants. Besides the Jewish Community facilities, such as the restaurant in the Jewish Town-Hall, at Hagibor or at the school, there are some other restaurants which offer kosher catering, some of them even outside of Prague (e.g. Karlovy Vary).
The Federation pays a substantial interest in maintaining Jewish sites in the country. Together with regional authorities and local Jewish Communities the Federation is gradually trying to restore all important places of Jewish heritage. In 2010 the Federation was granted a sum of cca 10 mil. EUR for a project called Revitalisation of Jewish Monuments. This project will restore ten selected areas of Jewish presence all over the country. These sites offer not only restored synagogues and cemeteries but also unique expositions focusing on various topics from Czech Jewish history and life.
The Jewish quarter of Prague is a treasury of Jewish art and architecture and is one of the most outstanding Jewish sites in Europe. Its synagogues (including the 14th century Altneushul), ancient cemetery, and museum are visited by both Jews and non-Jews alike. The names of almost 80.000 Czech Jews killed in the Shoah were painted on the walls of the sanctuary of the 500-year-old Pinkas synagogue. During Communist rule, his unique memorial was erased, but the names have since been twice restored, at last after 2002 devastating flood which hit Prague. The Prague Cemetery has become even more famous recently thanks to the novel by Umberto Eco which became a best-seller and which bears its name.