The history of the Jews in the Czech Republic is marked by periods of extreme anti-Semitism with brief and intermittent periods of toleration. Though at one time the Jewish community in the combined areas of modern Slovakia and the Czech Republic was among the largest and most vibrant in the world, today its population numbers only approximately 3,900 people and it stands as but a remnant of what it once was.
- Early History
- Habsberg Rule
- Czechoslovakian Independence
- The Holocaust & Communist Rule
- Slow Rebirth of Czech Jewish Community
Jews first arrived in the current Czech Republic (originally the regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) in the year 995, when they were granted permission to reside there after aiding the Byzantine Empire in its fight against the local Bulgarian pagans in what is now Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary.
Though initially fairly well accepted in the region, the Crusades carried with them a stream of anti-Semitic incidents, which included murder and forced baptism. During the Crusades, Jews were barred from owning land and practicing most professions (excluding usury).
By the mid-thirteenth century conditions slowly began to improve for the Jews in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia as the Crusades came to a close and the Catholic Church seized control. Yet, the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed a resurgence of fierce anti-Semitism which included a massive pogrom in 1389, the spread of the blood libel and the subsequent burning of Jews at the stake, and the complete expulsion of the Jewish population in 1541 when the Habsburg dynasty came to power under Austrian Archduke Ferdinand.
The Jews of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia were eventually allowed to return to their homes following the expulsion, but even though Habsburg rule was among the most liberal in all of Europe, a law was enacted in 1551 requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing to separate them from the majority, Christian population. Jews were also required to live within the confines of a ghetto. Habsburg rule liberalized somewhat during the reigns of King Rudolf II (1576-1611) and King Mathias (1611-1619). Jews were allowed to live outside the ghetto walls, no longer required to wear distinctive clothing, permitted to travel freely and engage in trade, and granted additional civil rights.
Under this “Golden Age” of Habsburg rule, Jews were permitted to own land and rose to power and prominence as traders, doctors, farmers, and bankers. Many Jews fleeing persecution in neighboring countries also migrated to the large cities in the region during this time. Yet, despite the growth of the Bohemian, Moravian, and Silesian Jewish (urban) communities during this period, the historic old Jewish ghetto of Prague was burnt to the ground in 1689, forcing the Jews to rebuild all they had accomplished. This was not the first or the last time that the Jewish ghetto in Prague was burned down. It would also be set ablaze several times in the succeeding centuries.
This age of opportunity and acceptance also witnessed the leadership of the famed and learned Rabbi Judah Low, also referred to as “Rav Yehuda ben Betzalel Levai, or more commonly the “Maharal”, who lived from 1525 until 1609. Such was his prominence that he was asked to speak about Jewish mysticism (kabala) before King Rudolf II who was fascinated by tales of the occult. Though many stories are told of the Maharal’s wisdom, the most famous and widespread is that of the Golem.
The story goes that before the Habsburg dynasty controlled the land, Prague was plagued by vicious anti-Semitism and frequent pogroms. In response to the growing oppression and increased rioting, the Maharal is said to have used an ancient kabalistic spell to create a clay automaton (Golem) to protect the local Jewish community. The story of the Golem has since spread worldwide and has been adapted into many modern books and movies (most notably Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”).
While Jewish life flourished under the rule of Rudolf II and Mathias, successive Habsburg rulers were not as kind. As the counterreformation made its way through Europe, anti-Semitism became increasingly vicious and widespread in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, leading to an increase in pogroms and the return of the Jews to their original status as “outsiders.” In 1726 a ceiling was placed on the Jewish population and a decree unveiled allowing only one son per Jewish family to marry. When Maria Theresa became queen in 1745 she immediately expelled the Jews of Prague. Though three years later Theresa did allow the Jews to return to Prague, they were required to pay exorbitant taxes approximately ten times the normal amount.
When Maria Theresa died in 1780, her son Josef II, who was already ruling as king of the Holy Roman Empire, succeeded her as ruler of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. Jewish life under Josef II once again prospered, and Jews were welcomed into mainstream society, leading to increased assimilation and Germanization.
By 1890 94,599 Jews lived in Bohemia and 45,324 lived in Moravia, yet, as competing German and Czech nationalisms began to come into contact with one another in the Jews were used as scapegoats by both German and Czech nationalists. This led to a wave of pogroms in 1897 and the Hilsner Affair of 1899.
The Hilsner Affair started when a Bohemian Jew named Leopold Hilsner was falsely accused of murdering a young girl as part of a religious ritual. The trial played on classic anti-Semitic tales, such as the age-old blood libel, and was carried on for months in the mainstream press. Though Hilsner was convicted and sentenced to death, he was later proven innocent and pardoned by King Karl I of Austria. Yet, despite proof of innocence, the Hilsner Affair once again led to an increase of anti-Semitism and persecution.
Following the fall of the Austria-Hungarian Empire during WWI, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia declared their independence in 1918 and united to become Czechoslovakia. The Jews played a key role in the Czechoslovakian economy at the time and pioneered the textile, food, and paper industries. They took advantage of the new surge of nationalism by forming the Jewish National Council to reorganize and unite the Jewish community and act as a representative body to the Czechoslovakian government. The council immediately called for: Jewish loyalty to the state, the right to identify themselves as Jewish, full civic and legal rights, and full control over local Jewish affairs and school curriculum.
During the early period of the independent Czechoslovakian state, the social status of the Jews once again rose and Zionism became widespread amongst the Jewish intelligentsia. At the same time, the Jewish community expanded and built many new schools and synagogues. The Holocaust brought an end to the early twentieth century’s flourishing growth of the Czechoslovakian Jewish community.
The Holocaust & Communist Rule
When Hitler came to power in 1933 many Jews from the neighboring countries of Austria, Hungary, and Germany fled to Czechoslovakia for safety where 356,830 Jews (3.59% of the total population) already lived. Soon afterwards, Hitler invaded the Sudetenland in 1938 and gained control over all of Czechoslovakia. Twenty thousand Jews were immediately rounded up and sent to their deaths. While some were able to escape, by the end of the war over 77,000 Czechoslovakian Jews, 85% of the pre-war Jewish community, were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. During the war Jews made up 50% of Czech forces abroad and maintained good relations with the Czechoslovakian government in exile who were sympathetic to the Zionist cause.
After the Holocaust, Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet control and many Jews flocked to Israel. Though Czechoslovakia soon placed a ban on Jewish emigration to Israel, it supplied Israel with large amounts of weapons during the 1948 War of Independence and was one of the first countries to recognize Israel in the United Nations.
In the years that followed, relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel grew cold and diplomatic relations were finally severed completely following the 1967 Six Day War. Meanwhile, the Jewish community of Czechoslovakia, consisting of less than 20,000 people, were forced to hide their Jewish affiliation like those in most other Soviet controlled countries. Increasingly cold relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel coupled with Judaism being outlawed, struck a deep blow to the Jewish community of Czechoslovakia.
Slow Rebirth of the Jewish Community
Following the end of the Cold War in 1993, Czechoslovakia split into the two independent states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. During the immediate post-Cold War period, the Czech Republic reopened diplomatic ties with Israel and Czech President Vaclav Havel became the first leader from a previously Soviet controlled Eastern European country to travel to Israel.
Cultural and religious changes were also enacted immediately following the Cold War. In 1990, Czechoslovakia hosted the main meeting of the International Council for Interreligious Consultations that officially declared anti-Semitism a sin. The Czech government also returned many properties owned by Jews before 1938, including the Old Jewish Museum, which holds many priceless works of Judaica. While Jews were beginning to reclaim their collective rights in the Czech Republic, the split between Slovakia and the Czech Republic caused a slight resurgence of nationalism and anti-Semitism.
By the end of the Cold War there remained only one rabbi in the Czech Republic. As many people began to find out for the first time that they were in fact Jewish, the Jewish community slowly began to grow once again. In the 20 years since the Cold War ended, several new synagogues, Jewish schools, and elderly houses have been established. Though the number of Orthodox Jews in the Czech Republic is in steep decline, two new reform synagogues, Beit Simcha and Beit Pracha, have been established. While the quality of Jewish life in the Czech Republic is slowly improving, the number of Jews is quickly diminishing as a result of a low birth rate, high emigration rate, and constant assimilation.
By the turn of the millennium their already existed a large age gap between the young and elderly Jewish populations, leaving the Jewish community of Prague and all the Czech Republic in need of redefinition. In 2006, there were 6,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic but by 2012 the Jewish population had dwindled to only 3,900 people.
Sources: Frank, Ben. A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe. Pelican Publishing Company. Canada, 2001.
Beker, Avi. Jewish Communities of the World. Lerner Publications Company.Minnesota, 1998.
Jacques and Jacqueline Levy-Willard Foundation, The Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe. Seuil Chronicles. France, 2002.
Parik, Arno. Jewish Prague. The Jewish Museum in Prague. Czech Republic, 2002.