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Bohemia, Czech Republic

BOHEMIA (Cz. Čecny, Česko, Tschechien; Ger. Boehmen; Heb. פעהם, פיהם, כנען, בהם), independent kingdom in Central Europe, until the beginning of the 14th century, affiliated later in the Middle Ages with the Holy Roman Empire. In 1526 it became part of the hereditary *Hapsburg dominions and in 1620 lost its independence completely. From 1918 it was part of modern *Czechoslovakia (in 1939–45 part of the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia), subsequently the Czech Republic.

Early and Medieval Periods

The beginnings of Jewish settlement in Bohemia are much disputed, and evidence has to rely on traditions that Jews had settled there before recorded Bohemian history. Trade contacts between the Roman Empire and southern Bohemia certainly brought Jews to the region, and some could have settled there. Presumably, the Jewish traders mentioned in the Raffelstaetten Tax Ordinance (906) were also active in Bohemia. In the second half of the 10th century Jews engaged in the slave trade in Bohemia are mentioned by *Ibrahim ibn Yakub . The Bohemian dukes of the 11th century probably employed Jewish moneyers. The first Bohemian chronicler, Cosmas of Prague, mentions Jews there in 1090. In 1096 many Jews in Bohemia were massacred by the Crusaders and others were forcibly converted. Those who reverted to Judaism and attempted to leave were robbed on their departure (1098). According to Cosmas Vicedominus *Jacobus Apella , a high court official reverted to Judaism in 1124. Apparently, the communities of *Cheb (Eger) and *Litoměřice (Leitmeritz) were well organized by the end of the 12th century. The places of Jewish settlement and activity in Bohemia are documented from the 13th century onward. The customs dues payable by Jews were regulated in 1222. The plethora of scholars living in Bohemia in this century, including *Isaac b. Jacob ha-Lavan of Prague , *Isaac b. Mordecai (Ribam), Eliezer b. Jacob, *Abraham b. Azriel of Bohemia, and *Isaac b. Moses of Vienna (Or Zaru'a), attests that Jewish culture was already deeply rooted and widespread among the communities there. From here *Pethahiah of Regensburg set out on his travels. The use of Slavic-Bohemian terms in the writings of some of these scholars to explain Hebrew terms indicates the linguistic and cultural ties existing between the Jews and local society. In 1241 the Jewish communities of Bohemia suffered with the rest of

Jewish communities in Bohemia Jewish communities in Bohemia

the population from the devastations of the Tatar invasion. In 1254 *Přemysl Otakar II granted a charter to the Jews based on the charter of the Austrian duke *Frederick II (1244), appending to it the bull issued by Pope *Innocent IV combating the *blood libel . He reconfirmed it in 1268. The wave of new settlers who went to Bohemia after the havoc wreaked by the Tatars included a number of Jews. These settled in the cities mainly as moneylenders, encouraged by the grant of charters and the status conferred on them as *servi camerae regis , according them standing and protection at least not inferior to that in their countries of origin. The Altneu synagogue in *Prague was completed around 1270. At the time of the *Rindfleisch massacres in 1298 King Wenceslaus II extorted large sums from Bohemian Jewry for protection. In 1336 King John of Luxemburg ordered the arrest of all the Jews in Bohemia to extort a ransom. There was a wave of massacres in this period in Čáslavy and *Jindřichův Hradec (Neuhaus) in 1337, and also after a Host desecration libel in Kouřim in 1338. The entire Cheb community was butchered in 1350. The atrocities of the 14th century reached a peak with the massacre of the Jews in Prague in 1389. During this period Charles IV confirmed a number of privileges formerly issued to the Jews and in some cases afforded them protection, strictly enforcing their status as serfs of the chamber. Wenceslaus IV protected the Jews from oppression by the local nobility, but on several occasions canceled the debts owed to the Jews, as in 1411. The Jews suffered during the *Hussite uprising in 1419–37. The *Chomutov (Komotau) community was annihilated by the Hussites, while the Jews were expelled from Cheb and Jihlava (Iglau) on the charge of supporting them. In Jewish sources of the late 15th century evidence is found of strong sympathy for the religious reformer John Huss and the Hussites, and in particular for the Taborites, who are regarded as Judaizers and fighting a just national war.

16th and 17th Centuries

With changes in the religious and social outlook of the burghers, the growing interest in finance and the increasing availability of money, moneylending ceased to be a Jewish monopoly. The competition of Christian moneylenders, abetted by the hypocrisy that forbade Jews to do what they themselves were engaged in, gradually eroded the central position held by Jews in this field. In addition, the weakening of central royal power threatened the existence of the Jews living in the crown cities. Despite a decision of the Diet to tolerate the Jews (1501) and its confirmation by Ladislas II in 1510, they were eventually expelled from *Pilsen in 1504, and also from Prague, where some individuals were expressly permitted to remain. Their expulsion from the crown cities was formally proclaimed in 1541. Efforts made by *Joseph (Joselmann) b. Gershom of Rosheim to intercede were unsuccessful. The publication of the decree was followed by massacres of the Jews in Litoměřice, Nymburk, *Roudnice nad Labem (Raudnitz), and *Žatec (Saaz). Later a number of Jews returned. The decree of expulsion was renewed in 1557, and the Jews vacated all the crown cities except Prague where a few families remained. Many Jews left for Poland and Turkey.

By the end of the 16th century half of Bohemian Jewry was living in Prague. The rest were scattered throughout the countryside in the villages and small towns under the protection of the local nobility. Jews continued to reside in four towns, *Kolín , Roudnice, Bumsla ( *Mladá Boleslav ), and *Náchod (known in Jewish sources by their initials קרב״ן). Until the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683 the attitude of the authorities toward the Jews was influenced by the fear that they might support the Turks. In 1551 *Ferdinand I enforced the ordinance compelling the Jews to wear the yellow *badge . Four hundred and thirteen Jewish taxpayers are recorded in Bohemia (except Prague) in 1570, and over 4,000 Jews at the beginning of the 17th century. Until the development of a mercantilistic policy under *Charles VI , the Jews were almost the only traders in the rural areas. Their function was regarded by the local lords as versilbern, i.e., the conversion of the surplus produce of their domains (mainly wool, hides, feathers, and cheese) into money, and the supply of luxuries for their sumptuous households. Despite their frequently small numbers in many localities where they lived, the Jews of Bohemia developed an independent rural way of life and maintained Jewish traditions. Antagonism developed between the Prague community and the rest of Bohemian Jewry, the "Draussige" or "Ḥuẓim" ("outsiders"). The latter became organized in the *Landesjudenschaft .

Conditions improved under *Rudolf II (1576–1612). Subsequently, the Prague community increased in size, attaining an importance in the Jewish world far beyond the boundaries of the country. Bohemian Jews gained a reputation as goldsmiths. Hebrew printing flourished in Prague. Mordecai Meisel achieved influence as a court banker. Among the prominent scholars of the period were R. *Judah Loew b. Bezalel (Maharal) and the chronicler and astronomer David *Gans . Jacob *Bassevi of Trevenberg was the first Jew to be granted a coat of arms. There was marked reciprocal influence between Bohemian society, in particular the sectarians, and Jews in the social and cultural spheres. Jewish sources express a local Bohemian patriotism. Gans states in his chronicle Ẓemaḥ David (Prague, 1595) that parts of his "General History" are written "to the glory [לכבוֹד] of this land in which I live." He gives a detailed description of Bohemia, its natural resources and its emblem, the lion, declaring "this land is full of God's blessings." He indignantly repudiates an anti-Czech song popular with the German-speaking population: "Ye should know that this song is entirely lies." He refers to the antiquity and beauty of Prague (Ẓemaḥ David, 2, fols. 7a, 46b, 49a, 97a).

Jewish life in Bohemia was disrupted by the Thirty Years' War (1618–48). In 1629 *Ferdinand II renewed and extended the privileges accorded to the Jews. However, in 1630 he ordered them to attend the conversionist sermons of the *Jesuits . There were 14,000 Jewish taxpayers in Bohemia in 1635. The community absorbed many refugees from the *Chmielnicki massacres in Poland in 1648. In 1650 the Diet decided to curtail the number of Jews permitted to reside in Bohemia and limit their residence to the places where Jews had been living in 1618. This was the beginning of the "Jew-hatred of the authorities," in contrast to the attitude of the nobility who were interested in the income they derived from the Jews. Irksome restrictions were introduced and there were increasing demands for higher taxes. For Prague, a special committee, the Judenreduktionskomission ("Commission to Reduce the Number of the Jewish Population") was appointed. The number of the Jews outside Prague was estimated to be 30,000 in 1724. They lived in 168 towns and small market towns and 672 villages.

Familiants Laws

The curtailment culminated in the *Familiants Laws under Charles VI (1726) which only allowed 8,541 families to reside in Bohemia. Jews were segregated in special quarters. Bohemia was divided into 12 district rabbinates (Kreisrabbinat). The Jews were expelled from Prague by *Maria Theresa in 1744, but the decree of expulsion was remitted in 1748 and most of the Jews returned. A decree for the whole of Bohemia (1745) was not carried out. There were 29,091 Jews living in Bohemia in 1754, of whom one-third lived in Prague. (See table "Jewish Population of Bohemia.") In the second half of the 18th century some Jews in Bohemia were attracted to the *Frankists . Bohemian Jews took an active part in the industrialization of the country and the development of its trade, among them the *Hoenigsberg family, Simon and Leopold von *Laemel , and the *Popper family.


The Toleranzpatent of *Joseph II for Bohemian Jewry was issued on February 13, 1782. As an outcome, Jewish judicial autonomy was suspended, Jewish schools with teaching in German were opened, and the use of German was made compulsory for business records. Jews were permitted to attend general high schools and universities, and were subject to compulsory military service. These measures were supported by adherents of the *Haskalah movement in Prague, including members of the *Jeiteles family, the *Gesellschaft der jungen Hebraeer , Peter *Beer , Naphtali Herz *Homberg , and Raphael *Joel , among others. They were resisted by the majority of the Jews, led by the rabbis Ezekiel *Landau , Eleazar *Fleckeles , Samuel *Kauder , and Bezalel Ronsburg. The legal position of the Jews of Bohemia was summarized in the Judensystemalpatent issued in 1797. Bohemian Jews were entitled to reside in places where they had been domiciled in 1725. They were permitted to pursue their regular occupations, with some exceptions, being prohibited from obtaining new licenses for the open sale of alcoholic beverages or from leasing flour mills. New synagogues could only be built by special permission. Rabbis were obliged to have studied philosophy at a university within the empire. Only Jews who had completed a German elementary school could obtain a marriage license or be admitted to talmudic education. The *censorship of Hebrew books was upheld.

19th and 20th Centuries

The increasing adaptation of individual Jews to the general culture, and their rising economic importance, furthered Jewish assimilation into the ruling German sector. During this period Jews such as Moses and Leopold Porges-Portheim, Aaron and Solomon Pribram, Moses, Solomon, and Leopold Jerusalem developed the Bohemian textile industry, introducing modern machinery. The discrepancy between the rise in economic and cultural standards and the restrictions imposed on the Jews by their humiliating legal status led to frequent circumvention of the existing legislation.

The budding Czech national renaissance at first attracted the Jewish intelligentsia, enraptured with the new learning, among them Siegfried *Kapper , Ludwig August *Frankl , and David *Kuh , supported by Václav Bolemir Nebeský. However, the inimical attitude of Czech leaders such as Karel Havlíček-Borovský, and the outlook of the majority of the Jews molded by an essentially German education, soon brought them into the German liberal camp, in which Moritz *Hartmann and Ignaz *Kuranda distinguished themselves in the revolutionary tumult of 1848.

In general, however, especially in the small communities, Jewish society continued the traditional way of life and mores despite the persistent trend toward assimilation and the changes introduced by such communities as *Teplice . Legislation introduced in the 1840s brought some relief of the humiliating restrictions. In 1841 the prohibition on Jews owning land was waived. The *oath more iudaico and the Jewish tax (collected by a much hated consortium of Jewish notables, the "Juedische Steuerdirection") were annulled in 1846. The Jewish orphanage in Prague was built from its surplus funds. The 1848 revolution proved disappointing to the Jews as it was accompanied by anti-Jewish riots in many localities, principally in Prague. The Jews of Bohemia, however, benefited by the abolition in *Austria of marriage restrictions and by the granting of freedom of residence. There began a "Landflucht," movement from the small rural communities to the commercial centers in the big towns, in which many of the former communities disintegrated in the process. This was speeded up later by the growing antisemitism among Czechs and Germans alike (see below). There were 347 communities in Bohemia in 1850, nine with more than 100 families and 22 with over 50. By 1880 almost half of Bohemian Jewry was living in towns with over 5,000 inhabitants, mostly in the German-speaking area. There were 197 communities in 1890. In 1921 only 14.55% of Bohemian Jewry lived in localities of less than 2,000 inhabitants, and were 0.27% of the population in these localities. Sixty-nine percent lived in towns of over 10,000. In 1930, 46.4% of all Bohemian Jews lived in Prague and the number of Jews in the countryside had decreased by 40% since 1921. During this period many Jews moved to Vienna or immigrated to the United States. Until 1848 the vast majority of Bohemian Jewry had belonged to the poorest sectors of the population. Subsequently, most of them, as a result of their economic activities, moved up to the prosperous and wealthy strata even though their occupations remained essentially in the same sphere as before 1848.

In the second half of the 19th century Bohemian Jewry became increasingly involved in the bitter conflict between the Czech and German national groups. While the elder generation generally preferrred assimilation with German culture, and supported the German-oriented liberal political parties, the Czecho-Jewish movement ( Svaz *Čechožidů ), initiated and supported by Filip *Bondý , Siegfried Kapper, Bohumil *Bondý , and others, achieved some success in promoting Czech assimilation. By 1900, 55% of Bohemian Jewry declared their mother tongue as Czech and 45% as German. Some Jewish leaders, notably Joseph Samuel *Bloch , advised Bohemian Jews not to become involved in the conflict of the nationalities, but they continued to take sides on this issue until Zionism enabled at least its adherents to remain neutral.

The Jewish Population of Bohemia, 17541930 The Jewish Population of Bohemia, 1754–1930

Year Numbers
1754 29,094
1764 31,937
1774 31,929
1780 39,693
1790 45,906
1800 47,865
1810 50,629
1820 59,607
1830 67,338
1840 64,780
1850 75,459
1869 89,933
1890 94,529
1900 92,797
1910 85,927
1921 97,777
1930 76,301

As a result of emigration and a steady decline in the birth and marriage rates among Jews in Bohemia, the percentage of the aged rose, and the total population of the community decreased. The vast majority of Jews became indifferent to religion and inclined toward total assimilation: the *Yahrzeit , the Day of Atonement, and a subscription to the Prager Tagblatt, the German-liberal daily, were considered by many Jews their only links with Judaism. There was an increase in mixed marriages from 0.15% in 1881 to 1.75% in 1910, and 27.56% in 1930, and many dropped their Jewish affiliation. The percentage of Jewish mixed marriages was 0.15% in 1881, 1.75% in 1910, and 27.65% in 1930.

Of all persons in Bohemia considered Jewish according to the Nazi standards introduced in 1939, 11.1% were not of the Jewish faith. Antisemitism became strong in Bohemia at the end of the 19th century. The German population of the Sudetenland, the "Rand-Orls," was the stronghold of the *Schoenerer brand of racial antisemitism in the Hapsburg Empire (see also *antisemitic political parties and organizations). Czechs saw the Jews as the instruments and partisans of Germanization and the allies of Hapsburg patriotism. The economic anti-Jewish *boycott movement in Bohemia, "Svůj k svému" ("Each to his own kind"), was among the first of its sort to emerge in Europe and in particular hit Jewish shopkeepers in the villages. Finally a wave of blood libels, instigated by the Austrian *Christian Social Party , swept Bohemia. These occurred in Kolín and Náchod, among other places, and culminated in the *Hilsner Case . At this time the internal division in Jewry between the parties supporting Czech or German assimilation became increasingly pronounced. Jews joined the liberal and radical parties of both sides. At the end of the 19th century the Czecho-Jewish movement achieved the closure of Jewish schools where teaching was in German. During World War I Bohemia absorbed thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe. Many settled there permanently and contributed to the revival of Jewish religious and cultural life in the communities. The establishment of independent *Czechoslovakia in 1918 linked Bohemian Jewry with the Jews living in the other parts of the new state. Bohemia attracted many Jews from Carpathian Russia (see *Subcarpathian Ruthenia ) and Eastern Slovakia, and the Jews of Bohemia were active in organizing relief for Jews in these impoverished areas. After 1918 there were three federations of communities, one for those of Great Prague and *České *Budejovice and *Pilsen , one of Czech-speaking communities, and one of German-speaking communities. From 1926 they were represented, together with the federations of communities in Moravia and Silesia, by the "Nejvyšší rada svazu náboženských obcí židovských v Čechách, na Moravě a ve Slezsku" (Supreme Council of the Federations of Jewish Religious Communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia). In 1930, 46.4% of Bohemian Jewry declared their nationality as Czech, 31% German, and 20.5% Jewish. (See table "Jewish Population of Bohemia.") In 1937 there were 150 communities. In 1938 with the Sudeten crisis 29% of Bohemian Jewry living in the Sudeten area became refugees.

The Jewish State Museum in Prague now has synagogue equipment and archivalia from more than 100 Bohemian communities, most of them brought there in 1942 by Nazi orders when the communities were deported.

For Holocaust and contemporary period, see *Czechoslovakia .


Jews of Czechoslovakia, 1 (1968), 1–71, 269–438; G. Kisch, In Search of Freedom (1949), 333–65 (extensive bibliography); Bondy-Dworský; H. Gold, Die Juden und Judengemeinden Boehmens… (1934); H.R. von Kopetz, Versuch einer systematischen Darstellung… (Prague, 1846); A. Stein, Geschichte der Juden in Boehmen (1904); J. Bergl, in: Sbornik archivu ministerstva vnitra, 6 (1933), 7–64; JGGJČ, 1–9 (1929–38); Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden in der Tschechoslowakei, 1–5 (1930–38); R. Dán, in: Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden, 5 (1968), 177–201 (index for the above periodicals); R. Jakobson and M. Halle in: For Max Weinreich (1964), 147–72; O. Scheiber, ibid., (1964), 55–58, 153–7; S.H. Lieben, in: Afike Jehuda Festschrift (1930), 30, 39–68; B. Bretholz, Geschichte der Juden in Maehren, 1 (1934), index; Baron, Community, 3 (1942), index; F. Weltsch (ed.), Prag vi-Yerushalayim (1954); H. Tykocinski, in: Germ Jud, 1 (1963), 27–46; 2 (1968), 91–93; M. Lamed, in: BLBI, 8 (1965), 302–14; R. Kestenberg-Gladstein, Neuere Geschichte der Juden in den boehmischen Laendern, 1 (1969), incl. bibl.; idem, in: Roth, Dark Ages, 309–12, 440–1; idem, in: Judaica Bohemiae, 4 (1968), 64–72; idem, in: Zion, 9 (1945), 1–26; 12 (1948), 49–65, 160–89; idem, in: JJS, 5 (1954), 156–66; 6 (1955), 35–45; idem, in: Gesher, 15 no. 2–3 (1969), 11–82; F. Weltsch, ibid., 207–12; M. Ben-Sasson, Ha-Yehudim Mul ha-Reformaẓyah (1969), 66–68, 102–8; idem, in: Tarbiz, 29 (1959/60), 306–7.

[Jan Herman / Meir Lamed]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.