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Josefov, Prague

Josef’s story begins in Prague, where he lives with his parents, grandfather and younger brother Thomas, in the Jewish Quarter known as Josefov. It is located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River.

The first Jewish settlements in Prague dated from the tenth century.  The area now known as Josefov was settled in the twelfth century. Aggressive and violent campaigns against Prague’s Jews have taken place throughout the centuries.  These included pogroms by the Crusaders in 1096, attacks during the siege of Prague Castle in 1142, and confinement to the Ghetto from the later 1100s. In 1389 a massive anti-Jewish pogrom saw around 3,000 inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter killed and their homes plundered and burned.

The Old New Synagogue, Prague
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumThe Old New Synagogue, Prague - Credit: Shannon Hampton

During the sixteenth century the ghetto became a centre of Jewish mysticism. Intellectuals from all over Europe congregated in Prague. From 1522 to 1541, the Jewish population of Prague almost doubled, as many Jewish refugees from other parts of Europe settled there.  However, the prosperity was relatively short-lived – expulsions of the Jews from Prague took place in 1541 and 1557. Conditions improved from 1564 – the Jews were granted economic freedom and Jewish culture flourished.  By 1708, Jews accounted for one quarter of Prague’s population. This was to dramatically change with the ascension of Empress Maria Theresa, who expelled the Jews from Prague between 1745 and 1748.  Conditions improved again under Emperor Joseph II, who issued the Edict of Toleration in 1781, which affirmed religious tolerance.

The Jewish Quarter was formalised as a district of Prague in 1850 and called Josefov.  Much of the Jewish Quarter was demolished and redeveloped between 1893 and 1913, although some significant older buildings were preserved, including the Old-New Synagogue.  The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe, built in early gothic style in the late 13th century, and still boasting its original interior furnishings. It was rumoured to be the resting place of Prague’s famous Golem.

Charles Bridge
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumCharles Bridge - Credit: Shannon Hampton

Josef attempts his first daring escape routine in the icy waters of the Vltava river (he calls the river by its German name, Moldau).  Josef enters the river near the historic Charles bridge. The city’s oldest bridge, it dates back to 1357 and was named for King Charles IV.  The bridge was completed at the beginning of the 15th century, and was the only means of crossing the river between the Castle and the Old Town until 1841.  The bridge is decorated with a continuous alley of 30 mainly baroque statues, originally erected around 1700 but now replaced by replicas.


For more detail on the history of Prague's Jewish community, visit the Virtual Jewish History Tour