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The Jewish Community of Czech Republic

Czech Republic

Also known as: Czechia, Česko

Česká republika

A country in Central Europe, member of the European Union (EU). The Czech Republic includes the historical territories of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia.

21st Century

Estimated Jewish Population in 2018: 3,900 out of 10,500,000 (0.03%). Main umbrella organization of Jewish communities:

Federation of Jewish Communities in Czech Republic
Phone: 420/224 800 824
Fax: 420/224 810 912
Email: sekretariat@fzo.cz
Web: www.fzo.cz

 

HISTORY

Jews of the Czech Lands

1454 | From Prosperity to Expulsion

Long before famous Israeli singer Arik Einstein crooned about “A Dream of Prague”, and before Judah Loew ben Bezalel, (1512/26 – 1609), known also by the Hebrew acronym of Maharal or The Maharal of Prague, supposedly created his famous Golem there, Moravia and Bohemia (now part of The Czech Republic) were home to a flourishing, prosperous Jewish community.

Various historical sources, including customs invoices and the testimony of Jewish traveler Abraham ben Yaacov – who was an envoy for the Caliph of Cordoba – document Jewish presence in Moravia and Bohemia as early as the 10th century. Works by medieval Jewish scholars – for instance, Arugat Ha-Bosem (“Spice Garden”) by Abraham ben Azriel of Bohemia, who lived in Prague, and Or Zaru'a by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, a native of Bohemia – show that not only did Jews live in Czech territories, they also spoke and wrote in Czech. Concurrently, the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia enjoyed community autonomy in all matters regarding education, internal community arrangements, civil courts and so on.

In the mid-14th century, the area was home to the flourishing Hussite movement, headed by the Czech priest Jan Hus, who challenged the Catholic Church's religious hegemony and viewed the Bible and its heroes as the sole sources of authority. Many Jews believed that the Hussites were sent by God in order to vanquish the heretic Catholics and increase faith in the Jewish Torah. This belief was their undoing: they were accused of supporting the Hussites in the latter's war against The Catholic Church and Emperor, and were therefore expelled from five crown cities in Moravia. This happened in 1454, and those cities remained off-limits for Jews until the mid-19th century.

1552 | The Gershom Saga

The King of Bohemia, Emperor Rudolph II of the House of Habsburg (1552-1612) was considered an odd duck. This ruler, who suffered most of his life from severe depression, had some strange hobbies, which included the collecting of short people for amusement purposes and the establishment of a special regiment of giants in his army.

However, Rudolph II also enacted enlightened and progressive policies for the times, which were also highly beneficial to his Jewish subjects. During his reign the number of Jews in Prague doubled, and it became one of the global centers of Judaism. In this open and tolerant atmosphere and fruitful ties were forged between Jewish scholars and gentile scientists and clerics. The doors of the Czech economy also opened to the Jews, many of whom, like court Jews Mordechai Meisel ben Samuel and Jacob Bassevi von Treunberg, accumulated large fortunes.

During this time the Jewish printing presses also flourished, publishing books famous for their beautiful typography and unique illustrations. The best known of these was the Prague Haggada, printed at the press owned by Gershom ben Solomon Kohen. The books issued by Gershom Kohen's press included Jewish motifs alongside Royal Habsburg emblems. The trademark of the press was the skyline of Prague set between two lion's tails, inspired by the official emblem of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Kohen family – and after it the Bak family, which continued the Prague printing tradition – mostly produced rabbinic literature, prayer books and morality pamphlets in Hebrew and Yiddish.

1609 | The Maharal of Prague

One of the giants of Jewish thought throughout the ages was Judah Loew ben Bezalel better known as “The Maharal of Prague” (1512/26-1609). The Maharal wrote dozens of books and treatises, which testify to his sharp mind, phenomenal memory, deep understanding of human nature and extraordinary command of Jewish scriptures, as well as the secular science and learning of his time. Like Maimonides, the Maharal was greatly influenced by Aristotle and often used philosophical and allegorical interpretations for the writings of the sages, whom he viewed as the sole authority to understanding the wisdom of God. His greatness is all the more impressive in light of the fact that he was self-taught, acquiring all his knowledge on his own, with no formal education.

The Maharal never served in any official capacity, but functioned as the de-facto head of the Jewish community of Prague. In this role the Maharal became famous for his great social sensibilities, often criticizing the rich men of the community for their alienation from the lower classes. The Maharal also had a well-grounded educational world-view, believed in freedom of expression and was often critical of the pilpul, the subtle legal, conceptual, and casuistic differentiation method of studying the Talmud prevalent in the yeshivas, which he felt focused on the marginal rather than the salient.

One of the most famous legends concerning him was that of the Golem of Prague: An artificial creature made of clay, which the Maharal supposedly invested with the breath of life to protect the Jews from blood libels and persecution. The Golem ignited the imagination of many an author and is considered today as one of the founding myths of mysticism and of the science fiction genre.

1648 | Windows 18

Throwing people out of windows was a common practice in Czech politics for declaring a revolution.

In 1618 the King of Bohemia, Ferdinand II, sent Catholic envoys on his behalf to Prague, to prepare the ground for his arrival. The people of the city threw the envoys from the window of Hradcany (Prague Castle), an event that became known to history as “The Defenestration of Prague.”

This act of violence was the start of the Thirty Year War between Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe. The war ended in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia. The Jews, who maintained neutrality during the war and probably, in the spirit of Menachem Begin's famous quip about the Iran-Iraq war, “wished both sides success”, flourished during the fighting. In 1627, the Emperor Ferdinand II expanded their rights, and according to a 1638 census, the number of Jews in the Kingdom of Bohemia reached 7,815.

In 1650, after the end of the war, the Emperor Ferdinand III issued an order of expulsion for Jews who did not live in the kingdom prior to the war. Charles IV followed him with the “Families Law”, which limited Jewish settlement in Bohemia and allowed for only one family member to marry. But they were both outdone by the Empress Maria Theresa, who expelled the Jews of Prague with the edict of 1744, which was rescinded four years later. Due to their experience of frequent edicts and persecutions, the Jews spread out through the rural Czech areas. Official documents show that in 1724 Jews resided in some 800 different locations throughout Bohemia and Moravia.

1781 | The Right of Association

In the second half of the 18th century Czech Jews began to integrate into society at large. One of the expressions of this development was the establishment of Jewish artisan guilds. The Jewish merchants copied the model of the Christian guilds, formed a series of rules regulating the trade amongst themselves and even had a flag and emblems to represent them at the various fairs. An official document from 1729 shows 2,300 Jewish artisans organized in professional guilds in Prague, including 158 tailors, 100 cobblers, 39 milliners, 20 goldsmiths, 37 butchers, 28 barbers and 15 musicians.

In 1781 Emperor Joseph II issued the “Tolerance Edict,” in the spirit of the enlightened absolutism then in vogue, which held the best interests of the state above all else and was based on the values of the Enlightenment, particularly on rationalism and a separation of church and state. The edict, which declared the Jews to be “Useful subjects of the Crown,” was met with mixed feelings by the Jews themselves. While it gave them freedom of occupation, encouraged them to enter public life and allowed them to study at institutions of higher learning, it also forced them to de-emphasize their Jewish identity, study at secular schools, adopt non-Jewish last names and decrease their use of Hebrew and Yiddish.

1848 | To the New World

In 1848 there were some 10,000 Jews living in Prague, mostly in the Jewish Quarter. These were the tense days following the defeat of the “Spring of Nations” revolution, and pogroms were a frequent occurrence. The homes and businesses of many Jews were targeted for looting, and they themselves were beaten and humiliated on a daily basis.

Many of the leaders of the Jewish communities in the region called upon their parishioners to emigrate to the New World beyond the sea: The United States of America. Among the most prominent Jewish immigrants to the United States was Isidore Bush, a businessman, columnist, freedom fighter and senior officer in the American Civil War, and Adolph Brandeis – father of Louis Brandeis, future US Supreme Court Justice and an avid supporter of the Zionist movement.

In 1861 Czech Jews were granted the right to own land. Many of them began to specialize in various agricultural fields, mostly the production of sugar and the wholesale trade of seeds. Many Jews were also prosperous business owners in the cotton and beer trades, in the exporting of eyeglasses and in the coalmines of Moravska-Ostrava. Six years later Czech Jews became members of the exclusive club, alongside countries such as Prussia, which granted the Jews full emancipation.

1898 | Emotions vs. Intellect

When the revered Czech leader Tomas (Thomas) Masaryk was asked when he completely overcame antisemitism, he replied: “Good God, emotionally perhaps never. Only intellectually”. His honest answer clearly reflects the power with which the anti-Semitic idea had taken root in Europe by the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A few years earlier, in 1898, Masaryk successfully endured the ancient battle between emotion and intellect when he stood by a young Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner, who was accused of cutting the throat of a young Czech woman near the town of Polna and using her blood to bake matza. Despite Masaryk's advocacy, Hilsner did not receive a new trial and languished in prison until 1916, when he was released as part of a mass clemency announced by Charles I, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Against the backdrop of such antisemitism the echoes of the Zionist idea reached the Czech lands, mostly through Jewish students from Moravia who studied in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which the Czech lands were then a part. These young men and women were deeply influenced by the writings of Theodore Herzl, and in time some of them became important leaders of the Jewish people. Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Hans Kohn and Max Brod, for instance, were avid member of the Kochba Zionist movement in the Czech lands, which upheld the ideal of Jewish resistance inspired by Max Nordau's “Muscular Judaism.”

1918 | Peace between Wars

The Czech regions of Moravia and Bohemia was home to two ethnic groups – Czechs and Germans. While most of the population was Czech, the cultural elite was influenced by Germany, the giant neighbor.

Czech Jews were no exception. The most prominent among them were writers such as Friedrich Adler, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Ludwig Winder, who wrote in German and were steeped in German culture. Alongside them worked Jewish writers from rural areas, including Hanus Bon, Jiri Weil and Frantisek Langer, whose works romanticized country life.

Following the WW1, a new state was formed in the region by the name of Czechoslovakia, which included four historic territories: Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Ruthenia to the east. Czechoslovakia between the two world wars was a model of Western democracy. Its authorities recognized all the rights of the Jewish minority living within its borders, which numbered about 356,000 people, who enjoyed equal rights and a period of great prosperity.

Despite constituting only about 2.5% of the population, the Jews held prominent positions in the economy, industry and culture of Czechoslovakia. Some 18% of all students were Jews, and members of the Jewish community stood out in the fields of journalism, politics and public life as well. What's more, the authorities legitimized the Jewish national movement and had many dealings with the Zionist movement.

1924 | A Deathbed Wish Denied

The great writer Franz Kafka was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Prague. His father was a well-to-do haberdashery merchant and his mother was an educated woman, from a Levi family. Kafka, who lived most of his life in Prague, passed away in 1924 at the young age of 41.

Before he expired, as he lay dying of tuberculosis, he asked his close friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts once he was gone. Happily for the entire world, Brod did not keep this promise, and dedicated all his time after Kafka's death to printing and spreading his close friend's works. Masterpieces such as “Metamorphosis”, “The Trial” and “The Castle” have become mainstays of Western literature, and Kafka's very name has become synonymous with modern man, lost in the maze of unfeeling institutions closing in on him.

Kafka wrote in German, spoke in Czech and even learned a little Hebrew. In his stories he composed a harsh indictment of the very notion of establishment, with the malice and stupidity inherent in it, but at the same time managed, in the spirit of Freudian psychology which began to gain currency in those days, to subtly plumb the depths of the soul of modern man in a world crumbling into barbarism – as the years that followed his death proved, with the outbreak of WW2.

1939 | The Proverbial Black Umbrella

The day after September 29th,1938, the day the Munich Accords were signed, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stood at Heston Aerodrome in London, proudly waving the “peace” agreement he had signed with Hitler. While Chamberlain held the famous black umbrella, which has since become a symbol of appeasement and surrender, the Nazi army invaded the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia – an event that augured the outbreak of the WW2 less than a year later, on September 1st 1939.

A few months after the annexation of the Sudetenland region Germany declared Bohemia and Moravia to be a German “protectorate”. As a first step, all Jews were expelled from Bohemia and Moravia and their belongings were confiscated. By October 1941 some 27 thousand Jews left the Czech lands, becoming refugees throughout the rest of the country. The second phase began on November 24th, when 122 trains left the protectorate carrying 73,608 Jews to Theresienstadt Ghetto (see below) and from there to the gas chambers. Some 263,000 Jews of Czechoslovakia were murdered during the war, of them 71,000 from Bohemia and Moravia.

1944 | A Model Ghetto

On July 23rd, 1944, a Red Cross delegation entered Theresienstadt Ghetto in order to check whether the rumors of the concentration camps established by the Nazis in order to annihilate the Jews of Europe were true. The Nazis, who knew of the delegation's arrival ahead of time, staged an event portraying themselves as a model of enlightenment and humanitarianism: They filled the ghetto with fake cafes, model schools, playgrounds and vegetable gardens, and even produced a propaganda film painting the ghetto as a pastoral country resort. As soon as the production ended most of the “actors”, including many children, were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In time Theresienstadt Ghetto came to symbolize the full horror of the Holocaust, because of the monstrous pretense created by the Nazis there to delude the enlightened world. Theresienstadt, “the upscale ghetto”, where many famous writers, artists and rabbis were imprisoned, was built in Terezin, north of Prague. The ghetto served as a concentration camp for the Jews of Moravia and Bohemia and for elderly Jews of fame and special privileges, en route to transfer to the death camps.

Management of the ghetto was entrusted to a Council of Elders which was responsible for organizing the labor, distributing food, sanitation and cultural affairs, and internal jurisdiction. Lectures and seminars were held and a library holding 60,000 books was established!

Due to the many artists, writers and scholars living in the ghetto, a robust cultural life developed there. Orchestras, an opera troupe, a theater company and entertainment and satire revues were held. An amusing satirical example describes the ghetto menu thus: “Grilled yawn, stuffed breast of mosquito, leg of flea, frog knee a-la gypsum”.

According to historical sources, between 1941-1945 some 140,000 Jews were forcibly sent to Theresienstadt. By the end of the war, only 19,000 of them survived.

2000 | A Spiritual Monument

After WW2 some 45,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia, mainly in Moravia and Bohemia. Upon the rise of the Communist regime in the country, the Jewish community was cut off from its counterparts around the world, but early in this period, between 1948-1950, some 26,000 Jews emigrated from Czechoslovakia, of which 19,000 came to the newly established State of Israel. In the early 2,000s the Jewish community of the Czech Republic numbered approximately 1,700 people.

In 1991 Czechoslovakia split into two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Jewish Czech community holds educational activities, and operates a kindergarten and the Gur-Ariyeh School – so named after the Maharal's famous book. In addition, the community operates synagogues and retirement homes, holds Torah classes and cultural activities and provides religious and welfare services. The cultural heritage of the Czech Jews is on display at the famous Jewish Museum in Prague.

The story of this museum is an unusual one: During WW2 the Nazis wished to preserve a future site as the “Exotic Museum of the extinct race”, meant to preserve the heritage of the people they meant to annihilate upon completion of the “Final Solution”. The Nazis believed that the museum would serve to aid anti-Semitic propaganda and justify their actions. Jewish artifacts were collected and looted with typical German efficiency from 153 communities, and the museum's inventory included some 100,000 works of art. The museum staff – who mostly perished in the Holocaust – quickly and feverishly documented the lives of Jewish communities in the Czech lands. The cultural treasure left behind by these people and their devoted work, with the thug's sword against their throats, are a testimony to their power and dedication, and a spiritual monument to their memory.

Place Type:
Country
ID Number:
160548
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
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Moric Horschetzky (1777-1859), physician and philologist, born in Bidsow, (then part of the Austrian Empire, now Bydžova in the Czech Republic). His childhood was devoted to the study of the Talmud, but later he went to Vienna, Austria, to study philosophy and medicine. After graduating as a doctor of medicine in 1811, Horschetzky settled in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. A man who had inherited some wealth, he cared for many poor and homeless in the town. He also conducted medical and philological research. Within the Jewish community he supervised and directed the Jewish school of Nagykanizsa.

In 1845 he became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences. Horschetzky contributed articles on Jewish philosophy and archeology to the "Orient, Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums", and "Ben Chananja". He published "Dreizehntes Buch der Juedischen Antiquitaten des Flavius Josephus" (1843). Horschetzky also planned an agricultural society. He died in Nagykanizsa.

Homberg, Herz (1749-1841), Austrian educator and member of the Haskala [Enlightenment] movement, born at Lieben, near Prague, Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian Empire). He studied Talmud at yeshivot in Prague, Pressburg (today Bratislava, Slovakia),and Gross-Glogau, and then when aged 17, he began the study of secular literature. Homberg decided to become a teacher for which he prepared himself in Berlin, Germany. In 1779 he became tutor to Moses Mendelssohn's eldest son, Joseph. For the three years that he stayed in Mendelssohn's home he became a pupil of Mendelssohn himself, who continued to take an interest in him in later years .

Under Emperor Joseph II the status of the Jews in Austria underwent a complete change when Jewish children were obliged to attend regular German schools. But there were no teachers capable of organizing these schools and undertake the teaching, so Homberg decided to return to Austria. Armed with a recommendation from Mendelssohn, he was in 1784 appointed superintendent of all the German-Jewish schools of Galicia.

In 1793 Emperor Francis II called Homberg to Vienna to formulate laws to regulate the new status of the Jews in Austria. The work appeared in 1797, and won for Homberg a gold medal. When the general primary schools of Galicia were made subject to the district schools, Homberg retired to Vienna, employed partly as censor and partly to write text books for Jewish children in their new schools. Homberg was later appointed assistant professor of religious and moral philosophy at Prague, with the title of Schulrath, retaining this position until his death.

Bedrich Feuerstein (1892-1936), architect, painter and stage designer, born in Dobrovice (Dobrowitz, in German), Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian Empire). Having studied at gthe Czech Technical University in Prague, he moved to Paris, France, where he worked aith Auguste Perret. He was responsible for introducing elements of futurism and cubism in Czechoslovakia after World War I, as demonstrated in his design for the Institute of Military Geography in Prague (Ojenský zeměpisný ústav) (1924). During 1929-1931 he was in Tokyo, studying Japanese architecture. His stage designs for many plays produced in the National Theater in Prague, the satirical theater Osvobozene Divadlo, and other leading Czech theaters, showed great originality. Best known were his designs for Capek's R.U.R. (1920). Other buildings designed by him include a hospital in Tokyo, a shopping center in Yokohama, Japan, and a crematorium in Nymburk, Czech Republic. Feuerstein was a member of the artist association Devetsil (after 1922), and of the Artists Association Manes.

Following his suffering from a serious illness, Feuerstein committed suicide in 1936.  

Lessing, Theodor (1872-1933), philosopher, born in Hanover, Germany. He studied in Bonn and Munich and then in Freiburg where he became a Protestant. In 1908 he began to teach at the Technical High School in Hanover but moved to the history of ideas, on which he wrote many books.

Influenced by Zionism, he returned to Judaism and wrote a classic study of 'Jewish self-hatred'. In 1925 he was the object of anti-Semitic attacks after opposing Hindenburg's election as president of Germany. He moved to Marienbad (now Marianske Lazne, in the Czech Republic), where he was assassinated by German Nazis sent there expressly to kill him.
Kafka, Franz (1883-1924), author, born to a middle class family in Prague, Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now in the Czech Republic)

Kafka was a lonely child. He studied at a German high school and then at university, becoming a doctor of law. He found positions in insurance companies, where he worked long hours and eventually had to resign owing to poor health.

From 1917 he suffered from tuberculosis and much of his life from then on was spent in Sanatoriums. He was buried in the family tomb in Prague.

Only a few of his works - and not his best known - were published during his lifetime and he left instructions to his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn the remainder.

Brod disobeyed and the publication of his novels brought Kafka posthumous world fame. Best-known are his novels, "The Trial", "The Castle", and "America", all written in German. Their world of frustration and nightmarish hopelessness brought the word 'Kafkaesque' into the language.

Otokar Fischer (1883-1938), poet, literary historian, translator and dramatist, born to an assimilated family in Kolin in Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now in Czech Republic). He studied German literature at the Czech University in Prague and later in Berlin, Germany. He became librarian and then Privatdozent in the history of German literature at the University of Prague. Shortly after the end of World War I he was made professor. For a time he was visiting professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium and in 1936 he was appointed Dramatic Director of the Prague National Theatre. He died of heart failure while reading of the German invasion of Austria.

Fischer edited several literary reviews and wrote articles for several Czech magazines. His writings included two books on Heine, studies of von Kleist and Nietzche. He wrote more than 12 volumes of poetry. Despite his assimilated background he was always aware of his Jewish roots. Many of his works reflect this. He translated into Czech the works of Goethe, Heine, von Kleist, Nietzche, Schiller and Bruckner.

CZECH

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

Czech derives from Cechy, the Czech name of Bohemia, one of the constituent parts of what was previously Czechia. Jews, who lived there since the 9th century, called it Eretz Kanaan/Kenaan in their Hebrew documents.

Distinguished bearers of the Jewish family name Czech include the Galician-born leader of the German social democratic party of Czech Republic, Ludwig Czech (1870-1942).
BUTTENWEISER, BUDWOISER

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

These names derive from the Bohemian town of Ceske Budejovice, in German Budweis, in the Czech Republic. The form Budwoiser is documented in the Czech town of Pilsen in 1359. A distinguished bearer of the variant Buttenweiser was the German talmudist Laemmlein Buttenweiser (1825-1901). Places, regions and countries of origin or residence are some of the sources of Jewish family names. Many of these names, originally based on toponymics, have developed into variants which no longer resemble the form of the original source. Thus, unless the family has reliable records, names based on toponymics cannot prove the exact origin of the family.
MORAVIA

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

Moravia is the English and Italian name for Morava, the central region of the Czech Republic, where Jews lived since at least the 11th century. The world-famous 20th century Italian novelist, Alberto Moravia, originally Pincherle, adopted his pen-name from his immigrant ancestors' country of origin.
CSEH, TSCHEC

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

Cseh and Tschech are derived from Cechy, the Czech name of Bohemia, one of the constituent parts of the Czech Republic. In Hebrew documents, it is called Eretz Kanaan/Kenaan. Jews lived there since the 9th century. Several spellings of this name are documented, among them the Hungarian Cseh and the German Tschech.
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The Jewish Community of Czech Republic

Czech Republic

Also known as: Czechia, Česko

Česká republika

A country in Central Europe, member of the European Union (EU). The Czech Republic includes the historical territories of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia.

21st Century

Estimated Jewish Population in 2018: 3,900 out of 10,500,000 (0.03%). Main umbrella organization of Jewish communities:

Federation of Jewish Communities in Czech Republic
Phone: 420/224 800 824
Fax: 420/224 810 912
Email: sekretariat@fzo.cz
Web: www.fzo.cz

 

HISTORY

Jews of the Czech Lands

1454 | From Prosperity to Expulsion

Long before famous Israeli singer Arik Einstein crooned about “A Dream of Prague”, and before Judah Loew ben Bezalel, (1512/26 – 1609), known also by the Hebrew acronym of Maharal or The Maharal of Prague, supposedly created his famous Golem there, Moravia and Bohemia (now part of The Czech Republic) were home to a flourishing, prosperous Jewish community.

Various historical sources, including customs invoices and the testimony of Jewish traveler Abraham ben Yaacov – who was an envoy for the Caliph of Cordoba – document Jewish presence in Moravia and Bohemia as early as the 10th century. Works by medieval Jewish scholars – for instance, Arugat Ha-Bosem (“Spice Garden”) by Abraham ben Azriel of Bohemia, who lived in Prague, and Or Zaru'a by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, a native of Bohemia – show that not only did Jews live in Czech territories, they also spoke and wrote in Czech. Concurrently, the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia enjoyed community autonomy in all matters regarding education, internal community arrangements, civil courts and so on.

In the mid-14th century, the area was home to the flourishing Hussite movement, headed by the Czech priest Jan Hus, who challenged the Catholic Church's religious hegemony and viewed the Bible and its heroes as the sole sources of authority. Many Jews believed that the Hussites were sent by God in order to vanquish the heretic Catholics and increase faith in the Jewish Torah. This belief was their undoing: they were accused of supporting the Hussites in the latter's war against The Catholic Church and Emperor, and were therefore expelled from five crown cities in Moravia. This happened in 1454, and those cities remained off-limits for Jews until the mid-19th century.

1552 | The Gershom Saga

The King of Bohemia, Emperor Rudolph II of the House of Habsburg (1552-1612) was considered an odd duck. This ruler, who suffered most of his life from severe depression, had some strange hobbies, which included the collecting of short people for amusement purposes and the establishment of a special regiment of giants in his army.

However, Rudolph II also enacted enlightened and progressive policies for the times, which were also highly beneficial to his Jewish subjects. During his reign the number of Jews in Prague doubled, and it became one of the global centers of Judaism. In this open and tolerant atmosphere and fruitful ties were forged between Jewish scholars and gentile scientists and clerics. The doors of the Czech economy also opened to the Jews, many of whom, like court Jews Mordechai Meisel ben Samuel and Jacob Bassevi von Treunberg, accumulated large fortunes.

During this time the Jewish printing presses also flourished, publishing books famous for their beautiful typography and unique illustrations. The best known of these was the Prague Haggada, printed at the press owned by Gershom ben Solomon Kohen. The books issued by Gershom Kohen's press included Jewish motifs alongside Royal Habsburg emblems. The trademark of the press was the skyline of Prague set between two lion's tails, inspired by the official emblem of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Kohen family – and after it the Bak family, which continued the Prague printing tradition – mostly produced rabbinic literature, prayer books and morality pamphlets in Hebrew and Yiddish.

1609 | The Maharal of Prague

One of the giants of Jewish thought throughout the ages was Judah Loew ben Bezalel better known as “The Maharal of Prague” (1512/26-1609). The Maharal wrote dozens of books and treatises, which testify to his sharp mind, phenomenal memory, deep understanding of human nature and extraordinary command of Jewish scriptures, as well as the secular science and learning of his time. Like Maimonides, the Maharal was greatly influenced by Aristotle and often used philosophical and allegorical interpretations for the writings of the sages, whom he viewed as the sole authority to understanding the wisdom of God. His greatness is all the more impressive in light of the fact that he was self-taught, acquiring all his knowledge on his own, with no formal education.

The Maharal never served in any official capacity, but functioned as the de-facto head of the Jewish community of Prague. In this role the Maharal became famous for his great social sensibilities, often criticizing the rich men of the community for their alienation from the lower classes. The Maharal also had a well-grounded educational world-view, believed in freedom of expression and was often critical of the pilpul, the subtle legal, conceptual, and casuistic differentiation method of studying the Talmud prevalent in the yeshivas, which he felt focused on the marginal rather than the salient.

One of the most famous legends concerning him was that of the Golem of Prague: An artificial creature made of clay, which the Maharal supposedly invested with the breath of life to protect the Jews from blood libels and persecution. The Golem ignited the imagination of many an author and is considered today as one of the founding myths of mysticism and of the science fiction genre.

1648 | Windows 18

Throwing people out of windows was a common practice in Czech politics for declaring a revolution.

In 1618 the King of Bohemia, Ferdinand II, sent Catholic envoys on his behalf to Prague, to prepare the ground for his arrival. The people of the city threw the envoys from the window of Hradcany (Prague Castle), an event that became known to history as “The Defenestration of Prague.”

This act of violence was the start of the Thirty Year War between Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe. The war ended in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia. The Jews, who maintained neutrality during the war and probably, in the spirit of Menachem Begin's famous quip about the Iran-Iraq war, “wished both sides success”, flourished during the fighting. In 1627, the Emperor Ferdinand II expanded their rights, and according to a 1638 census, the number of Jews in the Kingdom of Bohemia reached 7,815.

In 1650, after the end of the war, the Emperor Ferdinand III issued an order of expulsion for Jews who did not live in the kingdom prior to the war. Charles IV followed him with the “Families Law”, which limited Jewish settlement in Bohemia and allowed for only one family member to marry. But they were both outdone by the Empress Maria Theresa, who expelled the Jews of Prague with the edict of 1744, which was rescinded four years later. Due to their experience of frequent edicts and persecutions, the Jews spread out through the rural Czech areas. Official documents show that in 1724 Jews resided in some 800 different locations throughout Bohemia and Moravia.

1781 | The Right of Association

In the second half of the 18th century Czech Jews began to integrate into society at large. One of the expressions of this development was the establishment of Jewish artisan guilds. The Jewish merchants copied the model of the Christian guilds, formed a series of rules regulating the trade amongst themselves and even had a flag and emblems to represent them at the various fairs. An official document from 1729 shows 2,300 Jewish artisans organized in professional guilds in Prague, including 158 tailors, 100 cobblers, 39 milliners, 20 goldsmiths, 37 butchers, 28 barbers and 15 musicians.

In 1781 Emperor Joseph II issued the “Tolerance Edict,” in the spirit of the enlightened absolutism then in vogue, which held the best interests of the state above all else and was based on the values of the Enlightenment, particularly on rationalism and a separation of church and state. The edict, which declared the Jews to be “Useful subjects of the Crown,” was met with mixed feelings by the Jews themselves. While it gave them freedom of occupation, encouraged them to enter public life and allowed them to study at institutions of higher learning, it also forced them to de-emphasize their Jewish identity, study at secular schools, adopt non-Jewish last names and decrease their use of Hebrew and Yiddish.

1848 | To the New World

In 1848 there were some 10,000 Jews living in Prague, mostly in the Jewish Quarter. These were the tense days following the defeat of the “Spring of Nations” revolution, and pogroms were a frequent occurrence. The homes and businesses of many Jews were targeted for looting, and they themselves were beaten and humiliated on a daily basis.

Many of the leaders of the Jewish communities in the region called upon their parishioners to emigrate to the New World beyond the sea: The United States of America. Among the most prominent Jewish immigrants to the United States was Isidore Bush, a businessman, columnist, freedom fighter and senior officer in the American Civil War, and Adolph Brandeis – father of Louis Brandeis, future US Supreme Court Justice and an avid supporter of the Zionist movement.

In 1861 Czech Jews were granted the right to own land. Many of them began to specialize in various agricultural fields, mostly the production of sugar and the wholesale trade of seeds. Many Jews were also prosperous business owners in the cotton and beer trades, in the exporting of eyeglasses and in the coalmines of Moravska-Ostrava. Six years later Czech Jews became members of the exclusive club, alongside countries such as Prussia, which granted the Jews full emancipation.

1898 | Emotions vs. Intellect

When the revered Czech leader Tomas (Thomas) Masaryk was asked when he completely overcame antisemitism, he replied: “Good God, emotionally perhaps never. Only intellectually”. His honest answer clearly reflects the power with which the anti-Semitic idea had taken root in Europe by the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A few years earlier, in 1898, Masaryk successfully endured the ancient battle between emotion and intellect when he stood by a young Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner, who was accused of cutting the throat of a young Czech woman near the town of Polna and using her blood to bake matza. Despite Masaryk's advocacy, Hilsner did not receive a new trial and languished in prison until 1916, when he was released as part of a mass clemency announced by Charles I, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Against the backdrop of such antisemitism the echoes of the Zionist idea reached the Czech lands, mostly through Jewish students from Moravia who studied in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which the Czech lands were then a part. These young men and women were deeply influenced by the writings of Theodore Herzl, and in time some of them became important leaders of the Jewish people. Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Hans Kohn and Max Brod, for instance, were avid member of the Kochba Zionist movement in the Czech lands, which upheld the ideal of Jewish resistance inspired by Max Nordau's “Muscular Judaism.”

1918 | Peace between Wars

The Czech regions of Moravia and Bohemia was home to two ethnic groups – Czechs and Germans. While most of the population was Czech, the cultural elite was influenced by Germany, the giant neighbor.

Czech Jews were no exception. The most prominent among them were writers such as Friedrich Adler, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Ludwig Winder, who wrote in German and were steeped in German culture. Alongside them worked Jewish writers from rural areas, including Hanus Bon, Jiri Weil and Frantisek Langer, whose works romanticized country life.

Following the WW1, a new state was formed in the region by the name of Czechoslovakia, which included four historic territories: Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Ruthenia to the east. Czechoslovakia between the two world wars was a model of Western democracy. Its authorities recognized all the rights of the Jewish minority living within its borders, which numbered about 356,000 people, who enjoyed equal rights and a period of great prosperity.

Despite constituting only about 2.5% of the population, the Jews held prominent positions in the economy, industry and culture of Czechoslovakia. Some 18% of all students were Jews, and members of the Jewish community stood out in the fields of journalism, politics and public life as well. What's more, the authorities legitimized the Jewish national movement and had many dealings with the Zionist movement.

1924 | A Deathbed Wish Denied

The great writer Franz Kafka was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Prague. His father was a well-to-do haberdashery merchant and his mother was an educated woman, from a Levi family. Kafka, who lived most of his life in Prague, passed away in 1924 at the young age of 41.

Before he expired, as he lay dying of tuberculosis, he asked his close friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts once he was gone. Happily for the entire world, Brod did not keep this promise, and dedicated all his time after Kafka's death to printing and spreading his close friend's works. Masterpieces such as “Metamorphosis”, “The Trial” and “The Castle” have become mainstays of Western literature, and Kafka's very name has become synonymous with modern man, lost in the maze of unfeeling institutions closing in on him.

Kafka wrote in German, spoke in Czech and even learned a little Hebrew. In his stories he composed a harsh indictment of the very notion of establishment, with the malice and stupidity inherent in it, but at the same time managed, in the spirit of Freudian psychology which began to gain currency in those days, to subtly plumb the depths of the soul of modern man in a world crumbling into barbarism – as the years that followed his death proved, with the outbreak of WW2.

1939 | The Proverbial Black Umbrella

The day after September 29th,1938, the day the Munich Accords were signed, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stood at Heston Aerodrome in London, proudly waving the “peace” agreement he had signed with Hitler. While Chamberlain held the famous black umbrella, which has since become a symbol of appeasement and surrender, the Nazi army invaded the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia – an event that augured the outbreak of the WW2 less than a year later, on September 1st 1939.

A few months after the annexation of the Sudetenland region Germany declared Bohemia and Moravia to be a German “protectorate”. As a first step, all Jews were expelled from Bohemia and Moravia and their belongings were confiscated. By October 1941 some 27 thousand Jews left the Czech lands, becoming refugees throughout the rest of the country. The second phase began on November 24th, when 122 trains left the protectorate carrying 73,608 Jews to Theresienstadt Ghetto (see below) and from there to the gas chambers. Some 263,000 Jews of Czechoslovakia were murdered during the war, of them 71,000 from Bohemia and Moravia.

1944 | A Model Ghetto

On July 23rd, 1944, a Red Cross delegation entered Theresienstadt Ghetto in order to check whether the rumors of the concentration camps established by the Nazis in order to annihilate the Jews of Europe were true. The Nazis, who knew of the delegation's arrival ahead of time, staged an event portraying themselves as a model of enlightenment and humanitarianism: They filled the ghetto with fake cafes, model schools, playgrounds and vegetable gardens, and even produced a propaganda film painting the ghetto as a pastoral country resort. As soon as the production ended most of the “actors”, including many children, were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In time Theresienstadt Ghetto came to symbolize the full horror of the Holocaust, because of the monstrous pretense created by the Nazis there to delude the enlightened world. Theresienstadt, “the upscale ghetto”, where many famous writers, artists and rabbis were imprisoned, was built in Terezin, north of Prague. The ghetto served as a concentration camp for the Jews of Moravia and Bohemia and for elderly Jews of fame and special privileges, en route to transfer to the death camps.

Management of the ghetto was entrusted to a Council of Elders which was responsible for organizing the labor, distributing food, sanitation and cultural affairs, and internal jurisdiction. Lectures and seminars were held and a library holding 60,000 books was established!

Due to the many artists, writers and scholars living in the ghetto, a robust cultural life developed there. Orchestras, an opera troupe, a theater company and entertainment and satire revues were held. An amusing satirical example describes the ghetto menu thus: “Grilled yawn, stuffed breast of mosquito, leg of flea, frog knee a-la gypsum”.

According to historical sources, between 1941-1945 some 140,000 Jews were forcibly sent to Theresienstadt. By the end of the war, only 19,000 of them survived.

2000 | A Spiritual Monument

After WW2 some 45,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia, mainly in Moravia and Bohemia. Upon the rise of the Communist regime in the country, the Jewish community was cut off from its counterparts around the world, but early in this period, between 1948-1950, some 26,000 Jews emigrated from Czechoslovakia, of which 19,000 came to the newly established State of Israel. In the early 2,000s the Jewish community of the Czech Republic numbered approximately 1,700 people.

In 1991 Czechoslovakia split into two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Jewish Czech community holds educational activities, and operates a kindergarten and the Gur-Ariyeh School – so named after the Maharal's famous book. In addition, the community operates synagogues and retirement homes, holds Torah classes and cultural activities and provides religious and welfare services. The cultural heritage of the Czech Jews is on display at the famous Jewish Museum in Prague.

The story of this museum is an unusual one: During WW2 the Nazis wished to preserve a future site as the “Exotic Museum of the extinct race”, meant to preserve the heritage of the people they meant to annihilate upon completion of the “Final Solution”. The Nazis believed that the museum would serve to aid anti-Semitic propaganda and justify their actions. Jewish artifacts were collected and looted with typical German efficiency from 153 communities, and the museum's inventory included some 100,000 works of art. The museum staff – who mostly perished in the Holocaust – quickly and feverishly documented the lives of Jewish communities in the Czech lands. The cultural treasure left behind by these people and their devoted work, with the thug's sword against their throats, are a testimony to their power and dedication, and a spiritual monument to their memory.

Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Moric Horschetzky

Moric Horschetzky (1777-1859), physician and philologist, born in Bidsow, (then part of the Austrian Empire, now Bydžova in the Czech Republic). His childhood was devoted to the study of the Talmud, but later he went to Vienna, Austria, to study philosophy and medicine. After graduating as a doctor of medicine in 1811, Horschetzky settled in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. A man who had inherited some wealth, he cared for many poor and homeless in the town. He also conducted medical and philological research. Within the Jewish community he supervised and directed the Jewish school of Nagykanizsa.

In 1845 he became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences. Horschetzky contributed articles on Jewish philosophy and archeology to the "Orient, Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums", and "Ben Chananja". He published "Dreizehntes Buch der Juedischen Antiquitaten des Flavius Josephus" (1843). Horschetzky also planned an agricultural society. He died in Nagykanizsa.

Homberg, Herz
Homberg, Herz (1749-1841), Austrian educator and member of the Haskala [Enlightenment] movement, born at Lieben, near Prague, Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian Empire). He studied Talmud at yeshivot in Prague, Pressburg (today Bratislava, Slovakia),and Gross-Glogau, and then when aged 17, he began the study of secular literature. Homberg decided to become a teacher for which he prepared himself in Berlin, Germany. In 1779 he became tutor to Moses Mendelssohn's eldest son, Joseph. For the three years that he stayed in Mendelssohn's home he became a pupil of Mendelssohn himself, who continued to take an interest in him in later years .

Under Emperor Joseph II the status of the Jews in Austria underwent a complete change when Jewish children were obliged to attend regular German schools. But there were no teachers capable of organizing these schools and undertake the teaching, so Homberg decided to return to Austria. Armed with a recommendation from Mendelssohn, he was in 1784 appointed superintendent of all the German-Jewish schools of Galicia.

In 1793 Emperor Francis II called Homberg to Vienna to formulate laws to regulate the new status of the Jews in Austria. The work appeared in 1797, and won for Homberg a gold medal. When the general primary schools of Galicia were made subject to the district schools, Homberg retired to Vienna, employed partly as censor and partly to write text books for Jewish children in their new schools. Homberg was later appointed assistant professor of religious and moral philosophy at Prague, with the title of Schulrath, retaining this position until his death.
Bedrich Feuerstein

Bedrich Feuerstein (1892-1936), architect, painter and stage designer, born in Dobrovice (Dobrowitz, in German), Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian Empire). Having studied at gthe Czech Technical University in Prague, he moved to Paris, France, where he worked aith Auguste Perret. He was responsible for introducing elements of futurism and cubism in Czechoslovakia after World War I, as demonstrated in his design for the Institute of Military Geography in Prague (Ojenský zeměpisný ústav) (1924). During 1929-1931 he was in Tokyo, studying Japanese architecture. His stage designs for many plays produced in the National Theater in Prague, the satirical theater Osvobozene Divadlo, and other leading Czech theaters, showed great originality. Best known were his designs for Capek's R.U.R. (1920). Other buildings designed by him include a hospital in Tokyo, a shopping center in Yokohama, Japan, and a crematorium in Nymburk, Czech Republic. Feuerstein was a member of the artist association Devetsil (after 1922), and of the Artists Association Manes.

Following his suffering from a serious illness, Feuerstein committed suicide in 1936.  

Lessing, Theodor
Lessing, Theodor (1872-1933), philosopher, born in Hanover, Germany. He studied in Bonn and Munich and then in Freiburg where he became a Protestant. In 1908 he began to teach at the Technical High School in Hanover but moved to the history of ideas, on which he wrote many books.

Influenced by Zionism, he returned to Judaism and wrote a classic study of 'Jewish self-hatred'. In 1925 he was the object of anti-Semitic attacks after opposing Hindenburg's election as president of Germany. He moved to Marienbad (now Marianske Lazne, in the Czech Republic), where he was assassinated by German Nazis sent there expressly to kill him.
Kafka, Franz
Kafka, Franz (1883-1924), author, born to a middle class family in Prague, Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now in the Czech Republic)

Kafka was a lonely child. He studied at a German high school and then at university, becoming a doctor of law. He found positions in insurance companies, where he worked long hours and eventually had to resign owing to poor health.

From 1917 he suffered from tuberculosis and much of his life from then on was spent in Sanatoriums. He was buried in the family tomb in Prague.

Only a few of his works - and not his best known - were published during his lifetime and he left instructions to his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn the remainder.

Brod disobeyed and the publication of his novels brought Kafka posthumous world fame. Best-known are his novels, "The Trial", "The Castle", and "America", all written in German. Their world of frustration and nightmarish hopelessness brought the word 'Kafkaesque' into the language.
Otokar Fischer

Otokar Fischer (1883-1938), poet, literary historian, translator and dramatist, born to an assimilated family in Kolin in Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now in Czech Republic). He studied German literature at the Czech University in Prague and later in Berlin, Germany. He became librarian and then Privatdozent in the history of German literature at the University of Prague. Shortly after the end of World War I he was made professor. For a time he was visiting professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium and in 1936 he was appointed Dramatic Director of the Prague National Theatre. He died of heart failure while reading of the German invasion of Austria.

Fischer edited several literary reviews and wrote articles for several Czech magazines. His writings included two books on Heine, studies of von Kleist and Nietzche. He wrote more than 12 volumes of poetry. Despite his assimilated background he was always aware of his Jewish roots. Many of his works reflect this. He translated into Czech the works of Goethe, Heine, von Kleist, Nietzche, Schiller and Bruckner.

CZECH
CZECH

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

Czech derives from Cechy, the Czech name of Bohemia, one of the constituent parts of what was previously Czechia. Jews, who lived there since the 9th century, called it Eretz Kanaan/Kenaan in their Hebrew documents.

Distinguished bearers of the Jewish family name Czech include the Galician-born leader of the German social democratic party of Czech Republic, Ludwig Czech (1870-1942).
BUTTENWEISER
BUTTENWEISER, BUDWOISER

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

These names derive from the Bohemian town of Ceske Budejovice, in German Budweis, in the Czech Republic. The form Budwoiser is documented in the Czech town of Pilsen in 1359. A distinguished bearer of the variant Buttenweiser was the German talmudist Laemmlein Buttenweiser (1825-1901). Places, regions and countries of origin or residence are some of the sources of Jewish family names. Many of these names, originally based on toponymics, have developed into variants which no longer resemble the form of the original source. Thus, unless the family has reliable records, names based on toponymics cannot prove the exact origin of the family.
MORAVIA
MORAVIA

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

Moravia is the English and Italian name for Morava, the central region of the Czech Republic, where Jews lived since at least the 11th century. The world-famous 20th century Italian novelist, Alberto Moravia, originally Pincherle, adopted his pen-name from his immigrant ancestors' country of origin.
CSEH
CSEH, TSCHEC

Surnames derive from one of many different origins. Sometimes there may be more than one explanation for the same name. This family name is a toponymic (derived from a geographic name of a town, city, region or country). Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate an indirect relation between the name-bearer or his ancestors and the place, such as birth place, temporary residence, trade, or family-relatives.

Cseh and Tschech are derived from Cechy, the Czech name of Bohemia, one of the constituent parts of the Czech Republic. In Hebrew documents, it is called Eretz Kanaan/Kenaan. Jews lived there since the 9th century. Several spellings of this name are documented, among them the Hungarian Cseh and the German Tschech.