Ten centuries of Jewish life in the Czech Lands

Maisel Synagogue in Prague

Thursday saw the opening of an exhibition at Prague's Maisel Synagogue, called "The History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia".

The exhibition deals with 10 centuries of Jewish presence in the Czech lands, from the arrival of the first Jewish trade caravans to Bohemia and Moravia in the 9th century, and the establishment of the first Jewish settlements at a time when the Czech state was just coming into existence. And as Peter Ambros from Prague's Jewish Museum explained to Olga Szantova, Jews in Bohemia and Moravia were generally more integrated than elsewhere in Europe.

Maisel Synagogue in Prague
Peter Ambros: Maybe more than Jews in other places in Europe, they became an integral part, a more integral part of the majority population.

Radio Prague: Why?

PA: It's hard to answer why. Jews in almost every part of the world, where they settled, were confronted with anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic movement both from the side of the rulers and from the side of the population. The whole history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia knows just one real mass outbreak of anti-Semitic feelings at the edge of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and the reason then was the specific national problem between the Czech and the German population in Bohemia and Moravia, in which the Jews came in the middle and were confronted with the hatred of the population. All through the centuries they were subjected to discrimination from the rulers and it is very nice to see that the hatred of the rulers did not find a pendant in the population.

RP: But there were pogroms...

PA: There were local pogroms. First of all, there were fewer pogroms than in Western Europe, which expulsed the whole Jewish population at the edge of the Middle Ages and certainly fewer pogroms than in North-Eastern Europe, in Poland, Ukraine. They were local, and they came and went. There were almost no pogroms in Bohemia and Moravia in the terrible year 1348, at the time of pogroms all over Europe connected with the disease of the black death, which was blamed on the Jews. No such pogroms happened in Bohemia.

RP: Would you say that Jewish culture played an important role, or some role in Czech traditions?

PA: I wouldn't like to overestimate this influence.

RP: Prague and its Jewish - German - Czech tradition in the 19th Century, there was nothing before that?

PA: Well, there were huge personalities in the Renaissance Prague. Persons like David Ganz, who was a Renaissance thinker, today one would say researcher in sciences as well. They had contacts with non-Jewish researchers of the time. Ganz had contacts with Ticho de Brahe in Prague. But those contacts were rare and they were in times like the Renaissance, in open minded times. The huge influence came in the late 19th Century, at the moment they started to cease to be Jews, they started to loose their identity, inherited traditions. And at that very moment they had a chance to really influence. In this sense, Jews could profit, because the general population would not accept their contribution, but they themselves were able to accept and to learn from the world around them.

Author: Olga Szantová
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