Czechia

Czechia, formerly the Czech Republic, is home to approximately 3,900 Jews. Culturally and economically diverse, the Czech Jewish community features prominently in all aspects of public life, with a presence in high office of the state, the civil service, the judiciary, and the armed forces. The main body of representation for the Czech Jewish community is the Federation of Jewish Communities in Czech Republic – the Czech affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

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Federation of Jewish Communities in Czech Republic

Telephone: +420/224 800 824
Fax: +420/224 810 912
Email: sekretariat@fzo.cz
Web: www.fzo.cz


President: Petr Papoušek, also a WJC Vice President
Executive Director: Tomáš Kraus

 

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Petr Papoušek, FZO President
& WJC Vice-President


Community News


History

The presence of Jews in the Czech Republic traces back to antiquity, with the first Jews most likely arriving in central Europe with Roman legions during the classical period. The very first written document about Prague, a manuscript dated 965-6 CE, was the work of Ibrahim ibn Jacob, a Jewish merchant and diplomat sent as an envoy by the caliph of Cordoba. In 1096, the Jews suffered severe persecution and were forced to undergo baptism at the hands of the Crusaders. Over the course of the following centuries, the fortunes of the local Jewish community alternated between periods of persecution and periods of tolerance and prosperity.

Beginning in the 12th century, Prague became a great center of Jewish learning. It eventually became the home of celebrated Talmudists and great rabbinic scholars, such as the famous rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the “Maharal of Prague,” the most important Talmudist and kabbalist of his time (and, according to a famous legend, also the creator of the Golem).

The Jews experienced a golden age during the reign of Holy Roman Emperors Rudolf II in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The expulsion of Jews from Vienna in 1670 and an exodus from Poland at the time of the Chmelnicki massacres in 1648 and 1649 led to an increase in the Jewish population of Prague. Nevertheless, subsequent rulers oppressed their Jewish subjects. When Bohemia and Moravia came under Austrian Habsburg rule, the situation of the Jews deteriorated, with Empress Maria Theresa ordering their expulsion in 1744.  Jews were banished from Prague, but only for a few weeks, as the economic situation forced the empress to lift the ban. At the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Joseph II, conditions improved rapidly. In 1848, the ghetto was abolished, and by 1867, the process of political emancipation was complete.

After becoming equal citizens, Jews were able to integrate into all aspects of public life, and featured prominently in the arts, sciences, commerce, and industry. Famous personalities such as Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler were born on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia during this time. Yet, Czech Jewry was still not totally secure. For example, the killing of a Christian girl near Polná in 1899 led to the infamous Hilsner ritual murder trial, which produced a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment (including riots) in Bohemia and Moravia. This, in turn, accelerated the exodus of Jews from many of the smaller communities to Prague and other large cities, as seen by incidents such as the infamous Hilsner ritual murder trial of 1899.

Much of the Jewish population, particularly the upper class, identified with the dominant German culture, and many of the great Jewish writers from Prague, notably Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Max Brod, and many others from the so-called “Prague Circle,” wrote in German. Assimilation, emigration, and a low birthrate took a heavy toll on Czech Jewry, which intermarried at a high rate.

In October 1918, following the union of Bohemia, Slovakia and Moravia into the newly independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Prague-based Jewish National Council was created as a representative body to the new government, and it successfully worked to have Jews officially recognized as an official and legitimate minority. The Jewish National Council also established a political party, the Jewish Party (in Czech, Židovská strana) that enjoyed the support of Zionists in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. In the 1931 national elections, the Jewish Party together with the Slovak Jewish Party, led by Bratislava lawyer Julius Reisz, won two seats in the Czechoslovak Parliament.

About 71,000 Czech Jews (85% of the community) were killed in the Shoah. Many of the survivors attempted to rebuild Jewish life, but after the February 1948 coup d'état in which the Communists took over the government, the atmosphere became increasingly inhospitable. It should be noted that in 1945-1947, Czechoslovakia supported the establishment of a Jewish state. After 1948, it helped train Israeli soldiers and airmen and transferred significant quantities of arms and ammunition to Israel.

The Slánský Trial of 1952, in which a number of Communists of Jewish origin were charged with Zionism and other “crimes,” was accompanied by a general deterioration in conditions for the Czechoslovak Jewish community. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other foreign Jewish organizations were expelled, and many Jews were arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. Emigration was also tightly restricted. With de-Stalinization, the situation for Jews improved somewhat, but communal life was still subject to stringent control.

The 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which democracy was reinstated, led to a reawakening of Jewish consciousness and opened up many new avenues of Jewish expression. Today, Jews constitute a small portion of Czech society, yet feature prominently in it. Michael Žantovský, a Senator from Prague, served as Ambassador to the United States from 1992 to 1997, Ambassador to Israel from 2004 to 2009, and Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2015. Jan Fischer, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, served as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2010 and ran for President in the 2013 presidential elections.

 

The Years of the Holocaust

During the years before the outbreak of World War II, Czechoslovakia was in Germany’s crosshairs and in 1938, with the agreement of the major European powers, Wehrmacht troops entered the Sudetenland border regions, annexing them to the Reich. Neville Chamberlin, the British Prime Minister at the time, uttered the infamous phrase “peace for our time” in response to the agreement’s outcome.

Following the Anschluss in 1938, Hitler set his sights towards a weakened Czechoslovakia, invading and occupying Moravia and Bohemia in 1939. As a result, a separate pro-Nazi Slovakian Republic formed and Czechoslovakia was dissolved. During the Holocaust, Germans and collaborators murdered approximately 263,000 Jews who had lived in the Czechoslovak Republic prior to the occupation.

In 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, ordered the creation of a camp-ghetto at Theresienstadt near the Czech city of Terezín. Approximately 73,603 Jews from the area were deported to Theresienstadt, where the majority stayed briefly before being sent to killing sites in the Baltic States, or other transit camp-ghettos in occupied Poland from 1941 to 1942. From 1942 on, many were sent to the Auschwitz killing center. Of the 82,309 Jews deported from Czech lands – the Nazis and their collaborators killed approximately 71,000 in the Holocaust.

From 1942 to 1945, tens of thousands of Jews from the Greater German Reich, as well as some from the Netherlands, Hungary, and the Slovak region, were deported to Theresienstadt. The vast majority of these Jews were either murdered at Theresienstadt or were sent to Auschwitz. Theresienstadt became the center of international attention when the camp was presented to the Red Cross as a “model Jewish settlement” in 1944, with the Nazis intensifying deportations and “beautifying” the camp to display it in a false manner to the world. More than 155,000 Jews, including approximately 15,000 children, passed though Theresienstadt on the way to killing centers such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. The camp was liberated May 9, 1945 by the Soviet army.

 

Demography

In 2015, according to demographer Sergio DellaPergola, the Jewish community in what was then the Czech Republic numbered 3,900 people out of an overall population of 10,436,560. The 2011 census saw many Czechs ignore questions on religious identification, which may account for the census’ findings of only 1,474 Jews in the country – 1,129 associated with the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic and 345 unregistered. The majority of Czech Jews live in Prague but there are several smaller communities throughout the country, including in Brno, Plzeň, Karlovy Vary, Olomouc, Liberec, Děčín, Ostrava, Ústí nad Labem, and Teplice. 

Community Life

Czech Jewry is represented by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Czech Republic, an umbrella organization that represents Jewish communities and other institutions across the country. Acting as the voice of the community through political advocacy, the federation works to combat anti-Semitism and encourage support for Israel.

There are numerous other Jewish communal representative organizations in the Czech Republic, with the majority either working in conjunction with, or falling under the authority of the federation. This includes the Terezín Initiative (and Institute), an association of former Czech inmates of the ghettos of Terezín and Łódź and their ancestors that focuses on Holocaust education in relation to remembrance and rooting out intolerance, and the European Shoah Legacy Institute, an international advocacy group that cooperates with governments and organizations to help facilitate the restitution of property and items stolen by the Nazis. The Czech-Israeli Chamber of Commerce works to promote economic relations between the two countries; the Frank Kafka Society showcases Jewish society through a focus on literature; and the Czech Union of Jewish Students advocates on behalf of college-aged students and works to promote Jewish values.  

The community’s diversity is reflected in other ways as well, including the sporting clubs Maccabi and Hakoach. There is a heavy emphasis on restitution and care for Holocaust survivors, with the Foundation for Holocaust Victims working to ensure that survivors are rightfully compensated for Nazi injustices, and given the necessary social, health, and psychological care in their elderly years.

 

Religious and Cultural Life

The Orthodox, Liberal, and Conservative streams are all active in the Czech Republic. The four traditional synagogues in Prague are the Old-New Synagogue (Altneuschul), the High Synagogue (Hochsul), the Jerusalem (Jubilee) Synagogue; and the Spanish Synagogue. Two other synagogues in Prague are Beit Praha, an open Jewish community, and Beit Simcha, a Jewish Liberal community.

The Chief Rabbinate of Prague is charged with preserving the unified character of Prague’s Jewish community, and is also responsible for the religious life of the community throughout the country. In 2014, Rabbi David Peter was elected Chief Rabbi of Prague. http://www.kehilaprag.cz/en/page/rabbinate/about

Kosher food is available mainly in Prague, through a myriad of stores, restaurants, and butcheries., Kosher food can also be found outside of Prague, but smaller communities have fewer options

 

Jewish Education

The Lauder Schools in Prague, operated by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, are the only-full time Jewish educational institutions in the Czech Republic and include a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a high school in which both Jewish and non-Jewish students study together. Since 2013, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has also been running an online school there.

Jewish higher education is prominent across various disciplines in the Czech Republic, with Palacky University in Olomoucand and Charles University in Prague each offering a Centre for Jewish Studies. Additionally, New York University has a satellite campus in Prague that includes Jewish Studies in its curriculum. For adult students, Beit Simcha offers classes on Judaism and Hebrew and the Jewish Liberal Union offering a range of Jewish-related studies.

 

youth

The Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic helps facilitate a chapter of the Maccabi World Union in Prague, offering Czech Jewish youth a Zionist-structured sporting organization that aims at fostering a connection to Israel and instilling Jewish values.

jewish media

The Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic provides updates on news relating to the Jewish community in the country on its website, as well as on a Jewish news website called “The Jewish Press and Information Service.” Additionally, there is a Jewish radio program called “Shalom Aleichem.”

Information for Visitors

There are numerous notable Jewish sites in the Czech Republic, with the Jewish quarter of Prague – Josefov – standing out as an unparalleled repository of Jewish art and architecture. Prague’s synagogues, ancient cemetery, and Jewish town hall with iconic clock are among the leading tourist attractions in the country. The Jewish Museum in Prague contains an extensive collection of artifacts and items depicting Jewish life throughout Czech history and is considered one of the best-known institutions of its type in Europe. The grounds of the former Theresienstadt concentration camp are preserved as a memorial site.

There are many notable Jewish sites outside of Prague, including a 16th century synagogue in Milulov that has an exhibition of the history of its Jewish community and a Nouveau Romanesque-style synagogue in Český Krumlov.

Israel

The Czech Republic and Israel maintain full diplomatic ties, with the Czech Republic demonstrating strong support for Israel in both the United Nations and the European Union.

Embassy of Israel in Czechia
Badeniho 2
170 06 Praha 7
Czech Republic
Telephone: (+420) 233 097 500
Fax: (+420) 233 097 519

 

updated

December 2017

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