Brief overview of the history and present of the Jewish community in the Czech republic
The Czech Jewish community isn’t the largest or most visible but it has a rich history and a present worth knowing. It’s impossible to put everything there is to say into one post so the intention of this one is to give a basic overview of the Jewish culture in the Czech republic.
I would like to thank Mgr. Simona Pöder Innerhofer, Ph.D. from Hebrejština s radostí (Online Hebrew courses) for her kind consultation.
Table of Contents
History of Jewish Community in Czech Republic
The first Jews of Ashkenazi heritage came to what is now the territory of the Czech republic in the 10th century. The largest community settled down in Prague and from here, groups followed to many other towns. We nowadays have reminders of them in the form of Jewish cemeteries, buildings and even whole quarters.
The Jewish minority had a difficult position. It suffered the pogroms in the Middle Ages, prospered during the reign of Rudolf II and was banished by Maria Theresa. In the Age of Enlightenment of Joseph II their position became somewhat better and finally, in the 19th century, the Jews were given equal rights and partially assimilated. The Jewish community lived mostly together, in the Jewish quarter of the town, as did other communities. One good example would be Brno where there were three major quarters – German, Czech and Jewish.
The prospering community of around 118.000 members was reduced (actually almost wiped out) by the holocaust, the communist regime didn’t treat this minority with much respect either. Antonín Kalina risked his own life to save hundreds of Jewish children during the German Nazi regime.
Jewish Community at the Present
The 2011 census indicated 1.132 people of Jewish faith in the Czech republic, according to the Virtual Jewish Library, there were 3.900 Jews living in the Czech Republic in 2022. And the data of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Czech Republic say that there are around 3.000 registered members but estimate the overall number of Jews at 15 – 20 thousand.
There are 10 Jewish kehilas or communities in the Czech republic united under the wings of the aforementioned federation. Synagogues were preserved in several towns and cities and some of them are active nowadays, services are held in Prague, Brno, Pilsen, Liberec, Teplice, Děčín, Olomouc, Ostrava and Krnov. Just as elsewhere in the world, there are several directions of Judaism within the Czech Jewish community. Whilst the Jews of Prague and Liberec under rabbi David Maxa belong to the reform Jews, the community of Brno looked after by rabbi Štěpán Menaše Kliment is orthodox. The Jews of Ostrava are led by the reform rabbi Tenya Segal who is from Israel and resides in the Polish city of Kraków.
A fact worth mentioning is that on the 4th of September, 2023, the Czech rabbi Kamila Kopřivová was ordined rabbi of the Westmister synagogue (UK). There are also other Czech women preparing for the profession of rabbi, such as Lena Arava-Novotná.
As was already mentioned, you can find reminders of the Jewish culture in many places in the Czech Republic. There are not only places of worship but also many cemeteries and sometimes even half-preserved street signs that would invite you to enter a Jewish shop hundred years ago.
In recent years, serious effort has been put into reviving synagogues in the villages and towns in areas on the periphery such as those in Nová Cerekev, Batelov or Pacov. In some of these cases the organizations responsible for these efforts have been founded and led by non-Jewish people.
An important promoter of the Jewish culture who helped revive the life of the Czech communities is the former actress Vida Neuwirthová (née Skalská). She refers that when she realized how little the Jewish children in Czech republic knew about their heritage, she decided to devote her time to promote her culture. She founded her Feigele marionette theatre to teach children and also became a Jewish sites tour guide.
The most education happens within the communities on a private basis. There is one complex of Jewish schools in Prague, the so called Lauder Schools in Prague that include Jewish kindergarten, elementary and middle school. Several universities offer Bachelor and Master degrees in Hebrew and Jewish studies as well as Hebrew courses.
The Jewish Museum in Prague is another educational institution to mention.
Towns and cities all over the country commemorate Jewish artists, important members of the Jewish community and especially the holocaust victims.
Czech Celebrities of Jewish Heritage
Did you hear the legend of the Golem of Prague? Then you probably know the name of rabbi Löw, one of the first names of Jews in Czech lands to become a popular character.
It comes as no surprise that celebrities of Jewish origin were not uncommon before the WW II. Franz Kafka is one of the most famous writers world-wide, however, there are many more Czech writers of Jewish heritage, among others: Max Brod, Ivan Klíma, Arnošt Lustig, Karel Poláček.
Egon Erwin Kisch was a journalist known as the “Furious reporter”. Oskar Schindler who saved 1.200 Jews during the Nazi occupation was of German nationality but was born and lived in the region of Moravia. The famous photographer Jan Saudek and his twin brother, painter Kája Saudek have Jewish roots as well. Madeleine Albright was also Jewish, as was the publicist Pavel Tigrid or Otto Wichterle, inventor of contact lenses.
To mention some pop-culture celebrities, Vida Neuwirthová was already mentioned, her most famous role was that of princess Bosana in the tale Tři veteráni. Miloš Kopecký is one of the most famous Czech actors ever, he spent some time in German concentration camps. And we mustn’t forget the First Republic movie star Hugo Haas! As for more contemporary celebrities, let’s mention the actors Arnošt Goldflam, Pavel Kříž, Milan Šteindler and Tomáš Töpfer, and from the music profession at least a few names also: Gustav Mahler, Michal Prokop, Petr Skoumal and Marta Töpferová.
Not all of these people were or are Jewish but all of them have Jewish roots on the side of at least one of their parents.
Jewish influence in Czech Pop-culture and Language
The most common reference to the Jewish culture and history you can find in the Czech pop-culture are definitely the movies. World War II is still a big topic and so let’s mention at least the movies Colette, Broken Promise or Golet v údolí.
Many people don’t realize that Czech language adopted quite a few expressions from Yiddish. And so people say košér (kosher) to refer to things that are done well and legally, pajzl to let you know that a restaurant or bar is of really low standards or čachrovat to say the verb “to cheat” coloquialy. Gauner is a thug, mešuge is a crazy person, šábes (from the word Shabbat) can refer to a celebration, hala bala is something that has been done or made in a sloppy way and epesní means simply great.