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National Jewish Museum, Maisel and Pinkas Synagogues

National Jewish Museum, Maisel and Pinkas Synagogues (23)

The Jewish district of Prague provides you with the visit to two more synagogues which, for different reasons, are linked to the most tragic chapter of recent history: Nazism. Keep hold of your ticket for the National Jewish Museum, because you will need it to get into the Maisel and Pinkas synagogues.

The Maisel synagogue is named in honour of Mordechai Maisel, one of the richest men of his time as well as being a philanthropist and mayor of the Jewish district of Prague. Maisel amassed an enormous fortune lending money to Emperor Rudolf II. In exchange, on Maisel’s death the emperor would keep half of his fortune.

The day after his death, the emperor wasted no time in carrying out this odd, and for some, macabre, agreement. On seizing all the assets that Maisel had left, the monarch thought them insufficient and gave the order to the Jewish community to contribute what he thought was the part missing of the fortune he was still owed. The problem of the debt was not resolved until the reign of Joseph II, 180 years later.

As mayor of the district, Mordechai Maisel was able to ensure that the monarch allowed the life of the Jews in Prague to be a little better in many aspects. He also obtained the right to build a private synagogue for him and his family. The original temple was built in the 16th century and had the richest ornamentation of all the synagogues in the city. However, everything was lost in the fire of 1689. The building you can visit today is from the early 20th century.

Since the 1960s the Maisel synagogue has exhibited a rich collection of objects related to Jewish religious rituals from the Renaissance to the 20th century. It is well worth having a look at the display of pointers, objects designed for being able to follow the text of the Torah without touching it. The crowns decorating the scroll of the Torah or the coats of arms that are placed over the robes that covers it are also of great interest. The collection is completed by all kinds of plates, candelabras and lanterns.

However, all this richness has an unworthy origin, since it was the Nazis who brought many of these objects here from around Bohemia. Their idea was to one day turn this place into the museum of a people exterminated by the Nazis.

The Pinkas synagogue was founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas and remodelled almost a century later by one of his descendents. Throughout its history, it has been rebuilt on several occasions and with different forms. Recent excavations have even revealed an old medieval bath. The most important part of the current synagogue is covered by Gothic vaulting.

Since 1959, the Pinkas synagogue has consecrated the memory of the Czech Jews who were victims of Nazism, the majority of whom were imprisoned in the camp in the nearby town of Terezin. Here, 60 kilometres from Prague, the Nazis expelled the entire population and built a concentration camp that in reality was used as a junction point for other camps.

In Terezin an attempt was made to cover up the shameless reality by organising concerts and making a film that had to show the world the good conditions in which the Jews supposedly lived under Hitler’s regime. It is estimated that some 140,000 people passed through this camp, of which 15,000 were children. Drawings made by some of these children can be seen in the synagogue.

Hand-written on the walls of the Pinkas synagogue are the names, with their dates of birth and death, of the 77,297 Czech Jews who never returned. One after another, these inscriptions pay an extraordinarily emotive homage in the simplest of ways imaginable. Quite simply, the names of those who were taken away and never returned.

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