Josefov essentially means the Jewish Quarter, whose preserved monuments – synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall, and especially the Old Jewish Cemetery – provide a fascinating record. They document centuries of layered history of the Jewish people in the Czech lands. However, the buildings surrounded by these monuments have no connection with this story; they emerged as a deliberately modern foil to the old labyrinth of lanes, streets and squares.
A stroll through the Jewish Quarter as it was must have been fascinating: the jumble of lanes and alleys connected like the constant stream of thoughts of scholarly rabbis. A visitor would wish to be transported back to a different world with almost nothing in common with his or her era. Josefov kept its atmosphere even during the 19th century, when it sheltered the sealed ghetto’s poorer inhabitants. They went about their picturesque lives in the immediate vicinity of the “outdoor drawing room” – the magnificent Old Town Square. This prestigious location proved fateful for the former ghetto. Prague was making efforts to catch up with contemporary modern capitals such as Paris and Vienna. Such a goal resulted in the uncompromising decision to completely raze the entire neighbourhood and instead construct a model modern neighbourhood for Prague’s most affluent residents. Ultimately, this plan was almost completely implemented. Where the city’s poorest once lived is today Prague’s most luxurious shopping thoroughfare (Pařížská Street), which contrasts markedly with the austere dignity of the Early Gothic Old-New Synagogue.
The only references to historical context are the facades of the early 20th-century buildings on Pařížská. They blend elements from the past with the emerging Art Nouveau, creating a colourful mosaic so typical of fin de siècle vanity.
Most important monuments:
Fortunately, the key monuments survive. They include the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Jewish Town Hall, and the ancient historic synagogues, above all the Gothic Old-New Synagogue, dating back to the 13th century. Otherwise, the Jewish Quarter has vanished. Of the more recent synagogues, the Renaissance Pinkas Synagogue deserves attention, as does the magnificent 19th-century Spanish Synagogue, built in the popular Moorish style.
Modern Josefov exhibits amazing architectural coherence, which testifies to the ambitions and self-confidence of the Prague bourgeoisie at the dawn of the 20th century. The neighbourhood should be regarded as a complete entity. Therefore, it’s a unique testament to the birth of a major city and of an architectural quest typical of that period.