Today there are between three to five thousand (registered) Jews living in the Czech Republic, making up a mere fraction of one percent of the total population. However, despite the minute number, there are constant indicators throughout the country, and especially throughout Prague, that the Jewish people are very much a part of the rich culture and history of the Czech Republic and that without mentioning the contributions of the Jews, the history of the country would be incomplete.
The Jewish community in the Czech Republic began to form in the late 11th century, and over the years it grew as the tolerant reputation of the Czech people attracted Jews, many of whom were scientists and intellectuals, facing persecution throughout Europe. By the mid-16th century, during the reigns of Maximilian and Rudolf II, there were more Jews living in Bohemia than in any other place in the world. This time period was known as the “Golden Age” for Jewry in Bohemia as Jews acquired greater autonomy. A leading Jewish figure was the financier, businessman, and philanthropist, Mordechai Maisel, who persuaded other rich Jews to move to Prague. With the influx of wealth, a boom in trade and construction started to take place that would transform the city of Prague. Additionally, Maisel financed many Jewish projects and organizations, gave money to charities to help feed the poor and clothe the needy, promoted humanist philosophy, and helped finance Rudolf’s war with Turkey. Two other leading figures of the time were Rabbi Judah Loew, who although is best known for the creation of the Golem, was a big promoter of education, philosophy, and scientific research, and David Gans, a mathematician, historian, astronomer, and astrologer.
The Golden Age would come to an end under the reign of Empress Maria Theresa who expelled the Jews, but shortly thereafter with Joseph II passing the Edict of Tolerance, Jews returned to Bohemia and once again prospered. The Edict of Tolerance lifted restrictions across the board for Jews and allowed them to contribute to all forms of trade, commerce, agriculture and the arts. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel, and other Jewish writers from Prague produced numerous works of literature that received international acclaim. This prosperous era would be the last for the Jews in the Czech Republic and it came to an unfortunate end as World War II and the Holocaust wiped out almost the entire Jewish community.
The Holocaust may have killed the majority of Czech Jews, but their spirit is alive and strong. Throughout the Czech Republic today there are numerous museums, monuments, and memorials that commemorate the lives and accomplishments of the Czech Jews. In schools, the works and accomplishments of Jewish intellectuals are discussed and the impact on Czech society is noted. The Jewish people are an ethnic minority in the Czech Republic, but they are embraced as a fundamental part of Czech society.