Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery is in the heart of the Jewish Quarter and has a mystic atmosphere all its own. It is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery and is a historical monument worth visiting.

It’s an unforgettable experience to wander along the hushed, tree-lined lanes that wind through the graves. The tombstones date from 1439 to the late 1700s, sitting in crowded, lopsided clumps. The inscriptions are worn or long gone. About 100,000 people are buried here. How is that possible? The Jews were restricted to burying their dead only within the ghetto walls, so for centuries, this was the only place for graves. When one layer of ground was full, dirt was piled on and another layer was made. It is estimated that12 layers of graves lie here. The tangle of old headstones is both picturesque and haunting.

You may also wonder how this plot of Jewish history survived World War II, when Jews living here were deported to camps. It’s said that Adolf Hitler kept the Old Jewish Cemetery as it is because he wanted it to be a museum of a race he would extinguish from the world.

Next to the Old Jewish Cemetery is one of the synagogues open to tour in the Jewish sector of Prague. The Pinkas Synagogue dates from 1535 and is the second oldest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Today it is a memorial to the Jews persecuted by the Nazis. On the walls of this small, almost home-like synagogue are the names of the 77,297 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who were taken to Terezín Camp and did not survive. That camp, also known as Theresienstadt, was only about 40 miles from Prague. The names on the walls are arranged by family, in red letters, and include birthdates and dates of death or deportation. The sheer volume of names is overwhelming, and they can be heard over speakers while music plays in the background. The visual and audio components combined is incredibly moving.

In one wing of the synagogue is a display of children’s art from Terezín. Very few young ones lived through the war, but their art survived to depict their view of life. One picture, for example, shows a city park closed to Jewish children. These drawings and finger paintings were made under the direction of a teacher and fellow camp prisoner, Friedl Dicker, who hid more than 4,000 pieces in a briefcase before being sent to her death. The art was later found and sent to this synagogue for display.

As you leave the Jewish Quarter and walk around Prague, you’ll see memorial plaques in the sidewalks, known as stolperstein. The inscriptions contain names and dates of Jews deported during WWII. These are another reminder – never forget.

The Jewish Cemetery is part of the Jewish Museum. A small fee is required to enter the cemetery and the Pinkas Synagogue. Hours are Sunday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Saturdays.

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