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Jewish Sights in Hermanuv Mestec, Golcuv Jenikov and Drevikov

Order Tour Code: CEE10
Tour availability: Tour available in summer season Tour available in winter season

State orders that used to restrict the lives of the Jews from the Middle Ages markedly affected the look of their living space. Jewish aisles or ghettoes were always characterized with distinct architecture, creating cohorent islands inside towns and cities. The Jewish to Christian population ratio was often directly influenced by the manorial nobilities that administrated a certain town. Even though the Jews were directly subjected to the ruler, the manorial nobility often supported Jewish business activities from which the nobility benefited financially. For instance, in the town Hermanuv Mestec where the highest number of Jewish population reached 850 people, the local lords covered its Jews and introduced ingenious methods to circumvent unfavorable official regulations. Jewish buildings also displayed specific features. Due to the business restrictions that prohibited the Jews from undertaking most trades and farming, the Jewish houses were built according to strikingly different designs than those of their Christian neighbors. The Jewish houses had usually two floors even in little towns, thus standing out from the common ground-floor built-up areas. The Jews bred usually only a small stock of domestic animals to satisfy nothing but their own needs, they mainly raised poultry - hens and gees that provided an important source of lard that replaced prohibited pork. Some families had a cow or a draught horse. Quite often, one house was owned by several people and was inhabited by several Jewish families, which resulted from the cramped premises designed for the Jewish development. Another typical architectural feature was terraced houses built on narrow lots, their gable facing the street. A raised ground floor presented another measure that could provide more secure living condition in the event of raid. Unlike Christians, the Jews marked their houses with Roman numerals. On maps, however, Christian dwellings were symbolized by a cross and Jewish by a star.
It was due to a large number of restrictions that the livehood of most Jews was not too diverse - their most frequent occupation was that of tradesmen. Their business activities varied depending on their chattels and the Jewish business scene thus comprised both the richest Jews dealing in imported goods and financial means and the poorest door-to-door salesmen, second hand dealers, skin and hair buyers. The Jews often rented toll stations near roads and bridges. In the 19th century after all of the restrictions were lifted, many Jews sought incomes by operating alcoholshops and destilleries.
To practise its religion and its ceremonies, the Jewish community needed a rabbi or a teacher, a barber-surgeon and a butcher within the town´s reach. Religious rules allowed the Jews to eat only the meat that was butchered in a proper ritual way, i.e. it was bled quickly as blood is forbidden. Once the reforms of the Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790) permitted the Jews to study without any restrictions, many of them developed interest in so-called freelance jobs and became attorneys, physicians, etc. Following the relaxation of their social status and the acquisition of equal civil rights in the 2nd half of the 19th century, the Jews flexibly adapted to a newly developing industrial sector, becoming leading industrial figures in nearly all fields.

The Hermanuv Mestec Town and its Baroque Synagogue, the Rabbi´s House with the Jewish Cemetery

The oldest mention of the town dates back to the year 1325 at which time the local community had already been a chartered town. This always was a seigniorial town, its owners ranging from the House of Andel of Ronovce, Zerotin, Berka of Dube, Spork to the House of Kinsky, the last aristocratic family in charge who even made the local chateau their permanent residence.
The local Jewish settlement was organized here even prior to 1450and as such represents one of the oldest documented communities in the Chrudim region. It was most likely at the end of the 15th century that the local Jews had their own cemetery and synagogue. The first synagogue nfell victim to a fire that hit the town in 1623. The Jewish community in Hermanuv Mestec was created in the early 16th century. In 1570, there were 10 Jewish families. In the year 1643, the Chevra kadisha funeral society was founded, too.
In 1661, the Count Jan Karel Spork became the owner of the estate. Under his administration , the local Jewish community flourished. The Count made use of the houses that were abandoned during the 30-Years War and moved the Jews into a street nearby their cemetery thus creating a basis for a later ghetto. He also allowed the Jews to rebuild their own prayer room. In 1680 the town was visited by a plague that claimed many lives, leaving a large number of dilapidated houses behind. The Count Spork, called upon the Jews from the neighborhood to inhabit the abandoned houses. In the year 1724, 63 familes lived here, which translates into 277 people. The Jews who could not settle downtown were allowed to occupy empty houses in the immediate vicinity of the Jewish street, this sole street thus gave the rise to a Jewsih town that ran its own administration and had its won mayor, night watchman, police and aldermen. At the turn of the 17th century the town became the seat of the regional rabbi. Following the restrictions introduced by the Translocation Decree of 1726, the Jewish town became a ghetto. At night and during holidays, it was closed down by lifting gates posted at three entrance points. At the end of the 18th century, there were 47 Jewish houses compared to about 60 buildings in the year 1839. Many of them were demolished during the second half of the 20th century, some survived thansk to modifications, whereas the only structure retaining its original designin the newly reconstructed synagogue, a rabbinal house-school and a typical semi-detached house in the neighborhood that still awaits its reconstruction. The Jews were not allowed to live outside the ghetto until after 1848.
The baroque synagogue of stone was erected in 1760 and its foundation stone is said to have been knocked on by Count Jan Vaclav Spork. The synagogue was reconstructed , its front being finished with stone tables with the Ten Commandments that have been retained to our times. The tables were later restored by modern methods and refitted in the synagogue front. The facade under the tables displays the Hebrew quotation of Psalm 100. The synagogue has a gallery for women and the first floor, it used to be accessed through a wooden neck from the 1st floor of an adjacent house that served as a school and rabbinate. The synagogue remained in use until 1940 when the local Jewish community was cancelled. It was never renewed after WWII. The synagogue served all kinds of purposes. In 1947, it was bought along with an adjacent rabbi´s house ny the Bohemian Brethren Evangelic Church. The synagogue was preserved, but the 1980´s saw the demolition of most of the houses in the former Jewish ghetto. Following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the Jewish Culture Preservation Society was established in the town and the society began to work towards the preservation of Jewish sights - the synagogue, the rabbi´s house and the cemetery.

The Jewish cemetery dating to the 15th century is among the oldest and best-preserved Jewish cemeteries in the country. The oldest legible tombstone is from 1647. A total of 1,077 tombstones are arranged in 21 rows of unequal length, including a tomb from 1844 and large tombstones from the mid-19th century. The last burial took place in 1940. The tombstones, especially the older ones, are mostly from sandstone; the newer stones are from marble. Inscriptions are in Czech, German, Hebrew, and their various combinations. A mortuary from 1838 is situated approximately in the middle of the cemetery. The mortuary holds a communal coffin, thanks to which Jews were able to circumvent the decree from Emperor Josef II that all individuals must be buried in coffins. The communal coffin was used only for transport; afterwards burials were conducted in the traditional shroud. The site also features a restored funeral vehicle and several display cases that inform visitors about Jewish ritual customs and symbols. Next to the morgue there is a cemetery entrance gate. Inside the morgue, you can still see a community coffin that was purchased by local Jews to comply with the Joseph reforms that required everybody be burried in a coffin. The Jews kept getting round this regulation, they transported the deceased to a cemetery in a coffin but burried them in accordnace with a Jewish tradition, i.e. clothed in a shroud. The coffin was then reused during another funeral. The morgue also stores a restored hearse that comes from the Jewish cemetery in Horice. At present, the morgue is fitted with several display cabinets with information about Jewish ritual customs and ysmbols. Another specific feature of the Hermanuv Mestec cemetery is a so-called Cohanit gate that was constructed in the cemetery´s northern wall and is still passable today. The place is a sought-after cultural sight. The cemetery was proclaimed a cultural monument in 1991. It is possible to visit also the rabbi´s house.

The Golcuv Jenikov town, once a centre of Talmudic studies, the Syngogue and the Jewish Cemetery

Jews settled in Golcuv Jenikov most probably in the Middle Ages. A Jewish community and a synagogue are recorded only in the mid-17th century (earler records were destroyed during a fire). The town was an important Jewish centrein the 18th - 19th centuries (over 500 persons of the Jewish faith) with a tradition of Talmudic studies.
Isaac Mayer Wise (originally Weis, born in 1819 in Lomnicka - died in 1900 in Cincinnati, USA), the founding father of the American Reform Judaism, began studying in 1835 in the renowned local yeshivah of Rabi Aron Kornfeld. The English politician and philanthropist Sir Moses Mentfiore visited the yeshivah in 1842. Most of the Jewish families migrated to the large towns at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish population numbered only 79 persons in 1930. The Jewish community in Golcuv Jenikov had a rabi until 1930. After World War II the Jewish religious congregation ceased to exist and was not revived.
Golcuv Jenikov is the birthplace of the significant Judaist Friedrich Thieberger, that died in 1958 in Jerusalem and his sister Gertrude Urzidil that died in 1977 in New York, she was the wife of Johannes Urzidil.
The Jewish quarter was fairly\ extensive, spreading from the South of the square to the West, most probably with a medieval core. It was not a compact ghetto, Christian houses were scattered among the Jewish houses. There were about 50 houses in Jewish ownership in the 19th century. Most of the Jewish quarter has survived up to the present. Remains of a ritual bath are preserved in the basement of the former school, house No. 189, house No. 159 is the former rabi´s house. An Orthodox prayer-room of Galician refugees used to be in house No. 15 on the Southern side of the square during World War I.
The synagogue is in the centre of the Jewish quarter. It was built in the Moorish-Romanesque style in 1870 on the foundations of an earlier synagogue. It served as a synagogue until World War II, after the war it served as a prayer hall of the Hussite Church and the Czech Brethren´s Protestant Church. Since 1977 it has served as a depository of the State Jewish Museum. The aron ha-kodesh has been preserved.
The Jewish cemetery is 750 m NW of the synagogue, nearby the main road to Kolin. It is said to have existed as early as in the early 14th century, the oldest preserved tombstones date from the early 18th century. Remarkable Baroque tombstones and three ark-shaped tombs are to be found here. Burials also after WWII.

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The Jewish Village Drevikov
The first mention of the community of Drevikov goes back to the year 1542. In the early 18th century, the local noblemen provided Jews with protection and rights settlement. According to the 1781 Jewish census, the first people of Jewish religion arrived to Drevikov in 1701 to settle down in leased seigniorial houses, that means one-floor logged houses in the south of the community. The number of Jews in Drevikov increased in the course of the 18th century and a local Jewish community was established in the mid of the 18th century. Between the years 1724-1750 the Jews built a synagogue, mikveh and hospital on leased lots. After the introduction of the compulsory numbering of houses in 1770, the Jewish buildings were marked with Roman numerals I-VIII. The synagogue did not have its own number.Following the reforms of 1793, the Jews purchased the lot on which the synagogue and hospital had been erected from the local manorial lords. They also bought a piece of land for a new cemetery. After the year 1814, the synagogue was marked as building No. 43, it is possible to find it there today as well, though it wasd transformed into a residential building. The village also had its hospital that was later used as a school. Its recontrsucted building No. 45 still remains in place. It was operated as a school building until the 1860´s. Afterwards, the house was rebuilt two times. The school yard used to comprise a ritual bath mikveh facing the synagogue.
The Jewish street and the village square were proclaimed a preserved monument zone in 1995. The local Jewish monuments complement and open-air ethnographic museum called Vysocina that also includes a nearby group of farm buildings from all over Eastern Bohemia known as Merry Hill as well as some other monuments in surrounding villages.
The Jewish cemetery was set up in the first half of the 18th century. The cemetery boasts valuable Baroque and Classicist tombstones of which over 200 were still standing in the 1930´s. The oldest preserved tombstone comes from the year 1748. A true gem among the well-preserved tomstones is a wooden tombstone from the time of WWI, it was restored and is kept in the Vysocina etnographic museum. Another unique tombstone comes from the year 1852 and is made of cast iron.The entrance gate was fitted with fragments of the Baroque tombstones as well as with the texts that once decorated the oldest Baroque graves.

It is an 8 hour round trip.

The price list of Private Prague Sightseeing Tours.
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Last updated on Jul 21, 2011