The Jewish cemetery in Prague. Source: Private Prague Guide

Passion in Prague

One of the more evocative places in Prague is the Jewish churchyard and the Altneuschul, the oldest active synagogue in Europe. Built in gothic style in 1270 it was the scene of a terrible pogrom in 1389.

Medieval Histories April 2012 - CoverThe year 1389 was especially dangerous for the Jewish community in Prague as the Jewish Pesach (Passover) and the Christian Pasqua (Easter) coincided. Simply said, Christians were in danger of becoming enflamed by the hateful renderings of the Passion of Christ. Occasionally, this might lead to virulent blaming of the Jews and erupt into mob violence.  A particularly hateful atmosphere might occur during the Jewish preparations when the Jews were baking the matzah, a dough Christian myth claimed might be mixed with the blood of Christian children.

As usual, the Jews were forbidden to appear in public between Holy Thursday and Easter. However, the Jewish quarter in Prague was at this time (as later) crammed with people some of which were Christians. At some point, on Holy Saturday a procession worked its way through the tiny alleys carrying the host to a dying Christian. Somehow this became the proverbial spark as the Christians afterwards claimed that stones had been thrown at them, spilling the host on the ground. Whatever the truth behind this, it ended in
 tragedy when some of the Jews were hauled into town in or- der to be punished. Come Easter Sunday, Christians, not satisfied with this, swarmed into the Jewish quarter armed with stones, swords and axes. After the quarter had been set ablaze, the Jews took refuge in the Altneuschul, where they started to “sanctify the name” (Kiddush ha-Shem) by killing first their children and afterwards themselves. Rather than submitting to a down- right massacre or forced baptisms this was since Roman persecutions the traditional way out

The death toll has recently been calculated to be around 4 – 500, approximately half to two-thirds of the Jews in Prague at that time.

And then the looting began. Unfortunately the king, who was highly dependent on the income from the taxation of the Jewish Community, afterwards ordered the amassed valuables delivered at the castle. One source claimed that values to the amount of five barrels of silver ended up in the coffers of the king. Some even hinted at the king having been personally involved in the instigation of the murders and persecutions.

The pogrom in Prague does not fall into the general pattern of European pogroms, neither the early ones connected with the crusades and perpetrated by Muslims as well as Christians or the later wave prompted by the Black Death. It was just one of those infamous recurrent events, which from time to time would blot the history of medieval Europe.

Today people can visit the actual place, where the horrendous killings took place. Moreover, each year the special lament or elegy, Et Kol ha-Tela’ah asher Mea’atnu, which was composed by Rabbi Avigdor Kara after the killings, is read at Yom Kippur in Prague.

The Passion of the Jews in Prague

Inside the Old New Synagogue, Altneuschul, in Prague. Source: wikipedia
Inside the Old New Synagogue, Altneuschul, in Prague. Source: wikipedia

Another reason to remember this particular pogrom is a text, which was written in the aftermath: The passion of the Jews in Prague. Recently the object of a meticulous study by the church historian Barbara Newman, this curious text – the Passion
– must be classified as a parody, although it in no way possesses the humorous aspects, which we connect with this genre. Nevertheless, it is still a parody in so far as it tells the story of the events in 
Prague with the Jews in the role of Jesus, but with the added twist, that the killing of them (as opposed to him) was totally righteous!

Source for the parody are texts from the Bible, primarily the Gospels of St. Mathew and St. John, from which lengthy passages are picked, and transformed. Over 90 biblical verses are cited, although often twisted. For instance, the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane is reversed. While the actual saying (according to Matthew) is “Yet not as I will, but as you will”, the ringleader of the Christian mob exclaims that the outcome of the violence, will not be as the Jews “want, but as we will”.

According to Barbara Newman, such twisting creates a literary space for the reader, who is constantly reminded of the radical nature of the “real” passion, which serves as a sounding board for the story about the Passion of the Jews in Prague. On the one hand, there is the Passion in Prague about the Jews, who the mob believed “had it coming”, a bunch of mercenary rioters and the ruthless magistrates. On the other hand, there is the Passion of Christ.

Newman is of the opinion that this sounding board – the biblical passion – radically undermines the points, the author of the Prague Passion tried to make. She believes, that the anonymous author “saw the events in Prague as renewing the Savior’s vengeance against the Jews”. In Barbara Newman’s words, the formula for the parody, which the author picked – the passion of Christ – created a “textual unconscious that, despite the author’s best efforts, allows the grace of irony and pity to seep through”.

Whether the anonymous author was conscious about this – which is not the opinion of Barbara Newman – is not easy to ascertain in
so far as the Passion is currently unavailable apart from a translation into Czech. In her book: “Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred”, we are promised a translation into English, and the possibility of addressing these questions will become widely possible.

Which is important! One reason is the curious fact that one of the manuscripts containing the Passion from Prague, according to Barbara Newman, stems from the Cathedral and contains some anti-Hussite works.

It is well known that the early Protestant reformer, Jan Huss (1369 – 1415), is presumed to have had friendly dealings with the Jews in Prague and especially the afore- mentioned Rabbi Avigdor Kara. And on the gravestone of Avigdor Kara – the oldest in the cemetery in Prague, his father is given the epithet of a martyr. He was presumably killed in the massacre.

One wonders whether the parody was more than just a parody on the Passion of Christ? Maybe it was an elegant parody on the hate-speech of the burghers in Prague around 1400. One might even wonder: Did Jan Huss or one of his friends write it? Presumably, he was already studying at the University during the fateful Easter of 1389 and must have seen the happenings up close. And felt disgusted!


The Passion of the Jews of Prague. The Pogrom of 1389 and the Lessons of a Medieval Parody.
By Barbara Newman
Church History, 2012  81: 1-26


Gentile tales CoverGentile Tales. The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews. 
By Miri Rubin.
University of Pennsylvania Press 2003






Medieval Crossover coverMedieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred.
By Barbara Newman
University of Notre Dame Press 2013



Jewish Heritage in Prague


The Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Source: The Private Prague Guide





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