When we think of Czech history we think of Czechs and Austrians, of Catholics and Protestants. But there was also a large Jewish population in the Czech Lands. In fact, from the Middle Ages onward the Czech Lands were the home of a prosperous Jewish community.
The Jewish population of the Czech Lands was part of the Jewish community of Central Europe, and as such it suffered many of the hardships common to the Jews of neighboring lands. There were occasional pogroms, massacres and expulsions, but the Jews always returned to the Czech Lands because they were a good place to live, and their numbers were augmented by Jewish immigrants from less tolerant regions.
The history and culture of Bohemian, Moravian and Silesian Jews, then, are the history and culture of the Jewish community of Central Europe. And one of the most prominent Prague Jews became legendary throughout the region.
Judah Loew (Jehuda Loew ben Bezalel) was born in Poznan, Poland, in the 1520’s, to a prominent Jewish family from Germany. From 1553 to 1573 he was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Mikulov, Moravia. Eventually he became the chief rabbi in Prague.
After Rabbi Loew’s death an eerie legend grew up about him. Supposedly he created a giant, soulless man from the clay of the bank of the Vltava River. This being, which is known as the golem, was bound to serve Rabbi Loew by protecting the Jewish community of Prague from the machinations of its would-be evil-doers. Loew communicated with the golem by writing instructions on a slip of paper and then placing the paper in the golem’s mouth.
There are many stories about Rabbi Loew and the golem. The following story illustrates the ever-present precarious situation of the Jews in Christian Europe, as well as the role of the golem.
There was in Prague a certain butcher who owed a wealthy Jewish merchant a large sum of money. The butcher saw no way that he could pay the money back, so he hatched a plot to implicate the merchant in a hideous crime.
There were people in those days who believed that the Jews sacrificed Christian children and used their blood in their religious ceremonies, especially at the time of Passover. Such ignorance and bigotry were at the root of many a pogrom in Christian Europe.
Just before Passover the butcher stole the corpse of a recently buried Christian girl from a local cemetery. He wrapped her in a Jewish prayer cloth and then hid her in the carcass of a slaughtered animal. He then set out for the house of the wealthy Jew to whom he owed the money. He was going to hide the body in the merchant’s cellar, and then denounce him to the police for sacrificing a Christian child. The merchant would be tried and executed, and the butcher would be off the hook, so to speak.
What the butcher did not know was that Rabbi Loew had instructed the golem to roam the streets of the ghetto at night to keep an eye out for anything strange. When the golem saw a stranger trying to carry the carcass of a dead animal into the cellar of the wealthy merchant in the dark of night, he grabbed the butcher, tied him up, and carried him and the animal carcass to the authorities. The girl’s body was found and the butcher confessed his evil plot. The rich merchant was saved from certain death and the Jewish community of Prague was spared a possible pogrom.
Rabbi Loew died in 1609, and he was buried in Prague’s old Jewish cemetery. Today it is a custom in Prague to write a wish on a piece of paper and slip it through a crack into Rabbi Loew’s tomb. Supposedly the wish will come true.
- Robert Janak
“The Golem of Jewish Prague,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), August 1997, pages 7-8.