European history is nothing if not turbulent. For Jewish communities, that turbulence was more like a tornado season lasting centuries: violent upheaval, death, destruction, expulsion, and less than a century ago, near extinction. Between these periods of antisemitic insanity, there were times when European Jews thrived, prospered, and ascended to elevated political positions.
In Europe, there are countless cities and towns where Jewish communities flourished, suffered, and were often obliterated. Yet, despite the most recent attempt to destroy the Jews, their stories survive in historic buildings, museums, and monuments throughout the continent.
Here are five of the most fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking sites. Most are not as well known as Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, but they also have stories to tell and lessons to teach.
1. Jewish Quarter In Prague, Czech Republic
Prague’s Jewish Quarter, located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River, is a solemn reminder of several dark chapters in the city’s history.
Most of the quarter’s significant historical structures are still standing, and form a complex of some of the best-preserved historical Jewish monuments in Europe. Ironically, they owe their survival to Hitler’s twisted mind. He decided to turn Prague’s Jewish Quarter into a museum of an extinct race. Valuable artifacts seized throughout Europe were stored there, and many are now on display at the Jewish museum.
The Jewish Museum is one of the oldest in Europe. It is a unique complex of historical sites that tell the story of the Jews of Prague. Among them are the remarkable 16th- century-old Jewish Cemetery, the Spanish Synagogue, with its impressive Moorish-style interior, and the 1592 Maisel Synagogue.
Along with the museum complex, be sure to visit the 13th century early gothic style Old-New Synagogue, the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe. Today it is the main house of worship for Prague’s small Jewish community.
2. Jewish History In Krakow, Poland
The district of Kazimierz in Krakow served as a safe haven for Jews escaping persecution elsewhere in Europe. From the 13th century, Jews could count on Kazimierz, until September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. At the time, there were approximately 70,000 Jews living in Kazimierz. Today, there are only 200 remaining in Krakow.
At the outbreak of World War II, Krakow was home to approximately 90 synagogues. Today, only seven remain, and of these, only four function as houses of worship. All are worth seeing, but three are not to be missed.
The Old Synagogue is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Krakow. Today it serves as a museum documenting the history of Jews in the city.
Tempel Synagogue is a truly remarkable structure with stunning stained glass windows. Services are held periodically, but the building is mostly used as a venue for concerts and other events.
Remuh Synagogue is the only one of the seven that holds regular services. Be sure to also visit the nearby historic Jewish cemetery.
In 1941, the Nazis forcibly relocated the entire Jewish population across the Wisla River to the Podgórze District. The district had been emptied of all non-Jews and closed off to become the Krakow Ghetto.
The nightmare of the ghetto is memorialized in Ghetto Heroes Square with the haunting, heart-wrenching Empty Chairs Memorial. Seventy bronze and iron chairs, each representing 1,000 murdered Krakow Jews, stand in silent remembrance.
In 1943, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto. In the blink of an eye, no known Jews lived in Krakow, with the exception of the 1,200 who worked in Oscar Schindler’s enamel factory.
Oscar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party. He began employing Jews as cheap labor, but once he understood the horrific conditions under which Jews lived and died, he was determined to save as many as he could.
Schindler’s factory is now a museum. Interactive exhibits tell the story of Krakow during the unspeakably brutal Nazi Occupation. The museum also delves into the lives of Oscar Schindler and the Jews who lived because of his decision to do what was right.
Pro Tip: Although difficult to absorb, the Auschwitz/Birkenau extermination camps, a day trip from Krakow, will provide a deeper understanding of Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” and the systematic and brutal way in which it was carried out.
3. Jewish District In Budapest, Hungary
The Jewish District houses the remains of Budapest’s shattered Jewish community that once lived and thrived in the city. Two-thirds of Hungary’s Jewish population was slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis who occupied Hungary in March 1944, and the antisemitic Arrow Cross Hungarian party, which seized control in October of the same year.
If you see nothing else in the district, be sure to spend some time at the Dohány Synagogue, the largest in Europe. The complex, a series of connected courtyards, also contains a cemetery, memorial garden, and museum. During the Holocaust, the complex became a stifling ghetto for thousands of Jews.
Built in 1859, Dohany Street is a Moorish-style Reform synagogue. Two 142-foot brick towers and the green onion-shaped domes are a sight you want to drink in before entering. And the 3,000 seat interior is equally impressive.
The simplest, yet most powerful tribute to the murdered Jews of Budapest isn’t in the Jewish District. The Shoes on the Danube Memorial is located on the riverbank, in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building. Iron shoes of different styles and sizes point toward the river., representing one of the cruelest episodes in Hungarian history.
During the fall of 1944, Arrow Cross militiamen regularly rounded up Jewish men, women, and children, herded them to the banks of the Danube, forced them to remove their shoes, and ordered them to face the river. They then shot their victims and let the river carry them away.
The memorial plaque reads “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005.
4. The Jewish Quarter In Rome
This delightful neighborhood dates back to the 2nd century B.C. and is the oldest Jewish settlement in Europe. It is a hodgepodge of boutiques, kosher restaurants, and bakeries alongside historic sites. You can easily access the Jewish Quarter on foot from trendy Trastevere, across a stone bridge over the Tiber River. The neighborhood is compact and is easy to navigate.
The Great Synagogue of Rome is a magnificent Art Nouveau building constructed in 1904. The synagogue is also home to a small museum devoted to Rome’s Jewish history.
Via Portico d’Ottavia is the street surrounding the synagogue. During the Middle Ages, it was the location of the fish market. The portico bears an old marble tablet inscribed with units of measure.,
Tragically, in 1943, this area became the site of one of Rome’s most infamous events. On October 16, Nazi soldiers rounded up 2,000 of the quarter’s Jewish residents and deported them to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. A plaque in memory of the victims serves as a reminder of what happened, and what must never happen again.
Before you leave the Jewish Quarter, be sure to stop in Piazza Mattei and enjoy the charming 16th-century Turtle Fountain, featuring boys holding bronze turtles.
Pro Tip: Jewish restaurant and shop owners close their establishments on Friday evening and all day Saturday in observance of the Sabbath. During this time, the synagogue holds services and is not open to the public. For these reasons, Sunday through Friday morning and Christian holidays are the best times to visit the Jewish Quarter.
5. Medieval Ritual Bath In Besalú, Spain
Located on Spain’s Costa Brava, the medieval town of Besalú is a short 35-minute drive from the city of Gerona. There, a historical stew of Roman, Jewish, and Christian structures awaits. But the most awe-inspiring experience by far lies in the Jewish Quarter, behind a hidden door and 36 stone steps down from the square. Two windows cast an eerie light into a stone chamber. This is a remarkably preserved 13th-century mikvah or Jewish ritual bath.
Orthodox Judaism requires women to purify themselves in a mikvah before marriage, following childbirth, and after menstruation. The process involves total immersion in a pool containing water that flows from a natural source, such as a spring, river, or from rain. The function of the mikvah is to cleanse the soul, therefore, the body has to be clean before entering the pool.
Besalu’s mikvah was in use until the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish population by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Their reign of terror gave birth to the Inquisition which sought to expose and execute those who secretly practiced religions other than Catholicism.
The mikvah is hidden behind a locked door. In order to see it, you will have to request the key from the tourism office.
Pro Tip: Spring and fall are the best times to visit all these sites. You’ll avoid the crowds, and have more time to explore.
Europe is a treasure trove of history, and there are many sites to visit that will help enrich your knowledge of the events of World War II: