Polná - The Hilsner case: An Arena of anti-semitism in the Czech lands

Visit a town with a bygone history of Jewish settlement that more than a century ago witnessed a crime unparalleled in Czech history. What happened there at the end of the 19th century is a warning that should never be forgotten. An innocent human life was destroyed by superstition, prejudice and anti-Semitism. Take a look behind the scenes of the events of 1899.
 
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Born in 1876, Leopold Hilsner was a Jewish youth who had failed to complete a shoemaking apprenticeship, a small trader and above all a wanderer. He dedicated his life to the strict adherence to religious traditions and rules and his dream was to become a cantor at a synagogue. But then came 1899. The body of Anežka Hrůzová, 19, was found in woodland near Polná. The girl, from the nearby village of Malá Věžnice, had a deep stab wound in her throat.

It was clear at first glance that she had been the victim of a violent crime, probably sexually motivated. Somebody proclaimed she had been “made kosher” and a rumour was born. According to two local doctors who examined the body, there was an unusually small amount of blood at the scene, which for locals was the definitive confirmation that the girl had been murdered in a Jewish ritual. Without any other evidence being proffered, Leopold Hilsner was charged with her killing. Several politicians, seeking to exploit strong anti-Semitic sentiment to bolster their own positions, fanned the flames during the subsequent trial. However, a group of leading Czech intellectuals, led by Charles University professor and future Czechoslovak president T.G. Masaryk, stood up vehemently against the superstition and prejudice. This counted for nothing as the courtroom turned from a forum for seeking the truth to an arena of anti-Semitism and Leopold Hilsner received the death penalty, subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. He was granted a pardon in 1918 but was never rehabilitated.
 

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Your tour of Polná’s historical landmarks begins at the synagogue, which comprises one of the highlights of the triangle where the erstwhile Jewish ghetto once stood. At the synagogue you will get an insight into local history via the Regional Jewish Museum’s exhibitions The Jews in Polná and The Leopold Hilsner Story. Right next door stands the Rabbi’s Residence, the arcades of which lead you directly to the centre of the former ghetto, today’s Karlova náměstí. Following the arcades of the Rabbi’s Residence leads you away from the Rabbi’s Lot, which marks the southern edge of the Jewish ghetto. Karlova náměstí, an unusual triangular square, is the perfect place to take a break and soak in the genius loci, as several centuries ago this was the centre of the local Jewish community. The entire ghetto comprises 32 mainly two-storey buildings whose walls have been silent witnesses to history. Head north, turn left and soon you will find yourself on another square, Husovo náměstí, where you can enjoy refreshments at the local cafés, restaurants and confectionaries. From Husova náměstí pass Sezimova náměstí to Nerudova St., at the end of which stands the Lower Gate, part of the original fortifications. Pass a factory building and you will arrive at a stream. It is there, on the outskirts of Polná, that you will find a historic Jewish cemetery whose origins date back to the 16th century.

Transportation

Polná is 149 km from the centre of Prague. It can be reached by car in approximately an hour and a half. The journey by bus or train takes two and a half hours.
 

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The Synagogue in Polná

Polná’s Jewish community was an integral part of the town from the 17th century. In 1682 the nobility gave the local Jews permission to establish their own closed quarter. One of the first buildings built there, in 1684–1685, was the synagogue.
 

Address

Karlovo náměstí 540, 588 13 Polná
GPS: 49.4852525, 15.7223278

Opening Hours

Entry fees

Standard fee: 50 Kč

Family fee: 130 Kč

Senior fee: 40 Kč

Student fee: 40 Kč

The Rabbi’s Residence in Polná

The synagogue in Polná was built at the beginning of the construction of the local Jewish ghetto in the second half of the 17th century. As the number of local Jews grew, housing for the rabbi and support facilities for the synagogue were needed. The town’s Rabbi’s Residence was created.

Address

Karlovo náměstí 540, 588 13 Polná
GPS: 49.4852783, 15.7216550

Opening Hours

Entry fees

Standard fee: 50 Kč

Family fee: 130 Kč

Senior fee: 40 Kč

Student fee: 40 Kč

The Jewish Cemetery in Polná

The Jewish cemetery in Polná is located at a spot where Jewish families lived prior to the creation of the town ghetto. It boasts a great number of historic tombstones and a rich history.