The Ancient Jewish Cemetery in Prague
Recently a rumor circulated through the Internet that commercial development was planned on the site of the Jewish Cemetery of Prague. A letter to that effect was posted on the BohMor listserver but, thanks to the prompt action of several of our members, we soon learned that the information was erroneous. Some correspondence on the topic can be found on the "Letters to AustriaCzech" page of this web site. Many thanks to Mila Rechcigl for forwarding the following "Statement of the Prague Jewish Community."
We also received a copy of a letter from the Board of Directors of the Czech Insurance Company that addresses the issue from their perspective. This letter was posted to the members of our BohMor discussion group, but will also be presented here for visitors to our web site. The letter follows the Statement of the Prague Jewish Community.
For an interesting, brief profile of the existing (never abolished) Old Jewish Cemetery, Rabbi Sidon and the existing Jewish community in the Czech Republic, see Judenrein:Text and Photos by APF fellow Jill Freedman.
Prague, January 13, 2000
The Jewish cemetery in question (not identical with the existing Old Jewish Cemetery located in a completely different part of Prague) was abolished in 1478 by the Czech sovereign Ladislas Jagiello (Vladislav Jagelonský). In the course of following five centuries, buildings were erected on the territory of this abolished cemetery; any skeletal remains of our ancestors found during the construction work performed there within half a millenium had been exhumed and reburied at the still existing Old Jewish Cemetery within Prague's Jewish Quarter; understandably, after such a prolonged period of construction activities in a densely populated urban area, neither the Jewish Community nor any historians or archeologists could foresee the existence of any preserved parts of the former cemetery including those discovered at the present construction site of the Czech Insurance Company.
Immediately upon the abolishment of the cemetery in the 15th century, all property rights of the Jewish community to the entire area became null and void; parcels of land located on the territory of the former cemetery or houses built on such lots became either State (or Crown) property or private property. Naturally, such development also applied to the lot owned by the Czech Insurance Company; presently, the respective lot is entered in the Land Register as the property of the Czech Insurance Company.
However, property rights in the Czech Republic can be restricted in the interest of protecting cultural monuments. Precisely on such grounds, the Jewish Community in Prague, upon the request of its Chief Rabbi, has taken steps to ensure the legal protection of these and other preserved parts of the abolished cemetery within the zones unaffected by construction. In cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Jewish Community immediately addressed the respective institutions, i. e. the Czech Insurance Company, the Czech Ministry of Culture, the Municipal Council of the Capital Prague, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the Monument Protection Authority, and the Archeology Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in order to prevent the imminent destruction of the part of the cemetery discovered on the construction site of the Czech Insurance Company. The result of the ensuing complicated negotiations was the proposal to catalogue all the interconnected segments of the abolished cemetery (at the present time, most of those segments are not immediately endangered) in order to ensure their lasting protection against damage and/or destruction by declaring them a cultural monument.
A separate issue within the entire problem area represented the question how to save the part of the cemetery located within the existing construction pit.
The first possible scenario was to halt all construction activities and alter the respective construction project. The construction work performed so far on the respective construction site has been executed on the basis of a valid construction permit; therefore, the Czech Insurance Company would be entitled to receive a commensurate indemnification if it were forced to abandon its ongoing project. According to the Czech Insurance Company, interrupting the construction work and altering the project would entail a loss amounting to ten million US dollars; the Ministry of Culture (representing the Czech state) is unable to pay such an indemnification; it is conceivable that no one else would provide the Czech Insurance Company with such a sum.
The second possible scenario was to exhume the bones and rebury them at a protected Jewish cemetery; besides irreversible damage to the respective section of the cemetery, accepting this scenario would create a dangerous precedent. Following this pattern - considering the lack of scruples on the part of some building contractors and the deficiency of the present Czech legislation in the field of protection of cultural monuments - could spell future destruction of further Jewish cemeteries which might still not revert to the Jewish Communities or whose existence is presently unknown.
Under these circumstances, the Czech Insurance Company, the Ministry of Culture, and the Jewish Community in Prague lead by their effort to find a satisfactory solution to the problem concluded a trilateral agreement involving the following components:
1) The Ministry of Culture will declare the locality owned by the Czech Insurance Company and all other parts of the cemetery in its original extent a cultural monument;After certain doubts regarding the suitability of the above-described decision were voiced outside the Czech Republic, Prague's Chief Rabbinate consulted members of the respective Rabbinical Court in Israel whereupon the Court approved of the position of Prague's Rabbinate. In a situation where some influential Jewish institutions have expressed their objections regarding the aforesaid approach (thus placing the Jewish Community in Prague into a second-rate position within its own area of competency) the Chief Rabbi of Prague has asked the Chief Rabbi of Israel to present his final opinion. Should the Chief Rabbi of Israel express disapproval of the above-mentioned preliminary agreement, the Jewish Community in Prague and its Chief Rabbinate will feel obliged to leave the representation of the right of our ancestors to rest in peace to those who assume they stand the chance to reach a better solution.
As a conclusion we can state that the graves located at the part of the cemetery discovered in the building pit remained intact. No bones were excavated and stored in 36 bags in a neighboring storehouse without guarding as Mr. Moshe Stern from London says in an article published on January 13, 2000 in the Jerusalem Post. On the contrary, activities of the Prague Jewish Community resulted in stopping the construction work and archaeological research above the graves' layer.
Efraim Sidon, Chief Rabbi of Prague and Land
the Board of Directors
In Prague 17th January 2000Dear Sirs,
Thank you for your interest regarding the history of Jewish inhabitancy in the Czech lands which characteristically has been truly multinational throughout the centuries.
Let us assure you that we do understand and appreciate your concern to save Jewish historical heritage, which is also part of our country's culture.
We would like to take this opportunity and express our hope that this letter will provide sufficient explanation of the historical and current aspects related to problem of the alleged destruction of an old Jewish burial ground in Vladislavova street in Prague by our company Ceska pojistovna. Mainly by explaining particular questions which could arise from lack of information.
To understand the situation fully in its complexity, it is necessary to obtain a range of background information, which as we understand from your appeal is not available to you.
Therefore, let us explain and inform you of further facts, which we sincerely hope will help you to create a better picture regarding the whole matter.
We would also like to assure you that Ceska pojistovna's main concern was not only to comply with all Czech legal requirements but Ceska pojistovna has also paid a great attention to all moral and ethical norms prior to the consideration, reconstruction and completion of development of the first part of a new administrative building in Prague's Vladislavova street.
The present situation is as follows: The construction of the new building has stopped and there is no archaeological research going on. We are expecting to receive a decision from the Czech Republic's Ministry of Culture whether the location of the former Jewish burial ground should be proclaimed as a cultural heritage site or not.
During the past two years Ceska pojistovna has tried diligently to find a suitable solution for all interested parties. At the end of last year Ceska pojistovna, Czech archaeologists and the local Jewish Community held a meeting which resulted in a compromise satisfactory to all interested parties.
The statement which was accepted by all interested parties states that the agreed solution seems to be the most suitable one, respecting the owner's rights and interests, the Jewish religion, and it also respects the requirements for the preservation of archaeological treasures as stated by Czech law. This document was signed in November 1999 by Mr. Milan Maderyc, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ceska pojistovna, Mr. Jiri Danicek, Chairman of Prague's Jewish Community, Mr. Karol Sidon, Chief Rabbi, and Mr. Ladislav Spacek, Director of Prague's Institute of National Heritage.
Ceska pojistovna has done everything it possibly could to find a satisfactory solution to the problem. Ceska pojistovna also has to stress that the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Culture plays a very important role in this matter. Since February 1999 it has been conducting procedures as to whether the location formerly known as the "Jewish Garden" should be proclaimed as a cultural heritage site. Formal proceedings have not reached any conclusion yet, and unfortunately this extremely sensitive and complex situation is providing room for even greater complications.
To understand the current situation it is very important to know some of the historical facts. The remains of the old Jewish burial ground, which were uncovered by a group of archaeologists prior to the commencement of the proposed development, dates back to the 13th century. This burial ground, possibly the first Jewish graveyard in the Czech lands, was called the "Jewish Garden" and was in use for two centuries until the period of Hussite wars. Then, as a result of a lack of maintenance, the place called the "Jewish Garden" became dilapidated.
A new resting place for the deceased was established in the now world famous Jewish cemetery in Prague’s Old Town which is for the whole population of the Czech Republic a place of great historical importance. As a result of the new cemetery establishment, several generations of Jews gave up their affiliation to the original cemetery site and during the reign of the late Czech king Vladislav Jagellonsky they transferred the ownership of the land to the city council.
In 1478 with the agreement of the Jewish Community the majority of the remains which had already been placed on top of each other were transferred to other Jewish cemeteries, mainly in Prague's Old Town. The land was divided into plots, which were bought by Prague residents who started to build on them. In exchange for the original location of the "Jewish Garden" Jewish people received many privileges and benefits from the king, which were previously held only by Christians. Some historical research suggests, that the Jewish Community received financial compensation for voluntary transfer of the "Jewish Garden".
From the late 15th century onwards, the layout of Prague's historical centre remains undisturbed, however the location formerly known as the Jewish Garden has been redeveloped on numerous occasions. Only modern technological advances have allowed the recovery of any remains previously buried at this location.
The present legal owner of the plot - whose owners, after the Jewish Community transferred the land to the town council in 15th century, changed throughout the centuries - is Ceska pojistovna, which has decided to build on it a modern building serving the needs of its international clientele.
The building is architecturally planned in a way to become an integral part of the historical city centre. The present reconstruction, which involves further development of necessary technical facilities, underground parking and a theatre entrance, has commenced and continued as planned on a basis of valid planning permission.
In accordance with local building directives, every new administrative building, which is built in the historical centre of Prague, must also comply with international building directives. These include certain building aspects such as underground areas serving not only as car parks but also housing the technical facilities of the building.
Under the current Czech legal system, prior to the commencement of the work underground it is necessary to employ a group of archaeologists whose job is to survey, find and remove valuable historical artifacts which are part of the history of nations settled in the Czech lands.
Surprisingly, results of the archaeological research on this site have shown that there are still remains of the original burial ground. This discovery differs from the information provided by historical documents. However, the majority of graves were transferred to different cemeteries many centuries ago. Some of these cemeteries are still in use today.
Representatives of Ceska pojistovna held numerous meetings with representatives of Prague's Jewish Community and with Czech archaeologists and offered acceptable, sensible and lawful solutions.
Among the options was one offering to transfer remains from the site to the State Jewish Museum in Prague and it also offered to provide suitable premises in the new building to commemorate our ancestors and to exhibit valuable historical artifacts.
In May 1999 representatives of Ceska pojistovna met with representatives of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad arranged by the US Embassy. Director of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad Mr. Michael Lewan agreed that providing such premises was an acceptable solution, which was similar to arrangements made elsewhere in the world.
The latest concept agreed by Prague's Chief Rabbi Mr. Karol Sidon goes even further to respect the Jewish religion. The concept suggests the isolation of the complete block of earth, which according to archaeologists contains several layers of intact graves, by excavating below this level and then lowering the entire block containing the graves vertically down. The main building would be built above the level of the graves. The block containing the graves would therefore have only moved vertically simulating the natural process over the centuries.
In conclusion, please, let us assure you that for our company these archaeological findings again confirm the multicultural historical continuity of Central Europe in general and Prague in particular, which deserves our honour and deepest respect. This has led us to pay great attention to finding the solution acceptable to all parties. We hope that a statement from the representatives of Prague's Jewish Community is sufficient guarantee that our company's approach is the most suitable one.
Predstavenstvo Ceska pojistovny a.s.
URGENT URGENT URGENT
URGENT URGENT URGENT URGENT
The spurious reports about the Prague Jewish Cemetery are VERY CORRECT!
This is an excert from the STATEMENT of the
Prague jewish community:
the construction work and archaeological research
above the graves'
THIS IS NOT TRUE!
TOMOROW - THURSDAY -- 24. February 2000 --
there will be a FUNERAL
This was accomplished by the large world-wide campaign of the "Committee
for the Preservation of Jewish Cemetries in
Europe" and with the
The "Committee for the Preservation of Jewish
Cemetries in Europe" is a
THESE ARE FACTS, THAT SOME PEOPLE TRY TO DENIE.
ANYONE HAVING A PROBLEM WITH THIS SHOULD GO
AND HAVE A LOOK IN PRAGUE ON
THERE IS STILL A LOT OF WORK TO DO!!! PLEACE
DON'T STAND BY!!
The Prague Jewish Cemetery thread is NOT cut with this post YET"!
THE COMMITTE FOR THE PRESERVATION OF JEWISH
CEMETRIES IN EUROPE
Thursday February 24 1:43 PM ET
Jews Blocked From Re-Burying Remains in Prague
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Jewish demonstrators failed in a bid Thursday to re-bury remains uncovered by construction workers at the site of a 13th Century Jewish cemetery in the center of Prague.
The group of several dozen Jews, many from Israel, North America and elsewhere in Europe, escorted a lorry filled with boxes of the remains to Vladislavova Street, where Czech insurance company Ceska Pojistovna has sought to build a parking garage and offices.
A previous building already constructed over the cemetery site was torn down and the bones were uncovered last year during deeper digging for the car park.
Pojistovna said in a statement it would stick to a written agreement with Czech authorities and the Jewish Community aiming to commemorate and protect the religious site without halting construction and increasing financial losses.
Pojistovna said it could not allow the Jewish demonstrators into the site Thursday for safety reasons and the company objected to the “unauthorized demonstration” which it said was organized from abroad and was blocking traffic.
“Ceska Pojistovna resolutely distances itself from such pressure tactics which abuse the public as hostages for the strengthening of negotiating positions, and whose only intent is to portray (Pojistovna) negatively in the media,” it said.
The Jews said it was their religious duty to re-bury the bones at their original resting place, but the excavation site remained locked.
In late afternoon rain, the Jews ended their protest for the day, but said they would return.
"We have to stay here until the bones are buried,'' one of the Jewish leaders told Reuters at the site.
The controversy at the site has drawn the attention of Jewish groups in Europe, Israel and the United States.
The Prague Jewish Community appreciates the interest with which so many Jewish institutions and individuals have expressed these days their concern regarding a construction project and a Jewish cemetery here in our city. Apparently, word has gotten out that the cemetery in question is the historic old Jewish cemetery in the heart of the Jewish quarter. This is, however, not the case, the grave of the famous Rabbi Loew, or Maharal, is and will remain intact. Here we will attempt to set the record straight:
Some months ago, Ceska Pojistovna, Czech insurance company, began rebuilding its headquarters in the Nove Mesto quarter of Prague. During the obligatory archaeological research the workmen found the traces below ground of a Jewish cemetery dating back to the fourteenth century. While historians were well aware that this cemetery existed, they had long ago drawn the conclusion that its graves had been exhumed and relocated during the sixteenth century. Yet in 1999, we found that many of the graves remained--unknown to all for nearly six hundred years.
The Jewish Community of Prague immediately urged the Insurance Company to reconsider its building plans so that the graves could remain as they were. The firm hesitated, as this would mean additional costs and delay. The PJC therefore started a process to name the site a historical protected monument and called for international support. An office of the Czech Culture Ministry gave however green light to completion of the archaeological research which in practice would have meant exhumation of the graves before the process of the naming the site a historical monument would be completed. The PJC protested, the Chief Rabbi even called a demonstration that attracted several dozen people. The Minister of Culture Pavel Dostal then stopped the archaeological research and the process of naming the site still continues; it should take at least another 6 months. Meanwhile also the Insurance Company is respecting this decision and is waiting for the final result of the process. The PJC hopes that the site will be protected and the graves remain intact and the company will respectively change the project. The matter is currently still not resolved and under review by authorities.
It has been particularly gratifying for the Prague Jewish Community to see how many friends have responded to this issue. It shows a commonality of spirit that we very much appreciate. The problem with information spread over the Internet, however, means that on occasion, information is not presented quite as correctly as it could be and could become even counterproductive. This seems to have been one of those times. The good news is that the famous Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague, which was never involved in this issue, remains intact and open for pilgrims as well as for large public.
The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish
* Webmaster’s Note: The words “cemetery” and “cemeteries” are consistently misspelled in this document. I shall make no further reference to this misspelling, as it will continue to appear as originally received. Numerous other misspellings have been corrected.
Issued by the Committee for the Preservation
Desecration of Prague's Oldest Jewish Cemetry
In view of misinformation recently appearing in the media regarding the events surrounding the desecration of the oldest Jewish Cemetry in Prague, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemetries in Europe wishes to clearly set out the principal developments that have led to the present crisis.
Early May 99:
14th and 30th December:
5th Jan 00:
A visit to the site before the meeting revealed that a large area of the cemetry had been excavated to a depth of 3-4 meters since first meeting in May 95. Twenty-five boxes containing bones which have been unearthed during the excavations, stored by Ceska Pojistovna of local archaeologists, in an adjoining building, despite the agreement that no graves would be disturbed.
Strenuous efforts by Dr. B. Fryshman of the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemetries (NY), through diplomatic channels including almost daily contacts with Mr. William Martin (US Embassy, Prague), eventually succeeding in obtaining temporary freeze on all work on site.
1. It is clear beyond the slightest shadow of doubt that the site that Ceska Pojistovna wishes to develop on Vladislavova Street is that of an ancient Jewish Cemetery that still contains human remains.
2. This fact is not questioned and has never been questioned by Ceska Pojistovna, the Czech Ministry of Culture or the local archaeological experts.
3. The claim that bones unearthed on the site are only animal bines is ridiculous and has never been made by anyone with reliable knowledge of the facts.
4. The claim that this Jewish Cemetery was "voluntarily abandoned at the end of the 15th Century" is ridiculous and shows ignorance of Jewish Law and practice as well as a total ignorance of Prague's Jewish history.
5. The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemetries in Europe has never issued any e-mail pleas for the preservation of the cemetry, nor has ever made the claim that the famous Maharal of Prague is buried there.
6. The oldest known Jewish cemetry in Europe
has been vandalized in the course of this construction project and is currently
at risk of further desecration. The "compromise" agreed by Rabbi Sidon
has been criticized by leading orthodox Rabbinical authorities worldwide
as being against Hlacha (Jewish Law) and the Committee fails to understand
how and why Rabbis Sidon and Prague's Jewish Community leaders can continue
8th February '00:
The statement emphasizes the fact that no one with any knowledge of the situation in Prague, either at the Czech Ministry of Culture of Ceska Pojistovna has at any stage questioned that the site at VLADISLAVOVA STREET is a Jewish cemetery and still contains Jewish graves. This has also been confirmed by local archaeologists. The suggestion that all bones unearthed there are animal bones is ridiculous and is misleading the public. The suggestion made by a spokesman of Ceska Pojistovna that the cemetery "was voluntarily abandoned by Prague's Jewish community at the end of the 15th century" reveals a total ignorance of Jewish law and practice as well as a total ignorance of Prague's Jewish history.
The Committee further states, that the " compromise" signed by representatives of Prague's Jewish Community proposing "To sink the graves ... and construct the underground garages on top of them", has been criticized by leading rabbinical figures around teh world including the Chief Rabbis of Israel, the UK, France and Holland, as being against Jewish Law. The Committee says that it is this "compromise" of Rabbi Sidon (which has been widely and unanimously condemned by leading recognized Rabbinical figures all over the world) which is currently the main obstacle to finding a solution to this crisis and it cannot understand how and why Rabbi Sidon of Prague can continue to support this agreement in the face of universal Rabbinical opposition.
The crisis over Prague's recently rediscovered oldest Jewish Cemetery has now deepened, resulting in plans for worldwide protest demonstrations by orthodox Jews, including a protest outside the Czech Embassy in London on the 17th February and a mass prayer service at the site in Vladislavova Street in the center of Prague on Monday the 28th February.
On the 1st of March 00 there is planned for demonstrations by orthodox Jews outside the Czech Embassy in London, Brussels, New York, and Canada.
In spite of great efforts to find a compromise solution, particularly by Mr William Martin, of the US Embassy in Prague, who with great devotion and tireless efforts has been working continuously to arrange an acceptable solution between all the parties, meetings with representatives of Ceska Pojistovna, the Czech Republic's major insurance company, who wish to build an office block on the cemetery site, have so far failed to achieve a solution, mainly due to the complete ignorance of the Czech Ministry of Culture who have a key role in this matter.
The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemetries in Europe and the council of academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemetries, the two principal grounds involved in the campaign to protect the cemetery, have urged orthodox Jews to write to those responsible, appealing for a complete halt to all building plans on the cemetery site.
It has to be noted that with the help of Mr. Martin of the US Embassy in Prague, a stop has been made to further work on the site, but an official freeze from the Czech Ministry of Culture, has not been imposed, despite all diplomatic efforts.
Meanwhile, inspections of the site by Rabbi
M. Eckstein, an expert emissary of
Local archaeologists confirmed that human bones from the cemetery are being held at the Department of Anthropology at the State Museum in Prague, for scientific investigations. Appeals by the Orthodox Jewish Community, with the devoted assistance of Mr. Martin, for their immediate return for reburial have so far gone unheeded.
A Spokesman for the Rabbinical Board of The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemetries in Europe says "The protest will be a cry from the hearts of thousands of Orthodox Jews, who are pained at the desecration of their ancestors’ resting places who, after being persecuted and tortured in the Middle Ages, now face destruction in a modern, civilized and democratic world, and against the violation of Human and Religious Rights by the Czech Government (who now wish to join the European Union).
It is hoped that last minute attempts will result with the co-operation of the Czech Government with the worldwide Orthodox Jewish Community and a meeting between high-ranking Government officials and representatives of the Orthodox Jewish Community will finally reach to an acceptable solution to this crisis.
For further enquiries phone: Secretary: A. Ginsberg - +44 7968 012 776
Radio Prague E-news
Written/read by: Rob Cameron
Israel's Chief Rabbi says work must stop on burial site
Israel's Chief Rabbi has ruled that work must stop on an office block being built on the site of a 13th century Jewish burial ground in central Prague. The Czech Republic's Chief Rabbi Karel Sidon said he had received a letter from Israel containing the Chief Rabbi's ruling, which forbade any further work on the site. The burial ground was rediscovered two years ago when the Ceska Pojistovna insurance company began digging foundations for an office block and underground car park. The site, believed to be the oldest Jewish burial ground in the country, was closed in the late 1400s, and its precise location had remained a mystery.
Wednesday March 29 12:18 PM ET
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech cabinet agreed on Wednesday to a compromise plan which allows for the construction of an office building over the site of a medieval Jewish cemetery while preserving the centuries old remains.
Plans by insurer Ceska Pojistovna to build its new headquarters over the 13th century burial site had sparked an outcry from Jewish groups around the world.
In a deal struck with the Prague Jewish Community and Pojistovna, the government agreed to contribute to a 60 million crown ($1.62 million) plan to alter the construction.
The government will pay up to 45 million crowns*
to leave the 240 square meter cemetery site untouched. The foundations
will be built around the site, which will be encased in concrete.
"The government, led by efforts to find the best compromise, chose this solution, under which a part of the Jewish cemetery...will become a part of the Pojistovna building,'' Culture Minister Pavel Dostal told a news conference.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, leader of the North American Board of Rabbis which had asked the Czech government to find a compromise acceptable to Jews around the world, praised the decision.
``I would like to congratulate the Czech government and the Czech people for recognizing sacred interests over economic interests,'' Schneier told Reuters by telephone.
*($1.00 U.S. = 37.15 Czech Crown)