Report on the Prague Cemetery Controversy:
"Old Jewish Cemetery" not in Danger,
but Conflict Continues over Medieval Cemetery in Nove Mesto
By Samuel Gruber
In recent weeks, an e-mail report has been widely distributed denouncing a Czech Republic insurance company for plans to build "residential properties on the site currently occupied by the old Jewish cemetery in the Jewish Quarter of Prague." ISJM [International Survey of Jewish Monuments] has been inundated with queries about the veracity of this report. Nothing could be farther from the truth; Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery is safe. While the Ceska Pojistovna insurance company is attempting to build over the remains of a Jewish cemetery, the cemetery in question was abolished over 500 years ago and its history had been almost forgotten until a few years ago. Now, however, a new controversy has arisen over the proper disposition of this site (see below).
The false message and the erroneous news stories in the Jewish press that it apparently spawned have created vast misunderstanding of the situation in Prague, and have seriously misrepresented the issues involved and the decade-long efforts of the Czech Jewish Community to maintain and restore Jewish cemeteries throughout the country.
A January, 2000 response to the e-mail campaign
from by Efraim Sidon, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, and Jiri Dancek, the Chairman
of the Jewish Community in Prague, makes it absolutely clear that, "the
Jewish cemetery whose parts were unearthed had been abolished in the 15th
century of the common era and is by no means identical with the world-famous
Jewish cemetery located within the former Jewish Quarter."
The cemetery that is in danger was established in 1254 and used until 1477. At that point, the Jewish community lost all property rights to the land and the site was developed as part of Prague's New Town (Nove Mesto), today a thriving business district to the south, on the other side of the old city from Josefov (as the former Jewish ghetto (later quarter) has been known since the late 19th century). The 1254 cemetery and another even earlier one, are mentioned briefly in Jiri Fiedler's indispensable book Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia (Prague, 1992, p. 148) which reports that fragments of tombstones from the Nove Mesto site were removed to the Josefov cemetery in the 19th century.
Under Jewish law (though not always in practice) all cemeteries are sacred places and inviolate, thus there is legitimate concern over the treatment of this site. But it must be emphasized that the cemetery in question has been over-built for hundreds of years. Massive disturbance at the site took place long ago. The history and location of this cemetery are not mentioned in most histories and guidebooks to Jewish Prague, nor have observant or non-observant Jews visited it until this controversy erupted. There are no gravestones or structures associated with the site, and it has no relation to events that took place during the Holocaust. There is no evidence that any party in this dispute initiated any activity out of malice, anti-Semitism or a disregard for historic and religious concerns.
Background to the Controversy
In 1997, the Czech Insurance Company was issued a legal construction permit and began its work on land it owns on Vladislavova Street. Under Czech law, the insurance company was required to stop construction when historical remains, including human remains, were found. The discovery of a relatively undisturbed section of the old cemetery led to an insurance-company-funded archaeological excavation by the Archaeological Institute of Prague to determine the extent of the remains. On October 30, 1998, the Prague City Council voted its sense against further construction and in favor of preserving the site. From that time until now, as different sides propose various treatments for the site, the excavation has remained open to the elements with neither construction nor protective measures undertaken. Meanwhile, in September 1999, archaeological excavations resumed on the site, an act that was protested by the Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic, Karol Sidon. Protests organized by the Jewish Community of Prague halted further digging. It was subsequently reported that remains of as many of 160 individuals were removed during either the first or second phase of excavation.
Following this confrontation, the various sides involved in the issue agreed to meet again to try to work out a compromise. The solution, approved by the Jewish Community and the Chief Rabbi, as well as the Municipal government and the Czech Insurance Company, called for the excavation of ground beneath the existing level of burial remains, and the encasing of the existing remains in concrete and then sinking of these remains to a deeper level which would be undisturbed by any future development on the site. Apparently, this decision was made without wide outside consultation or consideration of precedents from other countries where similar problems have arisen and been addressed.
Sidon has maintained that the agreement struck with the insurance company was the best offer available, given that the firm owns the land on which the cemetery lies. "Of course I would be happy if the cemetery would stay where it is now, but there are two parties in this case. Given the circumstances, I could not see a better option," he told the Prague Post.
Many Orthodox Jewish groups in Europe and the United States, however, emphatically rejected this agreement. These include the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe led by London-based Rabbi Schlesinger and the New York Athra Kadisha represented by Rabbi Lazer Stern. It was at this stage last fall that the rhetoric on both sides of the issue heated up, including ad hominum attacks against the leadership of the Czech Jewish community, in which the honesty of the Rabbi and community leaders were publicly questioned.
In an effort to mediate a solution, Rabbi Edgar Gluck, representing the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, met with leaders of the Jewish Community and the Insurance Company. Rabbi Gluck put forward a new proposal, in which the insurance company, in consultation with rabbinic authorities, would consider erecting their building on concrete pillars, placed where they would do the least harm, and construct the building from the level of the graves. This type of solution has been successful before to protect many kinds of historic sites – not just cemeteries. Such a proposal would have to win the approval of the Prague authorities, as it would allow construction of the new high-rise without provision for underground parking as presently required.
In mid-January, 2000, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, sent an emissary to Prague to establish the facts surrounding the case. The emissary visited the construction site with Sidon, who has indicated that he will wash his hands of the matter if Lau expresses disapproval of the agreement. In an open letter, dated Jan. 13, Sidon stated that if the deal were not approved, "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."
Construction at the site was halted in December, pending a decision by the Czech Ministry of Culture on whether the cemetery would be proclaimed a protected monument. Should the cemetery be so designated, property rights can be restricted by existing laws of the Czech Republic, and all construction would likely be halted. The Insurance Company has agreed to abide by any decision in these regards, but has stressed that it would suffer financial considerable hardship for its losses.
In a new twist to the saga, a small group of Czech Jewish representatives led by Rabbi Sidon, tried -- and failed - on February 24th, to rebury the remains of Jews previously removed by archaeologists during the excavations. According to a story in the The Prague Post, (March 1, 2000), the skeletal remains, which had been removed from the site for anthropological research were brought back in two trucks for reburial by local Jewish groups who said that they had made arrangements with the insurance company to rebury the bones. About 40 Orthodox Jews (others say 90) from around Europe and the United States then appeared almost simultaneously -- to the apparent surprise of local Jewish representatives -- and began to protest.
The Post reported that Ceska Pojistovna spokesman Michael Urban denied there was permission for reburial. "We had no such agreement," Urban said. "It is a building site. It is impossible for anyone from the street to get there because it is dangerous. If they had announced this in advance, it would have been a different situation. We could have discussed it with them." According to Sidon, insurance company officials changed their minds when the demonstrators from Atra Kadisha arrived at the scene. Police were forced to close Vladislavova street when the international contingent of Jews sat down on the road and began singing laments. "We had no idea that another group was coming," Sidon was quoted as saying. "Because of them, Ceska Pojistovna stepped back and refused to allow the Jewish community here to put the remains back in their place." Sidon said the remains intended for reburial at Vladislavova are begin stored at another cemetery in Prague until the issue is resolved.
Despite this latest confrontation, both the insurance company and the Czech Jewish community appear to be prepared to continue negotiations. Both sides are awaiting the opinion of Rabbi Lau. (un-confirmed reports received by ISJM state that Rabbi Lau is prepared to declare that at least part of the cemetery site should be declared a historic monument and not be developed). On March 3, 2000, a representative of the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad told ISJM that "discussions are continuing with some signs of progress. Representatives from the US Embassy in Prague are taking an active role in efforts to resolve this issue."
ISJM will continue to provide accurate updated information on this situation. The interest in this case should, however, serve as an opportunity to draw attention to the thousands of others Jewish cemeteries throughout the world which suffer from neglect on a daily basis – without the concern of organized religious, cultural or governmental groups. Ironically, it is the Czech Jewish Community that has the best track record in Europe of systematically documenting, protecting, maintaining and restoring Jewish cemeteries - many abandoned long before the Holocaust -throughout the country.
While the future of the cemetery remains unclear, because negotiations involving many parties continue, it must again be emphasized that the "Old Jewish Cemetery" of Prague - which is both a revered Jewish religious site and a protected Czech historic site of the highest level -- remains safe and is not currently in danger.
President, International Survey of Jewish Monuments
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