A dispute surrounding one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial sites in Prague has taken a dramatic twist, as the remains of 157 bodies removed from the site for research were privately reburied here.
Last Friday’s reburial ceremony, conducted by Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, bypassed a major sticking point in negotiations between the local Jewish community and the site’s owners over the fate of the remains, which were removed some months ago.
The owner of the site, insurance company Ceska pojistovna, gained permission two years ago to build a high-rise apartment block and underground garage there.
But when construction workers found the Jewish cemetery, it became the focus of attention of Orthodox groups dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage.
The issue first hit the international stage last year, when misinformation was relayed over the Internet that the burial site was Prague’s famous Old Jewish Cemetery, which lies half a mile away.
In March, following meetings with local and international Jewish representatives and the insurance company, the Czech government announced that construction could proceed as long as the remains of several hundred Jews were left undisturbed.
Czech Jewish leaders said that last Friday’s religious ceremony, which was held in the New Jewish Cemetery, marked an end to months of wrangling over the site at Vladislavova Street.
But foreign-based Orthodox Jews, who have staged a series of protests over the construction in recent months, said they were “shocked and astonished” at the claim that the issue was now resolved and vowed to continue their fight to halt all building work at the Vladislavova Street site.
The ceremony, attended by more than 20 leading members of the Czech Jewish community, was arranged at short notice following delays in the return of the remains to their original resting place.
During the ceremony, which participants described as a “sad but warm” occasion lasting several hours, the remains were at last laid to rest in separate coffins.
Prague Jewish leader Jiri Danicek said in a statement that the ceremony was held at the New Cemetery on Sidon’s recommendation.
Sidon told JTA that he had no alternative.
“We did not have the right conditions to return them to their original resting place because Ceska pojistovna did not allow us to monitor what was going on at the Vladislavova site. The company also did not agree to follow Jewish religious rules in the handling of the remains,” he said.
Sidon said that as far as he was far he concerned this was “the end of the whole affair.”
He added: “I wish that this was also the end for those Orthodox Jews from abroad who are protesting at the construction. There is nothing more which can be changed now.”
But the Orthodox group, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, sharply criticized the way the ceremony was organized.
“We are of course happy that they have been reburied, but we feel the ceremony was arranged in an underhand fashion by the Prague Jewish community,” said committee member Herschel Gluck, who attended the ceremony in a private capacity.
“They sprung the reburial without any warning. It was only announced an hour before it took place, so many rabbis could not attend.”
The London-based committee, which recently lodged a complaint over the construction project against the Czech government with the European Court of Human Rights in France, has also vowed to continue their battle.
“This reburial is the end of one chapter, but the major chapter is still running,” said Gluck. He would not rule out further protests if construction was not halted.
That threat is unlikely to frighten Danicek, who last week said in a statement that the local community accepted the agreement reached with the Czech government in March, under which construction could continue around the remains if they were left untouched.
“The Prague Jewish community has not – and will not – join attempts to overrule the accepted compromise solution and will not demand other changes through legal conflicts or other forms of pressure on the Czech Republic,” he said.
“We recommend that all institutions which have been involved in the issue show the will to finish the whole case. We realize that the accepted solution is in many aspects imperfect, but from the point of view of possibilities for the future, it is finished.”