PRAGUE (Nov. 12)
A tombstone and memorial for the remains of 160 bodies removed from one of Europe’s oldest known Jewish burial sites have been unveiled at Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery.
The remains were removed over several years for anthropological research purposes from a controversial office construction site in Vladislavova Street.
The remains were returned last year to the Jewish community, and were reburied at the New Cemetery in a ceremony conducted by the country’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon.
The insurance company that owns the construction site gained permission three years ago to build a high-rise apartment block and underground garage in Vladislavova Street.
But when workers encountered a 13th-century burial site, the construction plans drew the attention of Orthodox groups dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage. The medieval cemetery that was unearthed had been voluntarily relinquished by Prague’s Jewish community in the 15th century.
The issue first hit the international stage two years ago, when misinformation was relayed over the Internet that the burial site was Prague’s famous Old Jewish Cemetery, which lies half a mile away.
Sunday’s memorial ceremony, which was organized by the Prague Jewish Community, paid tribute not only to the 160 remains at the New Cemetery but also to the hundreds of graves currently being encased in concrete at Vladislavova Street.
That arrangement was part of a compromise with the Czech state that enabled construction to proceed with minimal harm to the medieval burial site.
Attended by the Israeli ambassador to the Czech Republic, the ceremony also marked a warming of relations between Prague’s Jewish community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.
A London-based Orthodox group, the Committee had organized a series of protests at the Vladislavova Street construction site, as well as at Czech embassies in London and Brussels.
Prague’s Jewish Community, on the other hand, had preferred a negotiated settlement with Czech officials that allowed work to continue.
On Sunday, their disagreements were forgotten as the parties gathered to pay their respects to the dead.
Rabbi Yeshaya Schlesinger, an official with the Committee, told participants: “Today’s event is a result of the beauty of democracy and patient diplomacy, and above all due to the deep understanding between religions and people.
Fellow Committee member Rabbi Herschel Gluck said, “We have a special duty to express our appreciation to our ancestors and ensure they rest in peace and dignity, as we have shown today.”
Israeli Ambassador Arthur Avnon said he was honored to attend the event.
“There is a large Jewish community in Israel of Czech origin,” he said. “I would like to consider myself today as representing them here.”
The memorial thanks the Czech state, Prague’s Jewish community and “foreign Jewish institutions” for preserving the remains.
It reads, in Czech: “Let them be in everlasting memory, as well as those holy remains that still rest in their place of original burial at the cemetery in Vladislavova Street.
“If only G-d grant compassion over those whose graves are in a concrete sarcophagus built into the new building” in Vladislavova Street.
Plans are well advanced for a memorial at the original burial site, which is part of a much wider cemetery thought to stretch for hundreds of yards under the center of Prague.
Gluck said proposals for the memorial had received “fantastic” cooperation from City Hall officials. He added that he hoped the issue could be resolved within a matter of months.