PRAGUE (Dec. 30)
Red tape is holding up plans for a memorial to mark one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial sites.
The 750-year-old site on Prague’s Vladislavova Street attracted international attention several years ago when Orthodox Jews held protests against the construction of an office and garages on top of hundreds of Jewish graves.
In 2000, the Czech government brokered a deal with Jewish community representatives and an insurance company developing the land. The agreement allowed construction to proceed as long as the remains were left undisturbed.
Authorities also agreed to the construction of a memorial at the site and promised not to allow future excavation in the vicinity of the cemetery, which stretches for several hundred yards.
But despite good will on all sides, bureaucratic maneuvering still is holding up plans for the memorial’s construction, according to the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, which is paying for the memorial.
Committee member Rabbi Herschel Gluck told JTA in Prague this month that although the Czech authorities had been very helpful, the number of permits required for the memorial was “mind-boggling.”
“Literally, one needs hundreds and hundreds of different permissions from this company and that company, this organization and that department, the other department and so on,” he said.
“There are people looking at it from the side thinking, hang on a second, what’s going on? Is there going to be a monument or is this all hot air?” Gluck continued. “The situation is that we are working overtime to facilitate the erection of the monument, to have everything in place — the architect and the plans and the space, etc. — but we are just wading through jungles of bureaucracy.”
The Czech Ministry of Culture said the cemetery has been designated as a cultural monument, and that the ministry is not responsible for bureaucratic holdups.
“This is not the problem of the ministry. We do not know how many permissions they need and from whom they require them,” said Jiri Vajcer, a ministry official.
The committee’s Prague-based lawyer, Simona Maskova, said permits for the memorial, which will be on street level opposite the insurance company’s office, were needed from at least five different telecommunications companies, lighting authorities, gas and electric utilities, a cultural monument and environmental authorities.
“I was surprised at how much paperwork was needed for such a small project,” she said. “There are routes and routes of wires and cables and other technical things under the ground so it is understandable that it is taking time.”
Prague’s City Hall expressed sympathy for the paperwork involved in creating a memorial but said it was necessary under current laws and regulations.
“The Jewish community needs a lot of permits because there is a large network of cables and so on in the town center,” said spokesman Jana Hostanova. “We don’t know why it has taken such a long time to get permission, but as far as construction of the memorial is concerned, it should take two months for a request to be processed.”
Designs for the memorial, which will take the form of a row of tombstones with an inscription in Czech, Hebrew and English indicating the presence of a Jewish cemetery, already have been prepared.
Gluck said a wide range of guests would be invited to take part in the memorial’s opening ceremony, including former Czech president Vaclav Havel, who helped resolve the original dispute over the construction project.
The ceremony also will offer an opportunity for members of the international cemetery preservation committee and Prague’s Jews to publicly end a rift that was exposed during the Vladislavova Street saga.
In early 2000, the committee rejected an agreement between the Prague Jewish community and the Czech government allowing construction to continue around the remains if they were left untouched. The committee also vowed to continue its fight against any building work.
The dispute flared up again in September of that year, when local Jews arranged for the remains of 157 bodies, which had been removed from the Vladislavova site for research purposes, to be reburied privately at another cemetery in Prague.
The committee said at the time that the reburial ceremony, which was conducted by Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, was “arranged in an underhand fashion” by the Prague Jewish community, and charged that many rabbis were unable to attend because no advance warning of the ceremony had been given.
At the time, Sidon told JTA that there had been no alternative but to rebury the remains elsewhere, partly because the insurance company had not agreed to follow Jewish religious rules in handling the remains.
This week, both committee members and Prague Jewish officials preferred to focus on the future, rather than past disagreements.
“I am very positive that we will get the monument up,” Gluck said. “Please God, we hope the monument will be unveiled in June or July 2004.”