PRAGUE, March 29 (JTA) Jewish community leaders have welcomed a Czech government decision to preserve one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial sites.
The decision, announced Wednesday by Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal, ended months of speculation over the fate of the burial site, which was unearthed two years ago by a construction crew building an underground garage in central Prague.
During that time, both Czech officials and Jewish representatives came under fire from Orthodox Jewish groups abroad who were opposed to any interference in the 750-year-old cemetery.
As a result of Wednesday’s decision, the remains of several hundred Jews will remain undisturbed near an office building being built by a Czech insurance company, Ceska pojistovna.
The remains are to be surrounded by concrete covering an area about 40 yards in length, 10 yards wide and 1 yard high. Construction work that was halted several months ago will be permitted to continue around the site, which forms part of a cemetery relinquished by the local Jewish community in the late 15th century.
Given the possibility that the burial site is part of a larger cemetery, the Czech government will also declare a large area around the new building a national heritage site, which will block any further construction in the area.
Up to 160 other remains removed previously from the cemetery for anthropological research are expected to be returned in a matter of days, once technical preparations are completed. According to the insurance company, those preparations could be finished in a matter of days.
The burial site is not Prague’s famous Old Jewish Cemetery, a separate site that lies within the walls of the city’s Jewish Quarter.
Dostal told reporters at a news conference that the government had sought a compromise solution that took into account “the cultural and religious rights of the Jewish community” while also recognizing the fact that the insurance company had received permission to erect the building.
He said the government would pay up to $1.2 million toward the cost of modifying the building project and suggested that international Jewish organizations may also be approached to contribute toward the costs, whose total has not yet been determined.
The Czech government had considered several options for the site, including declaring the whole area a protected monument and halting all construction work a move that would have forced them to pay up to $14 million in compensation to the insurance company.
Czech Jewish officials, who proposed the option that was ultimately adopted, had been anxious to resolve the issue in the face of protests from Orthodox groups outside Czech embassies earlier this month.
Tomas Kraus, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said the decision was satisfactory because the burial site would not be moved and would remain intact.
“I very much appreciate how all the parties behaved on this issue and I was also pleased by the way the media reacted to it in a very supportive way.”
A spokesman for Ceska pojistovna said the company “warmly welcomed” the decision.
“During this whole saga, we aimed for direct and clear solutions to the problem. We are happy that it is clearly finished now,” the spokesman said.
The president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, Marc Schneier, who discussed the issue with the Czech culture minister during a recent visit to Prague, also welcomed the decision.
“I want to congratulate the Czech authorities and the Czech people for recognizing sacred interests over economic interests,” said Schneier.
In a clear reference to the activity of international Jewish groups who have vociferously protested against any compromise on the fate of the cemetery, Schneier added: “I hope that elements of the Jewish community outside of the Czech Republic will recognize the jurisdiction of the Prague Jewish community.”
Protests were initially sparked several months ago when a compromise deal allowing the graves to be lowered deeper in the ground, encased in concrete and built over was agreed to by Czech Jewish representatives and the Ceska pojistovna and backed by the Ministry of Culture.
But that deal was scrapped when the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, announced that there must be no construction at the site.
In late February, the stakes were raised issue when about 40 Orthodox Jews from the United States and Europe demonstrated at the construction site after the insurance company refused to allow them to rebury up to 160 remains previously removed for anthropological research.
That was followed days later by the protests outside the Czech embassies in London and Brussels.