The agreement reached at the end of March between the Ceska
Pojistovna (CP) insurance company, the national Czech
government as represented by the Culture Ministry and the
Archaeology Institute, and the Prague Jewish community (known
as PZO) to preserve an ancient cemetery discovered in the
middle of Prague seems to have broken down completely as the
Culture Ministry has insulted the worldwide Jewish community
and the CP company has decided to proceed unilaterally.
The site is not the main Jewish cemetery of Prague in which
the Maharal, the Nodeh BeYehuda and other gedolei olom
rest and which attracts many Jewish visitors. Rather it is an
older site that was in use up to the end of the 15th century
and was recently discovered in digging the foundations of a
new office building for a Czech insurance company.
According to the records of the Czech government, a member of
the Jagiellon Dynasty, a great family of monarchs that ruled
in Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia and Hungary in the 15th and
16th centuries, purchased the cemetery plot from the Prague
Jewish community in 1478. The exact circumstances of the sale
are not known, though it is known that Jewish communities
(and other communities) do not generally sell burial grounds
for simple business purposes without duress. It is also known
that the latter part of the 15th century was a turbulent
period with much religious conflict in the area between the
Catholic church and various reformers and reform movements.
Jews often suffered in turbulent times.
An agreement reached at the end of March and endorsed by a
Czech government resolution on March 29, 2000, provided that
the government would act to preserve the cemetery on the
construction site of the CP company "as important and unique
evidence of the medieval development of the capital city
Prague and as the oldest Jewish cemetery in Bohemia or
Moravia." The Czech government also promised to contribute
the considerable sum of 45 million Czech Crowns for the
preservation. These developments were announced at a joint
news conference of the government, CP, and PZO officials on
March 30, 2000, and applauded around the world.
An April 10, 2000, following through on these agreements, the
Czech Culture Ministry declared the area a cultural monument
and granted the cemetery section projecting into the
construction area the status of an important archaeological
discovery, protected from construction activity and
After a number of meetings, a draft agreement with CP was
proposed by PZO on June 14, 2000, fully accepting the
government resolution and stating that the archaeological
discovery is a Jewish cemetery and the remains are human
remains. Unexpectedly, this was rejected by the CP company in
a reply on July 4, 2000 as "demands beyond the bounds of
anything to which either the authorities or CP is committed
by past decisions and related legislation."
The PZO said, in a statement signed by Jiri Danicek, Chairman
Prague Jewish Community, that it was apparently the admission
that the site was a cemetery rather than just an
archaeological site that the company found burdensome.
However, rather than continue the talks, the company then
immediately proceeded with construction, without waiting for
any reply from PZO. Also, there are 143 boxes of obviously
human remains that were dug up so far in the construction,
and the company has not turned them over for reburial nor
made any arrangements for dignified treatment of these
PZO feels that CP is ignoring its sensitivities and has
"dismissed PZO as guarantor of a solution to respect the
pious feelings of domestic and foreign organizations."
Apparently the moves of CP were coordinated with the
government behind the scenes. On July 14 there was an Op-ed
piece in the newspaper Pravo written by Czech Culture
Minister Pavel Dostal that sneered at "the orthodox rabbis in
black" based on a visit from an unnamed "Jewish rabbi" who
was "a dear and elegant man in a light-colored suit." This
anonymous rabbi, who "did not even ask [the Culture Minister]
if the coffee was kosher," apparently came specially to
inform Mr. Dostal that those interested in the Czech
government's treatment of the ancestral cemetery site were
only "a loud, critical minority of Jewish fundamentalists"
[Translation provided by United States government officials
in Czechoslovakia]. All of those involved in the issue were
deeply shocked by the tone and substance of the remarks by an
important government official.
The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in
Europe expressed its concern in a statement to the press. The
Committee urged the Czech Government to immediately intervene
and put pressure on Ceska Pojistovna to stop all further
construction on the site, and ensure that a comprehensive
solution will be found that will preserve this cemetery
according to Jewish Law and tradition.
Rabbi Abraham Pinter, a member of the Rabbinical Board of the
Committee, said, "We are receiving tremendous support from
the European Parliament in Brussels and senior political
figures in Europe, and we hope that they will help us achieve
an acceptable agreement to this problem."
The Committee is also working closely with their lawyer in
Prague to put a freeze on construction on the site until a
solution is found.
Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, Executive Director of The Committee
said, "The situation is very urgent, and every day which
passes will prompt further international protests. We
sincerely hope the Czech Government will finally consider the
outcry of the international Jewish Community and resolve this
crisis as soon as possible."
The Committee said that the ongoing delay in the reburial of
the 143 boxes of skeletal remains that were exhumed from the
construction site remains a main factor in this crisis and
that the Committee will "continue to fight using all
democratic means" until the remains are reburied and the
protection of the cemetery is insured.
For further information please contract the office: The
Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe
81A Fairholt Road London N16 5EW Tel: 020 8803 3917 Fax 8802
The issue has drawn worldwide attention. Speaking to Yated
Ne'eman Rabbi Edgar Gluck, U.S. Commissioner for the
Preservation of America's Heritage, said that Czech officials
and business leaders seem to have struck an adversarial
stance against world Jewry. He noted that considerable
numbers of Jews visit Prague every year to see its historic
Jewish structures and to pray at the main cemetery, but that
this new attitude on the part of Czech officials, if it is
not reversed and repudiated, is likely to lead to calls for
an international tourist boycott. Rabbi Gluck said that
valiant efforts to resolve the issue are being made by Rep.
Benjamin Gilman and Rabbi Dovid Schmidal of Asra Kadisha, and
that contacts are proceeding with influential members of the
Czech government to resolve the issue peacefully and with
respect for the remains of our ancestors and the sensitivity
of the living.