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16 Tammuz 5760 - July 19, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Prague Cemetery Agreement Breaks Down; Czech Minister Insults Jewish Preservation Efforts

by Mordecai Plaut

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 relocation.

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 ancestral remains.

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 3756/8800 0279.

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.

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