Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

18 Sivan 5760 - June 21, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Protesters in Prague

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

A dispute over remnants of the 13th century Jewish cemetery discovered in downtown Prague during construction three years ago is heating up again, despite a compromise reached in March that was intended to end the controversy.

International chareidi organizations have renewed their protests against the planned construction of an administrative building, fearing it would disturb the medieval graves.

In March, leaders of Prague's Jewish community, the Czech government and Ceska Pojistovna, the insurance company that owns the land, reached an agreement that had appeared to resolve the argument. But over the past week, at least a dozen chareidim from the United States, England and Belgium entered the construction site and were arrested and fined by the Czech police.

The protesters insist they found destroyed graves and bone fragments on the ground. "They found skulls, teeth and other things," said Rabbi Edgar Gluck of the Committee for the Preservation of U.S. Heritage Abroad. He accused the company of "shocking desecration of the graves."

The representatives of Ceska Pojistovna denied this and called the protesters behavior "unprecedented."

"We are not touching the graves, of course," said Michal Urban, the company spokesman. "On the contrary, we are preparing the site to make sure that the renewed construction will not disturb them."

The cemetery, once the largest Jewish burial site in the Czech kingdom, was desecrated in the 15th century. The discovery of its remains when Ceska Pojistovna began construction of a new office building came as a surprise to archaeologists who believed it had been completely destroyed centuries ago.

At the heart of the dispute lie some 200 boxes of skeletal remains, now stored in a Jewish mausoleum in Prague. The company has postponed reburial till September, upsetting some Jewish activists.

"Every day that these bones are unburied defiles them," said Rabbi Lazer Stern of the United States-based Society for the Preservation of Jewish Holy Sites.

"It was only because of our desperation to bury them at once that we and other Jewish groups agreed to construction in the excavated area."

Under the March agreement, Ceska Pojistovna agreed to fortify the block of land containing the graves with concrete, incorporate it into its office building and build an atrium with a memorial plaque above it. But the chareidi rabbis, some of whom approved the plan in March, say they have been cheated and now oppose the construction.

"The company broke the agreement," said Rabbi Gluck. "Our understanding was that there would be no building under or above the site."

He was among the foreign rabbis who agreed to the compromise in March. He said a large demonstration is planned for early this week outside the Czech consulate in New York, following protests by hundreds of Jews in some European cities, including London and Brussels.

The dispute has opened a rift between the leaders of Prague's small Jewish community and foreign activists who, the Prague leaders say, come to the Czech capital and hold protests without even contacting the local Jews. The protesters counter that their Czech counterparts are not competent to handle the delicate matter of deciding what to do with the discovered remains.

"All this is very damaging to the Czech Jewish community and to the image of Jews here in general," said Tomas Jelinek, vice chairman of the Prague Jewish Community.

The community, which has about 2,000 members, is still struggling to gain recognition in Czech society, which after decades of Communism is strongly secular.

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