Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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15 Adar II 5760 - March 22, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Interim Agreement to Prevent Desecration of Ancient Cemetery in Prague

by S. Fried and B. Rabinowitz

An interim agreement to prevent the continual desecration of the ancient cemetery in Prague was reached last week. The English Committee for the Rescue of the Cemeteries in Europe, prominent rabbonim from the United States, chareidi activists and the Office of Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisroel Meir Lau, all made untiring efforts to prevent the desecration of this ancient cemetery.

Attempts to build a large commercial center and a huge parking lot over the ancient graves of the ancient Czech cemetery have been going on for a long time. The cemetery is apparently nine hundred years old. During the construction work remains of the deceased were removed and either transferred to investigators for their research or collected in undignified heaps and then given to the community to be transferred elsewhere.

The Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic, Rabbi Ephraim Sidon, was accused by activists on behalf of the prevention of the desecration of graves in Europe of thwarting earlier attempts to reach agreement on the cessation of work in the ancient cemetery. In his favor, some said that he had no previous experience in the delicate and difficult procedures involved in dealing with ancient graves.

In the wake of heavy pressure exerted by prominent rabbonim from Europe as well as of the Office of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisroel Meir Lau, the decision on the issue was transferred to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The director of the office wrote to Rabbi Sidon to stop all steps regarding the ancient cemetery until Rabbi Menachem Mendel Eckstein, a top-ranking member of the IDF Chevra Kadisha, arrived in Prague on a special assignment to study the problem.

An initial examination showed clearly that this is an ancient cemetery dating back nine hundred years with two levels. The walls of the upper story were seen clearly to have three burial levels. Skull segments and human bones are found on the ground level of the upper area and all signs indicate that it is an ancient Jewish cemetery.

No remnants of graves were found on the bottom level. As a result, it was requested that an additional examination be made and that all information in the possession of the authorities -- including cartographic, historical and archaeological information as well as future plans of the construction companies in the area -- be transferred to Rabbi Eckstein.

After receiving Rabbi Eckstein's report, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate sent a detailed letter to Rabbi Sidon explaining the proper procedures for dealing with the cemetery. Regarding the upper level, the letter said, "The area must be fenced in properly, as is customary in all Jewish cemeteries. Due to the fact that no graves were found on the lower level, since there is still a possibility that there are graves there, all work must be done with extreme caution and care."

Rabbi Sidon was told unequivocally that commercial considerations have no bearing upon this issue. All parties involved in the affair, including the construction company and the rabbonim of Europe, agreed with the letter's content.

Two weeks ago, a large demonstration to protest the cemetery desecration was held in Prague. It was attended by Jews from all over the word.

No agreement can guarantee an actual work stoppage. As in similar cases which ended in various ways, contracts have already been signed with the insurance company that was about to build on the cemetery site, which is today prime real estate in the center of Prague. Final cancellation of the plans would entail large costs and heavy litigation fees. No final decision is expected in the near future.

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