Prague is considered a mystical city. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is just as its name indicates, quite ancient. The earliest headstones date back to 1439 and people were buried here for hundreds of years. The cemetery avoided demolition by the Germans during World War II because Hitler took a liking to it and figured it would make a great setting for a museum he would build dedicated to his victory and the annihilation of the Jews. Thankfully, Hitler did not get that chance, but the cemetery does serve as a museum of sorts, to the history of the Jews in Prague. Join us as we wander among the tombstones of the Old Jewish Cemetery!
The first Jewish cemetery in Prague was the Jewish Garden. That graveyard was closed in 1478 by order of King Vladislaus II. The citizens of the area had complained about it and that was enough to shut it down. What was left of it eventually disappeared beneath the streets of New Town of Prague. We're not entirely sure what the complaints were about, but they could not have been related to the fact that it was Jewish as the Old Jewish Cemetery had been established some time in the early 1400s. The oldest headstone that can still be read, belongs to a rabbi and poet named Avigdor Kara who died in 1439. Because of its age, one would think that many of the headstones would be broken or falling apart, but it is actually in fairly good condition. One thing that a visitor will notice right away though, is that there are many people buried here and the headstones are practically right up against each other.
There was a real problem at the Old Jewish Cemetery when it came to space. There was not much room and it is forbidden in Jewish customs to disinter a body or move the burial. Many times, the Jewish elders would approach the city seeking to buy more land and most of the time they were denied, so they needed to come up with other ideas. One idea is similar to what we found in many of the old burying grounds in Boston and that is this practice of burying bodies on top of each other in the same space. A new layer of soil was heaped up on an older burial and there are actually some locations in the cemetery with as many as twelve layers. The older gravestone would be pulled up to the uppermost layer and the new gravestone for the new burial would be placed right next to it. This is why the cemetery appears to be a dense collection of gravestones. This also has resulted in the surface of the cemetery being raised
several meters higher than the streets that surround the graveyard. Burials continued here until 1787. Emperor Josef II had banned burials inside the city walls of Prague because they were worried about disease, particularly the Plague. Prague Jews then had to use a cemetery in Žižkov.
Strolling amongst the tombstones of the Old Jewish Cemetery is both a history tour and education. There are two kinds of matzevots, which means burial monuments in Hebrew. The first is a rectangular shaped headstone made from either wood or stone. The second is a Tumba. These look like little houses or tents. Every stone is marked is marked with Hebrew lettering indicating name and dates. The earliest headstones here are very simple, but the 16th century seems to have inspired creativity and the symbolism starts to appear on the markers. This was also when brief eulogies of the individual were added. Various ornamentations were added in the 17th century like false portals, volutes, which are scroll spirals, and pilasters.
Here are some of the symbols found on the tombstones. There is, of course, the hexagram. A carved crown indicates the person had a good reputation. Wine grapes symbolize a good and prosperous life. There are also those that are specific to family names like Cohen. This family line was decended from temple priests and their symbol is a pair of praying hands. Those that are Levites have a jug and a bowl on their stone. While we believe every life is significant as it touched someone else's life, there are those that history gives special note of and we have a few here. The graves of Mordecai Katz ben Gershom and his son Betzalel are here and they were well known Prague printers. Their work, "Prague Hagadah" was published in 1526. The Prague Haggadah was the first Passover Haggadah book to be printed in Central Europe after the Jews were expelled from Spain, which happened in 1492. The Haggadah was the story of the Passover and is read at the Seder table. The Prague Haggadah is the first illustrated Haggadah to be preserved in its entirety. It really is a beautiful edition and was the first to use a new technique that printed woodcuts. The lettering is fine with a flair on the initials and the general layout is aesthetic pleasing. The craftsman who created the woodcuts is believed to be a man named Hayyim Shachor or Schwartz. He may not have made all of them as his initials are not carved on all the woodcuts.
David Gans was born in 1541 and was buried here in 1613. His gravestone is small and features a triangular ending and engraved symbols of Magen David and a goose, "gans" means "goose" in German. He was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer and historian, whose chronicle "Cemah David" includes also a lot of Czech history. A tumba with a hexagram on the top of the front wall, belongs to Rabbi David Oppenheim who died in 1736. His book
collection constitutes an important part of the Hebrew section of
Bodleian Library in Oxford. Aharon Meshulam Horowitz
died in 1545 and at that time he was the richest Jew and built the
Pinkas Synagogue. A synogogue in the Jewish Quarter is named for businessman Mordecai Maisel who was buried here in 1601. His tumba is the oldest in the cemetery. Another tumba here belongs to Joseph Solomon Delmedigo. He was a physician and scholar born in Crete, who
worked in many scientific fields. The Nephele Hill is the baby nursery here. The nephele means miscarriage in Hebrew. There are also remains that needed to be re interred buried in this area. A tumba belonging to Hendl Bassevi, who died in 1628, is decorated with lions seated on
the gables of the tumba. They carry the
coat of arms of Hendl's husband Jacob Bassevi. He was the first Jew in
Habsburg Empire to receive a title of nobility.
Löw ben Betzalel and his wife rest under another tumba,
decorated with symbols of a lion and wine grapes. Scholars know Rabbi Judah as The Maharal. He wrote numerous religious and philosophical treatises and he is the subject of a 19th-century legend that he created the Golem of Prague. The Golem was an animate mythological being fashioned from clay. There are several versions of the Golem of Prague, but the basic premise is that Maharal formed the Golem from the clay of the banks of the Vltava River and this was a creature meant to protect the Jewish community from being expelled or killed under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Golem was brought to life through rituals and the creature could summon spirits of the dead and make itself invisible. The Rabbi would put it to sleep on the Sabbath to protect the Sabbath, but one day he forgot and the Golem fell in love with a woman.When she rejected him, he flew into a rage and went on a murderous rampage, which is where it gets its bad reputation from. The legend further claims that the Rabbi immobilized the Golem and it fell into pieces. Those pieces were stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, and it is said that it is still there just waiting to be reactivated when needed. A renovation of the attic in 1883 found no Golem.
The oldest burial that can be read dates back to 1439 and is the final resting place of Rabbi Avigdor Kara who was also a poet. He wrote an elegy that describes a great pogrom of the Prague Ghetto in 1389 and this is still recited on Yom Kippur in the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Europe. The former Jewish Ghetto in Prague, now known as Josefoy, has a long history, going back to the 12th century. It was not a ghetto when it first was established., but was known as the Jewish Quarter and it was enclosed by a wall with six gates. That wall was built to protect the Jews from attack. Most of them were fairly safe in Prague because they paid taxes, but anti-semitic views and violence were rising throughout Europe. The biggest Catholic council of the Middle Ages known as the Fourth Council of the Lateran had issued edicts against the Jews.
The protection the Jews of Prague had been under, lifted in 1389. A violent uprising against them began on Easter of that year. It is thought that it started with a Jew throwing a rock at a Catholic priest who was walking down the street with the Communion cup. This was declared a desecration of the Host and the rock throwers were arrested. The area was becoming inflamed as residents grew tired of the King protecting his Jewish financiers. An attack on the Jews would then also be an attack on the King. One priest had preached in an earlier message, "One key sign [of his advent] is the prosperity of the Jews, who are multiplying and gathering everywhere, favored with such great immunity that we must greatly fear the wrath of the Lord, lest he permit the Antichrist to come. For you see well that the clergy and the Christian faithful are daily supplanted and subordinated in their rights and liberties and endure many injuries. The synagogue profits more than the church of Christ, and among princes, a single Jew can accomplish more than a nobleman or a prelate. Indeed, princes and magnates are impoverished by unheard-of interest rates as if [the Jews] could enrich and assist their lord Antichrist with those treasures." The pogrom that followed would be the biggest anti-Jewish pogrom in the middle ages. Around 3000 citizens of the Jewish Quarter were killed and their homes were plundered and burned. The walls of the Old – New Synagogue went dark with blood.
The Old Jewish Cemetery celebrates the lives of so many of the former Jewish residents of Prague. It also bears witness to a past that is troubling and hopefully reminds us to never repeat these same things again. And that is just a little bit about the stone and bones found here!