Czech Cemetery Crisis Intensifies

Czech Cemetery Crisis Intensifies

Prague, Czech Republic — Pavel Dostal could hardly contain his anger. The nattily attired Czech minister of culture sat in his conference room, arms folded and jaw tight, as he explained how he felt betrayed by the Jewish community he was trying to help.
Dostal, bearing a resemblance to Kurt Vonnegut and dressed in gray bow tie, matching silk shirt and jacket, spoke with reserved bitterness last week while relating through a translator how he had become the victim of a worldwide misinformation campaign by the haredi and Orthodox Jewish communities.
“I got involved because I wanted to help, and then I got attacked,” Dostal said. “This is private property but I got involved for moral and ethical reasons.”
Dostal told how he has been bombarded with thousands of nasty e-mails and faxes from Jews around the world after interceding when human bones were discovered on a construction site in downtown Prague.
It turns out the site on Vladislavova Street, being developed by the nation’s large Ceska pojistovna insurance company, sits atop the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country, and possibly in Europe, perhaps dating back to the 11th century.
But the site, according to the Prague Jewish community, the government and archeologists, hasn’t been used as a cemetery in more than 500 years. It is across town — and has nothing to do with — the famous 15th century tourist site, the “Old Jewish Cemetery” on Josefov Street, burial site of kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal, creator of the legendary Golem.
That distinction did not stop a worldwide Orthodox campaign accusing Dostal and the Czech government of threatening the Maharal’s cemetery, the culture minister said last week as he sat with a dozen North American rabbis.
“There is a smear campaign against the Czech government,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, which set up a meeting with Dostal here. “I don’t know who’s behind it, but this misinformation is very damaging to the Jewish community of Prague and the Czech government.”
And now, the question of what to do with the site has become a full-blown international incident. It has reached into top government officials and religious leaders from the Czech Republic, Israel and the United States — including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who last week discussed it with the Czech foreign minister.
The issue has also strained relations between Prague’s Jewish community and its chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, and Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, and Orthodox Jews around the world.
The insurance company, which owns the site and says it has been losing money on the project since the Czech government ordered construction stopped several months ago, is demanding that the government either allow building to continue or pay it $25 million in compensation and buy the plot.
Czech officials say the struggling government cannot afford the tab, and it would set an inappropriate precedent for it to bail out religious sites. And the small Prague Jewish community, which also cannot afford the price tag, fears a backlash from fellow Czechs if the government approved the funds.
The Archeology Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences has proposed the cemetery as a cultural monument. The cemetery was first recorded in 1254.
To date, compromises such as permanently closing a portion of the site as a landmark and allowing the insurance company to build on the rest have been opposed by Jewish religious authorities, including Rabbi Lau. Last month he overruled a compromise deal agreed to by Rabbi Sidon, insisting that according to Jewish law, the entire site is holy and must be preserved.
“Once Rabbi Lau became involved, it put us in a bit of an awkward situation,” said an Israeli embassy official in Prague.
“We all have a stake in trying to reach some resolution to the cemetery issue,” the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, John Shattuck, told The Jewish Week. “We believe the factions should pay respect to religious law but also recognize the practical problems involved.”
While much discussion has focused on the economic costs in addressing the issue, a number of Orthodox groups insist that their main concern is kavod ha-met, or respect for the dead.
Bernard Fryshman, a New York activist with the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries, said his group is focusing attention on the 125 boxes of bones that were dug up from the cemetery by the Czechs last year. “It’s a world-class tragedy,” he said, “and we want those bones re-buried. That would quiet down the situation.”
According to Fryshman, the bones finally were returned in late February but the government would not allow them to be re-buried. They are now in a mausoleum in another Jewish cemetery, pending the outcome of this controversy.
Fryshman said that while he is sympathetic to the Czech government and certain they would like to resolve the problem, it should be noted that the cemetery was taken from the Jewish community 500 years ago and the government has violated its trusteeship.
New York attorney Mel Urbach, who is consulting with Rabbi Elyakim Schlessinger of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, says one option to be explored is whether money from a German Holocaust restitution fund could be used to purchase the site.
Dostal is recommending three options to the Czech cabinet, which is expected to take up the issue as soon as possible:
# The site would be declared a cultural landmark, no construction, and the Czech government would assume financial liability, at $25 million;
# A portion of the site would be designated a cemetery landmark and the insurance company builds around it, about $3 million;
# Conducting an intense archeological survey of the grounds to make sure all remains are recovered, bury the bones elsewhere and construction continues.
Meanwhile, an angry Prague Jewish community, now at odds with its own Chief Rabbi Sidon for consulting with Rabbi Lau, is telling outsiders to mind their own business. In trying to walk the fine line to support the Czech government, Jewish community vice president Tomas Jelinek argues in a position paper that Rabbi Sidon’s request to Rabbi Lau was “a matter of internal and purely religious consultation, from which it cannot be claimed that Rabbi Lau or even the State of Israel are prescribing in any way to the Czech authorities what can and cannot be built in Prague.”
He also writes: “We will not participate in any way in the foreign campaign to prevent the destruction of the cemetery on Vladislavova Street. We are aware that this campaign has spread disinformation in a number of instances. A substantial amount of protests and accusations have been directed at the Jewish Community of Prague. Both the Jewish Community of Prague and the Czech government feel aggrieved by such accusations.”
Further, Jelinek, an aide to the Czech president, states there is no “world Jewish community” and that “the Orthodox rabbis who are involved in this affair are acting exclusively on behalf of either themselves or of the institutions with which they are associated.”
“It is completely up to the Ministry of Culture and the owner of the property to decide as to the future of the cemetery,” he writes. “Whether or not it declares the cemetery a cultural monument, the Jewish Community of Prague will fully respect the government’s position.”
Rabbi Schneier of NABOR is trying to broker a deal between the Czechs and Rabbi Lau.
“The Czech authorities are genuine in wanting to resolve this sensitive matter,“ he said. “I think we have a willing partner.”

read more: