I just returned home after spending two weeks in Europe digging through the last bits of unearthed archives for “Scraps of Hope” research. Over the next several weeks I will share some of what I did and didn’t find.
Our first stop was Prague. My husband and I spent the first day as tourists exploring the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter. One of our stops was the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is the largest surviving Jewish cemetery in central Europe.
In order to enter we needed to purchase tickets and have them scanned. We passed a couple of security guards who had the right to search us if they felt it was necessary. Then we went up a few stairs and through the open gate of the large stucco wall to see what lay on the other side.
Over the space of about two acres there are more than ten thousand headstones all crammed together leaning every which way. Many are touching back to back or back to front. Some are crumbling with age. Many are moss covered. I saw headstones buried with only a few inches sticking out of the earth. All were inscribed in Hebrew. There was no Czech, German, or other language.
How did this situation develop?
The Jews of Prague buried their dead here from the first half of the 15th century until the late 1700’s. The Jews were only allowed so much space within the city and had to make do with what they had. In order to bury their dead without disturbing older graves, they would heap another layer of soil on top of the older graves and bury their loved ones above the older ancestors. The headstones would then be raised to the new level so they would still be visible. Some areas within the graveyard are twelve layers deep.
Now we are left with this dense patch of gravestones, and I see that the walls I thought were for privacy or protection are really retaining walls needed to hold all the layers of the dead in place.
What did I notice and feel as I walked through this cemetery?
I felt wonder at the beauty of the scene. Moss covered stones – green on gray; trees growing – nourishing themselves with the decomposed bodies of ancient Jews with their roots merging with the headstones and hugging them.
I felt anger at the centuries of forced separation and intolerance by the majority cultures that didn’t allow this community enough room to expand.
I felt awe at the ingenuity of my forefathers to find a way to honor their dead without disturbing the precious graves of those that had passed before.
I felt joy that this spot is being preserved and revered, unlike other Jewish cemeteries in Prague of the 19th and 20th century that the communist regime built over when they wanted to install a housing project.
And I felt disappointed in myself for not thinking to bring a few pebbles to place on these graves to honor these souls.