Desecration of Prague cemetery causes Jewish uproar worldwide

PRAGUE — Jewish leaders and chief rabbis in Europe, Israel and the United States, as well as the U.S. government, are livid over the desecration of a 13th-century cemetery in Prague.

They also are pressuring the Czech government and the community's chief rabbi to prevent any more damage.

The issue involves the Vladislavova Street Cemetery, partially situated under a building in central Prague, upon which an insurance company has plans to build a high-rise building with an underground parking garage.

The controversy is further complicated due to a compromise arranged by Prague's chief rabbi, Karol Sidon. His compromise has been attacked by the chief rabbis of Britain, France and Holland, the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad.

According to Rabbi Moshe Stern, a member of the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries committee, 36 sacks of bones have been dug up from the 800-year-old Jewish cemetery and are currently sitting in an adjoining warehouse unattended and unburied.

"The situation is absolutely disgusting; there hasn't been such a thing in Europe since the Second World War," Stern said. "Such a destruction. There has been one grave, two graves, the Communists have done things, but not in such a fashion, especially with a seal of approval from a rabbi there."

Stern was referring to a concession made between Sidon and the insurance company, Ceska Pojistovna, that the bones be sunk deep into the earth, cement be poured over, and underground garages be constructed on top of them.

Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, sent Sidon a letter last week stating that an emissary from his office would be arriving to evaluate whether Jewish law is being upheld, as Sidon stated in a letter to the Czech minister of culture on Dec. 15.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman(R-N.Y), chairman of Congress' International Relations Committee, arranged last week for the Czech Republic ambassador to the United States to appear before the committee during the first week of February.

Thomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said there has been a huge disinformation campaign launched by different organizations, resulting in hundreds of faxes and e-mails from around the world that have arrived criticizing the community and Sidon.

"This campaign — and we don't know why it was launched — is counterproductive for the sake of the site itself," Kraus said. "It's putting a knife into our backs, because we were the ones who were very much trying to save it."

Kraus said that no bones were taken out of the ground and that he was unaware of any bags of human bones in the nearby warehouse.

"There are some bones, but these are animal bones, which was part of the archaeological research that was done there."

Kraus said there was only one layer of bones at the cemetery. Others working on the preservation say there are approximately five to seven layers, with the top two or three already destroyed.