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Prague’s Old Jewish cemetery is among the oldest surviving Jewish graveyards in Europe

David Goran

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It is situated in Josefov, the former Prague Jewish Town, among old synagogues and other sights and served its purpose from the first half of 15th century till 1786.

Thousands of gravestones are crammed into the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Source

Thousands of gravestones are crammed into the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Image by: Mark Healey/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The tombstone of rabbi Avignor Kara was the earliest tombstone and dates back to 1439, and the first documented existence of the holy place goes back to 1438.

The last burial took place 348 years later.

During the more than three centuries in which it was in active use, the cemetery continually struggled with the lack of space. Source

During the more than three centuries in which it was in active use, the cemetery continually struggled with the lack of space. Image by: Stuart Richards/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

 

The older Jewish burial monuments are basically rectangular, but with various endings at the top. Source

The older Jewish burial monuments are basically rectangular, but with various endings at the top. Image by: Jim Killock/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

There are about 100,000 Jews interred in this cemetery and because of the lack of space, over the centuries the graves had to be put one on another, somewhere even in twelve layers.

There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery, many decorated with animals and plant motifs that have inspired many works of art and literature by leading writers and artists.

Many of the deceased are named after the district where they had resided. The number of original epitaphs totals about 8,000. Source

Many of the deceased are named after the district where they had resided. The number of original epitaphs totals about 8,000. Image by: Jay Galvin/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It is forbidden to picture dead people in the Jewish faith, so the gravestones characterize the deceased through various symbols, hinting at the life, character, name or profession of the people, etc.

For example, the musicians’ graves are adorned with a violin, scissors indicate a tailor, a crown belongs to the erudite men and an animal symbol mostly signifies the dead man’s surname.

A synagogue at he Old Jewish Cemetery. Source

A synagogue at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Image by: Mark Healey/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Interestingly, during the WW II, Hitler ordered for the old cemetery to be left intact. It is believed that he spared the cemetery so that it could be made into a “museum of an extinct race”.

The proposed museum would have collected the increasing number of Jewish possessions after killing all the Jews in Europe.

Starting at the middle of the 15th century, the gravestones record is a continual time line of burials. Source

Starting at the middle of the 15th century, the gravestones record is a continual timeline of burials. Image by: Pascal Hassenforder/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

The last person to call this cemetery home was Moses Beck, who was put to rest in 1787. Source

The last person to call this cemetery home was Moses Beck, who was put to rest in 1787. Image by: perception (off)/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Some famous Jews are buried here, among them rabbi Jehuda Liva ben Becalel-Maharal, rabbi, and scholar Avigdor Kara, Mordechai ben Samuel Maisel, an entrepreneur and former 16th century Jewish Town mayor who had private synagogue built.

One of the most visited graves is that of the Rabbi Jehuda Low who lived during the 16th century and is said to have created the artificial, clay creature called the Golem. According to legend, Golem stood on the Jews side in bad times, but later became violent and had to be destroyed.

A memorial at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Source

A memorial at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Image by: Mark Healey/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Visitors can see gravestones from various historical periods there, long black Gothic ones, typical Renaissance decoration, Baroque and Rococco. Source

Visitors can see gravestones from various historical periods there, long black Gothic ones, typical Renaissance decoration, Baroque, and Rococo. Image by: perceptions (off)/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Sometimes visitors enter from the Pinkas Synagogue, which serves as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and leave pebbles or prayers written on small pieces of paper on the tombstones.