Yesterday I visited the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Zizkov neighborhood of Prague for the first time. Prague actually has several Jewish cemeteries, only one of which is still in use, and some of which are only remnants of what they once were.
When most visitors come to Prague, they tour the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is located in Prague’s historic Jewish Quarter. However, there are others that are worth a visit, and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Zizkov, though a bit out of the city center, is one of them.
Located next to the space-age TV tower (the needle in the sky that you can’t miss in Prague’s distant skyline), the Zizkov cemetery was founded in 1680 when the plague swept through Prague and burials within what were then the city limits were forbidden. Next to it a Christian cemetery was also founded, and both were initially used only when necessary due to epidemics (a second wave of the plague came through in the early 18th century, and burials again took place in the Zizkov cemetery). However, after 1786, it was used as Prague’s main burial place for the city’s Jewish community, when all burials within the city limits were banned.
In 1890, burials in the Zizkov Jewish cemetery ceased when the New Jewish Cemetery was founded further out of the city. The New Jewish Cemeteray is the one that is currently used by Prague’s Jewish community. Franz Kafka, Max Brod and Arnost Lustig, winner of the Kafka prize and formerly a professor at American University in the US, are buried there. You can learn more about the New Jewish Cemetery in my self-guided Jewish Quarter walk.
It’s amazing that this cemetery (and Prague’s other Jewish cemeteries) survived the Nazis - it was the communists that actually did the most damage. In the 1960s, the authorities decided to build a park on part of the cemetery grounds, but at least that time the graves that had been where the park was placed were relocated elsewhere in the part of the cemetery that remained.
But it was the building of the dreaded TV antennae that did the most destruction to a large part of the cemetery. Big earth-moving equipment moved in and just started scooping up giant mounds of dirt, bodies and tombstones included, with no effort whatsoever to preserve, research, curate or relocate any of the souls included therein. No one knows what happened to the graves lost, except for a few large fragments of some tombstones of a prominent person or two. This is a tragedy, but it was not uncommon for the acts of the communist regime, especially when it came to Jewish memorials or property.
Thankfully, though, much of the cemetery was left intact, if abandoned and unattended. In 1999, the Zizkov cemetery became part of the Jewish Museum in Prague, and it is now a protected monument. Repairs and restoration were done on the cemetery and its graves and tombstones, and it opened to the public in 2001. Restoration work and research on the tombstones continues, with 164 graves restored so far.
Some 40,000 persons are buried in the Zizkov cemetery, including many prominent rabbis, scholars and other members of Prague’s Jewish community. Among them are the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the 18th century, Ezechiel Landau, and other members of his family. The physician Jonas Jeiteles, who was a well-respected and renowned physician, is also buried here, along with members of his family. In 1777 Jeiteles had been given permission from the emperor to treat non-Jewish patients, which at the time was a rare occurence. The grave of Joachim Popper, a prominent industrialist, can be found here, as well.
The architectural styles of the tombstones range from Baroque to Empire to neo-Gothic. The cemetery is open to the public daily except for Saturdays, and closes at 3:00 pm on Fridays. It is well worth a visit to the Zizkov neighborhood to take in this significant and moving site.
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I am an American who has been living in Prague for two decades. After a long career in international finance, I left the business world to pursue other interests. I now work as a writer, mentor and guide to the city.