Memento mori: Prague

Prague’s historic Jewish cemetery.

By Douglas Parker

The cemetery is located in the heart of Prague, hidden behind a high stone wall as if to protect it from vandals and the profane sounds of a vibrant and busy city full of people who are still alive. It is, after all, a holy, hallowed place whose holiness must be both acknowledged and respected. After I buy my ticket, I see a wicker basket full of yarmulkes. I look at the man tending them; he sees the question in my eyes and nods with a smile. I put one on my head, a clumsy gentile gesture. I walk in feeling an awkward reverence and find myself in Prague’s historic Jewish cemetery.

I am struck immediately by a number of things. The first is the deathly silence of the place. Only a few feet beyond the wall, Prague life goes on; inside the wall, it is death that goes on. The second is the size of the place; it is astonishingly small even though, as the pamphlet says, it houses over 100,000 people. Adding to the sense of its size are the 12,000 memorials and tombstones, jammed together, haphazardly, creating a sense of both intimacy and chaotic jumble.  Seemingly, no one tends this cemetery except time, and time has not been kind to it, sweeping away and erasing many of the inscriptions, which I couldn’t read in any case because I lack the language; clearly, I’m a foreigner here in several senses. Many stones, like old, arthritic men, lean against their neighbours that seem to assist and support them lovingly. The whole impression is of a place in a state of decay and disuse, as if letting observers know that what they see reflects the decay that now lies hidden. Stones as markers; stones as symbols. Paradoxically, for what it represents, the place holds a certain ruinous, sad and tragic beauty.

The cemetery dates from 1439. The last burial occurred in 1787. Jews were not allowed to be buried anywhere outside the ghetto, which explains, I suppose, the cheek-by-jowl placement of the 12,000 tombs. To accommodate all the dead in this confined space, bodies were buried on top of each other up to 10 deep, like extended families living together in the same house but on different floors. Philip Larkin’s phrase, “a serious house on serious earth,” pops into my head. I wonder about this enforced intimacy, bones intermingled, individual identities subsumed into the collective, bones embracing other bones indiscriminately. A kind of unity amongst people who, for no comprehensible reason, have been throughout history despised in life by – one must admit and acknowledge it – others, monstrous others. The humble Jewish cemetery in Prague, “a place to grow wise in” to cite Larkin again, an ossuary and reliquary of the quiet dead.

Douglas Parker is a long-time Glebe resident with an interest in English Reformation literature, history and theology.

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