Away from the bustle of city streets in Prague lies a secluded, rather woodsy, and nearly hidden plot of land – you can’t see in from the outside and entry is strictly regulated. The high walls hide it from outsiders, but once you enter, what lies ahead is quite a unique sight – Prague’s Jewish cemetery.
Although there are 12,000 visible tombstones, there are thought to be more than 100,000 people buried here in total; the cemetery was in use from 1439 to 1787. As it was explained to us, the Jewish community kept asking for additional land to perform burials, but they were discriminated against and thus were denied. The rabbis were told that plot of land was all that they would get, and since their religion states that they must be buried, they had no other choice but to continue to bury on top of existing plots – creating what is thought to be nearly 12 layers of tombs.
Taking a stroll through the cemetery is eerie, sad, and empathy-inducing all at once. And although one can imagine the kind of discrimination and circumstances that would lead to this, we can’t really know the story and the strife of every individual here, we can only think of the situation collectively by seeing the number of headstones (and the ones we can’t see but know are there) and what they represent.
Maniacally, Prague’s entire Jewish quarter (called Josefov), including its synagogues and this cemetery, were carefully preserved through the Holocaust because Hitler wanted to leave it as a relic of an extinct race, like a twisted museum. I guess in some ways it did become a museum of sorts, although not for that purpose – more for the purpose of exhibiting what Hitler and others tried to do, although they ultimately failed. Now those intentions are wrapped up as part of the history of this place, even though they weren’t meant to be.
I had to think about how and why this is has morphed into a tourist attraction as well – is it because it looks different than typical cemeteries? Is it the grim backstory? Fascination with different religious practices after death? I thought about this as I walked the winding path, the sound of crunching gravel the only noise around me, because I was the only one there. It was a crisp autumn day and this part of Prague was uncharacteristically quiet. Once I neared the end of the path, I turned around towards the way I came to see a jagged sea of headstones almost as far as the eye could reach, like each one was vying, desperately, to be remembered.