Every year thousands and thousands of holiday makers stroll by means of the cobbled streets of Prague’s Previous City – with out realising, most probably, that lots of the stones under their toes have been looted from what was meant to be sacred floor. The BBC’s Rob Cameron solely not too long ago realized their secret.
We stood, blocking the pedestrian visitors, on one of many busiest streets within the Czech capital. A gradual stream of individuals pushed by us muttering as they clutched baggage of Christmas buying and souvenirs and we peered on the floor.
Within the distance, on the backside of Wenceslas Sq., crowds congregated round avenue performers and kiosks promoting sausages and beer.
“There,” mentioned Leo Pavlat, the owlish, bearded director of the Prague Jewish Museum, pointing at a skinny strip of darkish, sq. cobblestones at our toes. “There! You see? All alongside there.” He seemed up, his eyes following the strip because it ran alongside the brief pedestrianised avenue.
He delved right into a plastic bag and introduced out two cobblestones. They have been nearly similar to these embedded within the floor under us. However these ones you would flip over in your fingers, revealing a single easy facet of polished granite that might in any other case have been hidden face down.
One bore fragments of a date, 1895. The opposite featured three letters of the Hebrew alphabet – he, vav, guess, the gold paint which lined the chiselled inscriptions glinting within the winter solar.
“What does it imply?” I requested. “Is it a part of a reputation?” Leo frowned. “No concept. It is not sufficient to inform. Presumably it is a part of a eulogy.”
Leo Pavlat has owned these stones for greater than 30 years, ever since he slipped them into his pocket one spring morning a while within the late 1980s.
“It should have been shortly earlier than Gorbachev got here, as a result of I bear in mind they redid the cobblestones right here particularly for his go to,” he mentioned.
Later I seemed on-line and found that the Soviet chief first visited Prague in April 1987, and the journey had certainly included an hour-long walkabout on the backside of Wenceslas Sq..
However again to Leo and his cobblestones. On that spring morning simply over 30 years in the past he was on his solution to work within the Albatros youngsters’s publishing home, a brief distance from the place we now stood. He’d handed a sight that is nonetheless acquainted in Prague immediately – piles of recent cobbles ready to be laid by staff in overalls and kneepads.
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One thing about them caught his eye, and he bent down for a better look. They have been fragments of Jewish tombstones that had been reduce into excellent cubes of granite. Judging by the dates, they’d been taken from a 19th Century cemetery. Shocked, Leo pocketed a couple of and walked briskly away.
“It wasn’t straightforward being Jewish again then,” he advised me. “I used to be an lively member of the group, although not within the official circles. And I wasn’t a member of the Communist Get together.”
Even attending the officially-sanctioned weekly service in one of many few functioning synagogues was sufficient to immediate a chat with the key police, he mentioned.
“There have been no publications, no training. I believe the regime simply needed the Jewish group to slowly die.”
Czechoslovakia’s Jewish inhabitants of some 350,000 folks earlier than World Warfare Two, was decreased to about 50,000 in 1946 – together with the few who had staggered again from the focus camps.
Official anti-Semitism and voluntary emigration adopted throughout the many years of communism. By the late 1980s, the inhabitants barely numbered eight,000.
And throughout the nation, on the sides of villages and cities, some 600 Jewish cemeteries lay untended and forgotten. The Communist authorities – and, it appears, the leaders of the Jewish group too – noticed them as repositories of worthwhile constructing materials that might in any other case go to waste.
Leo Pavlat could not bear in mind the place his stones had come from, however directed me to an article he’d written a number of years earlier than. His cobbles, it appears, have been reduce from tombstones taken from a Jewish cemetery established in 1864 within the city of Udlice in North Bohemia.
There’d been a Jewish group there for the reason that 17th Century, with a synagogue, yeshiva (a spiritual college) and two cemeteries. By 1930, the Jewish inhabitants of Udlice had fallen to 13. By the 1980s, when its cemetery was looted, it was – presumably – zero.
After a couple of minutes’ stroll, we reached the tip of the granite line, on the backside of Wenceslas Sq.. Vacationers and locals jostled previous us.
I requested Leo what he needed the town to do.
“It is not straightforward. The gravestones can by no means be put again collectively, and laying new cobbles would value thousands and thousands,” he mentioned.
“I do not suppose it was finished intentionally by the Communists, to offend us Jews. However it’s insensitive.”
He’d like the town to place up a small plaque. A plaque that might remind folks, he mentioned, of the as soon as vibrant Jewish life right here. And the barbarism of the Communist regime.
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