Old Jewish Cemetery (Stary Zidovsky Hrbitov)

Old Jewish Cemetery (Stary Zidovsky Hrbitov) (24)

Moving, magical, surprising or disturbing: all of these words can be used to describe the old Jewish cemetery of Prague, one of the most singular places in this city. Forget any hurry you may be in before going though the iron gate. This is a spot with a strange calm that awakens the imagination and fantasy and is enjoyed more without looking at your watch.

Founded in 1478, it is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It is still almost the same size as it was in the 15th century, from which we can imagine that the Jews of Prague were unable to escape from their crammed conditions even in death. In fact, for centuries the inhabitants of the ghetto were only allowed to be buried here. Given that the law forbade tombs to be opened, the bodies were buried in several layers, until reaching a depth of as many as twelve bodies in some parts.

It is estimated that there are some 100,000 people buried here. As for the tombstones, they became more and more crammed together and broken. Looking at them as a whole, one has the sensation of having been shaken by an earthquake that would have turned the order of the cemetery into the chaos of nature.

By the early 19th century and fearing that such an accumulation would end up causing the spreading of the plague, Emperor Joseph II prohibited anyone else being buried in this cemetery. In fact, the last funeral held here was that of Moses Beck in 1787.

Even if you do not understand Hebrew, you can discover quite a few things about the people who were buried in this cemetery. For example, if you see hands in the position of blessing, it is a rabbi. A pair of scissors indicates a tailor is buried here. Under the figure of a book a printer is buried and, if you see some forceps, that is where a doctor is lying in rest.

On the tombstones one can appreciate a growing complexity. On the oldest ones you can hardly see the name of the deceased, but later on a reference to the profession or social class was sculpted on. During the Baroque period it was the vogue to adorn the tombstone with biblical or poetic texts. 

In the old Jewish cemetery of Prague there are illustrious or curious figures buried. The oldest tomb you will see dates from 1493 and is that of the rabbi and author Avigdor Karo. Mordechai Maisel, the rich Jewish mayor and philanthropist, was buried here in 1601. One of the most beautiful tombstones is that of Hendel Bassevi, wife of the first Jewish nobleman of Prague.

On one of the walls there are tombstones embedded even older than the cemetery, specifically from the 14th century. They come from an earlier cemetery, discovered in 1866 where Vladisladova Street is today.

Make sure before you go that you visit the tomb of Rabbi Löw, to who the legend of the Golem is attributed. Many people write down a wish on a piece of paper and leave it on the tomb in the hope that it will come true. If you do it, don’t forget to place it under a pebble or the cold winter wind will blow it away.

A final tip: although you could spend hour after hour here, try not to stay after the sun goes down. Quite a few people will assure you that, when night falls, you can see the Golem wandering among the tombs.

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