The Czech town trying to keep its Jewish past buried

A tombstone lying in a garden in ProstejovImage copyright
Rob Cameron/BBC

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This kind of tombstone was discovered in someone’s cellar, where the item had most likely been since the Jewish community was deported as well as murdered in World War Two

Plans to rehabilitate a pre-war Jewish cemetery inside the Czech town of Prostejov have run into fierce local opposition. The foundation behind the plan says the item has been torpedoed by deliberate misinformation as well as anti-Semitism.

Tomas Jelinek stands over a broken headstone as well as scrapes at patches of cement obscuring the name. Sweating heavily in spite of the chilly afternoon, he brushes away the last patches as well as squints at the inscription.

“Herlitzka,” he decides. “Bernhard Herlitzka. Died… April 1879. I can’t make out the date.”

There’s not much more to go on. The broken tombstone lies face up inside the grass, with perhaps a dozen or so more beside the item, some whole, others in fragments. The inscriptions are a mixture of German as well as Hebrew. “Beloved daughter…” begins one. “Here lies…” reads another. The rest can be lost.

“We can find the story of a person,” says Tomas Jelinek, formerly head of Prague’s Jewish community.

“We contain the files of the Chevra Kadisha – the Jewish burial society, where we can find the position of the graves, the text which was on the gravestone as well as so on.”

“We usually try to contact the relatives. We sometimes find direct heirs,” he adds. “They’re surprised, touched. Some of them are truly excited.”

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Rob Cameron/BBC

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Tomas Jelinek can be dedicated to restoring the headstones, as well as ensuring the town remembers its Jewish past

So far Mr Jelinek has recovered 34 headstones in as well as around Prostejov. He has just loaded This kind of one as well as a dozen more into a trailer at a nearby village, hence the sweating.

“The whole cellar was made via them. They weren’t hard to find,” the villager tells me. He says he’d rather not give his name.

“I’m just returning what should never have been taken.”

A town ‘renowned for anti-Semitism’

Every few months, says Mr Jelinek, someone via Prostejov will call him to say they’ve found a stone with Hebrew writing propping up a chicken coop or lying at the bottom of the garden.

One family discovered their entire back yard was paved with marble tombstones. Unfortunately, they have been reluctant to part with them.

“Prostejov had a very bad history inside the relationship to the Jews. the item was famous for its anti-Semitism inside the 19th Century,” he tells me.

“as well as the item’s still inside the population. You can hear the item on the street, as well as you can also see which they just reinvent things which people thought would certainly disappear for ever after the Second World War.”

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Rob Cameron/BBC

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Prostejov was once an important Jewish centre, yet little remains today

For centuries Prostejov was an important centre of Jewish life in Moravia, producing numerous influential rabbis. In 1942, which history came to an abrupt end, when the town’s Jews were deported by the Nazis.

The following year, Prostejov’s ethnic German mayor bought the town’s old Jewish cemetery via the Reich authorities. the item contained the graves of 1,924 people; the last burial had been in 1908. The tombstones were marked with crosses; high quality marble was sold; lesser quality softer stone was handed out free to locals.

After the war, the site stayed empty for years. People remember playing there as children. They told their parents they were going to play “na zidaku” – down at the Jews’ place. Some remember unearthing bones.

Anger, lies as well as opposition

Today, the item can be a modest park, bordered by houses as well as a school. yet 74 years after its desecration, plans to rehabilitate the item have caused uproar.

“I think the mayor pretty much summed the item up when she said the rights of the living must take precedence over the rights of the dead,” deputy mayor Zdenek Fiser told me at Prostejov’s splendid town hall.

He was referring to one of many stormy public meetings held inside the town on a proposal put forward by the US foundation Mr Jelinek right now represents – Kolel Damesek Eliezer. The foundation wants to demarcate the old cemetery that has a knee-high hedge as well as place some of the recovered tombstones there.

yet after a petition signed by 3,000 locals the town council quickly withdrew its support. A visualisation was attached to the petition, falsely showing the park surrounded by a brick wall.

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Rob Cameron/BBC

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Some of the red crosses which were painted on the headstones in 1943 are still visible

“The thing can be, there are only a few descendants of people of Jewish origin left here in Prostejov,” Mr Fiser told me, explaining the overwhelming opposition to the plan, which would certainly involve rerouting several paths leading to the school.

“Most of the people who signed the petition live opposite the park or are parents of kids who go to the school. So most people who signed the petition against the item actually live there.”

He also dismisses Tomas Jelinek’s claims which Prostejov was a hotbed of anti-Semitism.

“You’re asking me about anti-Semitic articles inside the local press, yet we didn’t write those articles, did we? As you well know, journalists need controversy, a ’cause celebre’, to make their articles interesting,” Mr Fiser explained.

“If they’d just written about plans to turn a local park into a place of remembrance, no-one would certainly be interested. yet put ‘anti-Semitism’ inside the headline, as well as all of a sudden everyone’s up in arms.”

For right now, Bernhard Herlitzka’s tombstone can be being stored with the rest at Prostejov’s fresh Jewish Cemetery, a short drive out of town. the item can be a provisional arrangement, until the foundation as well as the town council can agree what to do with the old one.

Judging by the atmosphere in Prostejov, the item could be some time.

Broken gravestones – then as well as right now

There’s a post-script to my visit. I’m given a guided tour by a local historian who’s researched Prostejov’s Jewish community. She takes me down a little alley between a cluster of buildings.

“which was the main synagogue. which was the reform one. as well as which was the yeshiva,” she says. The synagogues are right now churches; one Catholic, one Protestant. The yeshiva can be right now where you go to pay your parking fines.

Finally, we end up at the Old Jewish Cemetery – the park which the Jewish community still regards as a burial ground. Shouting teenagers rush past us in groups. Mothers push prams. A modest black monument faces the school.

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Rob Cameron/BBC

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An act of vandalism or just the weather?

She takes me a few metres’ further to a second monument, a plexiglass replica of the tombstone of Prostejov’s most famous rabbi, Zvi Horowitz.

“Oh,” she exclaims.

The plexiglass has been snapped in two. Half of the item can be lying inside the grass. I make sympathetic noises to hide her evident embarrassment. the item has clearly just happened.

I take a photo as well as show the item to deputy mayor Mr Fiser. I ask him who he thinks could have been responsible.

“I don’t know,” he replies, peering at my phone.

“Perhaps the item was the wind?”

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