The Prague Old Jewish Cemetery
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Oldest But Not First
This actually was not the first Jewish Cemetery in the city. Following the expulsion of the Jewish community during the crusades, several large families chose to settle in what is now the New Town area of the city but from the early 15th Century were then relocated back into what had become the recognised Jewish Ghetto and the former cemetery was built over.
The oldest recorded grave here comes from around the same time i.e. the grave of Avigdor Kara (previously a child survivor of the 1389 pogrom) dates to 1439. The oldest part of the Old Jewish Cemetery bordering the block of houses in Maiselova was expanded on at least three occasions to allow for more burials and after horizontal expansion was no longer possible, they went vertical with the addition of layers of earth on top of the existing graves.
By moving the headstones and “Tumbas” (small house-like gravestones) during this process we have ended up with more than 12,000 visible headstones and more than 42,000 people buried here. But it’s a bit creepy to imagine the stacks of bodies in the eventual depth of 4.5 metres of earth. Finally they could not expand on the existing land and a small park adjacent to the Old Jewish Cemetery was purchased but they barely used it for 50 years before King Joseph II closed them down in 1787. Burials were banned in the Old Town and New Town due to the risk of plague.
I’m not Jewish myself, can’t read Hebrew and don’t really know Jewish customs etc but if you are the same as me then try and get an understanding of the characters on the gravestones. Although many of the stones give a description of the person’s life in Hebrew there are many stones that have the addition of figures or things which identify a profession, a family name or just a general character. Look for mice (Maisel family), grapes (sign of wealth), blessed hands (Cohen family), Goose (Gans family), scissors (tailor), violin (musician) etc. It is still very interesting and enjoyable to closely look at the graves and the way they are laid out.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is part of the Jewish Museum so if you buy the Jewish Museum Ticket B then you get access to here. Check the Prague Jewish Museum page for location info and if you want to buy tickets online go to their E-Shop. VERY IMPORTANT: if you download tickets then you need to PRINT them to get access to the sites.
Views of the Old Jewish Cemetery are included in my Old Town and Jewish Quarter Walking Tour.