Volunteers tend to historic, long-neglected Jewish cemetery in Bohemia
Honouring the dead and caring for burial grounds is among the highest mitzvahs – religious duties or good deeds – that an observant Jew can perform, as it is a service for someone who can never return the kindness. With few members of the once thriving Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia left to tend to the cemeteries, local volunteers often step in to help.
During the Second World War, many scores of Jewish cemeteries in the Czech lands were destroyed along with whole communities. Under Communist rule, scores more burial sites were demolished, the headstones broken up for use elsewhere. The ravages of time have left many surviving Jewish cemeteries a tangled mess of cracked headstones and thick undergrowth.
Such was the largely case – until this week – in the tiny town of Dobruška, near the Polish border. Even though the local synagogue has been restored, and the local museum of Czech history, located in a former rabbinical house with a ritual bathhouse, or mikvah, includes an exhibition dedicated to the town’s long vanished Jewish population.
“So far, we’ve managed to clean about a fifth of the graves from overgrown tree roots and plants. This came about because the [ceremonial funeral hall] by the cemetery gate was damaged. The museum has the keys, so we went to have a look. We were sad to find that the cemetery had been so long neglected.”
Pavla Skalická, director of the museum, this week brought along a Czech Radio reporter for a tour of the cemetery on the outskirts of Dobruška, which is not normally open to the public. Although Jews had settled in the area in the 16th century, this particular burial ground was consecrated in 1675.
“The cemetery dates back to the 17th century, and we have to treat it as a cultural monument. We’re now in the newer section of the cemetery, but the oldest tombstones, in the back, are from 1688. They’re square sandstone slabs, in the Gothic-Renaissance style. The Hebrew script is almost entirely worn away.”
Most of the last people buried here died in 1942, the year of the infamous Wannsee Conference, called by SS officer Reinhard Heydrich – the Reichsprotektor of the called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – to coordinate the so-called Final Solution.
That year, at least 31 people from Dobruška were sent to Terezin, a Jewish ghetto and so-called Nazi “model camp”. A handful returned. On some graves are post-war inscriptions commemorating those who did not – victims of the Holocaust.
In 1964, the Dobruška cemetery, like so many others, was slated for “liquidation”, with plans to move a few historically significant tombstones to a lapidarium in Prague, and others to Rychnov nad kněžnou, where there is a well-preserved cemetery. But it the end, the site was spared.
Now, among the volunteers working to restore the site is Dobruška native Pavel Verner, who has been clearing away overgrowth on tombstones, the oldest surviving of which are of Jewish soldiers who fell in the Battle of Náchod, in the early days of the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866.
“As a little boy, I used to come here with my dad. And we had looked after the graves since my childhood but then it closed. The ivy must be removed from the tombstones so it doesn’t erode the sandstone and looks better. Now, thanks to the museum director, the work has resumed, and that’s great.”