Volunteers work on history trail through Prague's largest cemetery
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Prague's Olsanske cemetery is by far the largest graveyard in the city. It is the final resting place of over a million people, including many of the leading figures of the Czech national revival and scholars and artists. You can also find there the graves of Czech legionaries from the First World War, as well as Commonwealth and Russian soldiers who lost their lives on Czechoslovak territory during the Second World War.
However, this burial ground is often the target of vandals and some of oldest parts of Olsanske cemetery are in very bad repair. But thanks to the efforts of a handful of volunteers, the old cemetery is slowly becoming an attractive place for visitors who can learn more about the stories behind the gravestones.
But in the oldest part of the cemetery, the view is a little more optimistic. The eye is attracted by small white tablets scattered among the graves with photos and texts paying tribute to some of the long departed. That's the work of Roman Catholic priest Milos Szabo and his parishioners from the nearby district of Zizkov.
The first dead were buried in Olsany in 1680 during a plague. A chapel, now outside the cemetery, commemorates the epidemic. In 1787, Emperor Joseph II made Olsany the central cemetery for Prague. Located outside the city walls, it was a safer burial place than the old graveyards in an already overcrowded city. Father Milos Szabo is now rediscovering the history with a group of enthusiasts, in their free time and without any subsidies.
"It is very demanding work because it involves examining every single grave, crawling through the thicket, cutting off the ivy, finding out who is buried there. Then I need to find out who the person was, look them up in the archives or in encyclopaedias, take photos of the grave, write it all down, have the proofreading done, produce the actual sign and finally place it there.
On an area of 50 hectares, the Olsanske cemetery has been described as an open air museum and gallery. Yet it is difficult to navigate and often you come across the important graves by chance. That is now changing, thanks to Father Szabo and his parishioners. The poor state of the gravestones and tombs is another matter. But as I was walking through the cemetery, I noticed at least three teams of workers putting up new roofs and plaster on some of the old tombs.