In Czech Republic, uproar over plan to build on suspected cemetery site


PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Claims that an Israeli firm intends to build a parking lot above a medieval Jewish cemetery have sparked an uproar in the Czech Republic.

Jews and non-Jews near Pilsen, 62 miles from Prague, long have known that a cemetery once existed somewhere in the area, but a preservation group now claims to know its exact location — though they lack physical evidence from the site.

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“We studied information about the Pilsen suburbs in medieval city books and in the city archive,” said Radek Siroky, an archaeologist for the West Bohemian Institute for Preservation of Historical Monuments.

The institute found information about Jewish purchases for cemetery plots in 1432, 1433, 1437 and 1445, and about confiscation of the land in 1471. The data refer to the spot where Plaza Centers intends to build a shopping mall, Siroky said.

Czech media have been full of articles this week claiming that the medieval cemetery was discovered by Siroky’s group, which was hired by Pilsen Plaza, a subsidiary of Israeli mall developer Plaza Centers, to conduct excavations required before a building permit can be obtained. If a significant archaeological find is made, city authorities must determine whether the construction violates the Czech Republic’s strong preservation laws.

“I went to the press with this information because, since telling Pilsen Plaza about the find in August, they stopped communication with us. I was worried they would go ahead and build there without further research,” Siroky said.

A letter he presented to JTA, which Siroky says was sent to Pilsen Plaza in September, details his concerns.

But Martin Kodrle, construction coordinator for the shopping center, which is to be launched in April 2007 on what most recently was an exhibition ground, says he only found out about the supposed cemetery location “from newspapers and the dozen phone calls I have received so far from concerned journalists.”

Kodrle accused Siroky of making false claims about the cemetery out of anger that Pilsen Plaza ultimately chose a different organization to carry out the research.

The preservation institute “told us they wanted eight months to do the research and excavations. That was too long and too expensive for us, so we chose to work with the Western Bohemian Museum instead,” Kodrle said.

Pilsen Plaza now is consulting Czech Chief Rabbi Karel Sidon about the appropriate way to carry out an excavation. Right now, all anyone agrees on is that a cemetery was located somewhere in the area, though there are no maps showing its exact location.

In the early part of the 15th century, seven families bought land that was then on the outskirts of Pilsen from local authorities. They used the land as a cemetery for nearly half a century until the land was confiscated and Jews were exiled from the area.

“Let the museum do the proper research, and then of course we will abide by the law. But why should I speculate on a problem that doesn’t exist?” Kodrle said. “Until something is found there, we can dig.”

The Western Bohemian Museum is due to finish excavations in January. Museum researcher Jiri Orna said that if there was a medieval cemetery on the site, it would be deeper than the level of digging required for permit approval, meaning excavations might not reveal anything.

“In the archives there is a document by a 19th-century local researcher who says he has pinpointed the cemetery,” Orna said, “but it’s more of a hypothesis than an established fact.”

As Sidon assesses Siroky’s claims and the need for more research, his goal is to avoid the type of scandal that erupted in the late 1990s when excavations in Prague revealed a Jewish cemetery on a site where an insurance company was to be built.

Years of disputes among the city, insurance company, Jewish community and Orthodox Jews from abroad followed the initial, unsupervised excavations that violated Jewish law and allowed bodies to be disturbed and even removed.

The wholesale disruption of a Jewish cemetery caused international outrage. The conflict even pitted Israeli religious authorities against Prague Jews, with the Israelis claiming that Czech Jews weren’t doing enough to protect the dead from being disturbed.

“We never want to go through that again,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities. “I can assure you Rabbi Sidon will do whatever is necessary to avoid such a fiasco.”