Jewish Heritage Europe

Jewish Cemeteries/Jewish Archaeology. Max Polonovski


Presentation at the Cross-Disciplinary conference on Jewish Cemeteries, Vilnius, 2015. In it Polonovski argues strongly for archaelogical excavation to be carried out at medieval Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish heritage sites.

By Max Polonovski

General Curator of Jewish Heritage for the French Ministry of Culture.

One of the purpose of this meeting is to emphasize the value of Jewish cemeteries as an essential part of Jewish culture. In the different sessions, several aspects are underlined, the information they provide regarding ethnography, rituals, anthropology, history and even their emotional or poetic value. Inscriptions and artistic carvings reveal a lot about cultural and literary levels of a population.

There is nevertheless an important part of knowledge about Jewish life and culture which is usually hidden for obvious reasons, I mean the corpses and the manner in which they were buried.

This aspect of Jewish archaeology has become controversial in recent years. But we must look at the benefit which can be found in archaeological discoveries regarding Jewish cemeteries.

Jewish historiography had always a tendency to try to prove the continuity of Jewish religion and its compliance to biblical and talmudic laws for two millennia. Actually, the constitution of the Jewish settlements during the High Middle Ages in Europe and their development is quite unclear. In the absence of any documents for these periods of time, archaeology could be the only means to fill the gaps.[…] Before the 10th century, there is no information about Jewish cemeteries.

Forensic anthropology can provide information not only on hygiene, and general and individual health, but it allows comparisons between different cultural or ethnic populations; it could also provide precious information about migrations, numbers of inhabitants, history of persecutions with statistics and traumatological data: all types of information which can be obtained only through archaeological research. Last but not least, the DNA analysis contributes to the history of the migration of population and of the shaping of the European peoples.

I said that the archaeology of death became controversial in recent years. I will give an exemple in Paris.

The excavations of the Jewish mediaeval cemetery of the rue des Écoles in Paris in 1847 only produced demonstrations of interest for the extraordinary discoveries they offered. Jewish and non-Jewish scholars made their best efforts to show their scholarship and undertook the dating and documenting of the stones.

Moreover, the skulls of the skeletons were taken by the famous anthropologist Quatrefages for the Museum of Natural History where they still are preserved among 70,000 other bones.


A conference using the results of the anthropological analysis was even organized in 1893 by the Société des Etudes Juives, which was founded by the Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn.

We can measure the change which happened regarding Jewish archaeology today if we compare [the situation today] with the 19th century, when only scientific challenges were at stake.


In 2000, a new building was planned on the same spot. What could have been an exemplary scientific excavation of the main mediaeval Jewish cemetery in Paris was aborted because the municipal archaeologist, thinking that it could provoke some protest from the Jewish community, informed the building company, which decided to modify the project.

We moved backwards: in the 19th century, we could do excavation but we didn’t know how to do it properly, in the 21th century, we know how to do it, but we practise self censorship.

This censorship is due to several reasons. First, it has to do with a phenomenon of reinforcement of the communitarian spirit, to the needs of minority groups for recognition in a multicultural society, to the widening of notions of the traditional culture.

The process of preventing excavations appeared very soon in Israel. The protests of orthodox Jews were usual, but the political issue of Jewish archaeology was stronger than any religious issue at that time.

The 3rd century Beit Shearim necropolis was excavated in the 1950s without any problem. The strengthening of religious trends made it more and more difficult to undertake excavations of cemeteries at the beginning of the 1990s. Progressivley the law reinforced the power of the orthodox in submitting all archeological plans to the ministry for religious affairs. It led to the complete interdiction nowadays of excavations of cemeteries. As the Israeli archaeologist Renée Sivan said, we would never have discovered the only testimony of the Blessing of the Priests dating from the 6th century BCE if the Katef Hinnom had not be excavated in the 1990s.

In the following years, an increasing vigilance developed among the orthodox Jewish communities in Europe and United States towards the fortuitous discoveries of Jewish cemeteries. The same kind of problems which occurred in Czech Republic in Prague, in the United Kingdom in York, in Lithuania in Snipiskes, in Spain in Valencia, Tarrega, Toledo, etc., show that the phenomenon has reached all of Europe.


Some examples of recent excavations stopped by the pressure of orthodox organisations in Spain show the rich and diverse ways to bury Jews in Lucena, Sevilla, Tarrega, and Monjuic in Barcelona. In Tarrega, a mass grave is the testimony of the violent massacre of Jews in 1391.



Pressure groups, like the Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe based in London, have been created to watch out for the respect of religious law in regard to the Jewish burial, which has to be kept in perpetuity. They would intervene to prevent any work, using all the political support and media coverage to impose their religious point of view.

Those steps are based on the interpretation of a verse of the Bible which says that the dead must not be disturbed.

The obstacles which cause the cessation of the excavations and the irreparable loss of historical information are of diverse natures, which may be delimited in two main trends.

The first one has to do with self censorship. Public authorities are not much aware of the particularities of Judaism. Not well informed, they have a tendency to consider the Jews as a special community which is governed by its own internal rules. Hence they are sensitive to international pressure which is exerted on their own soil.

The second tendency is related to the attempt of some fractions of Judaism to impose the supremacy of religion over the civil law. The universal scope of Science is jeopardized by this communitarian threat.

Those two trends meet together to creating an awkward situation, a threat against public liberty. Two legitimacies confront each other.

Religious continuity versus cultural heritage. The first one pretends to defend a special right, the other defends the general interest.

The position held by the religious authorities may be understandable since they are in their role when they wish the strict application of the fundamental dogmas of their religion.

On the other hand, the right of access to its cultural heritage by the whole population is based on principles which are supposed to be implemented by public authorities. The position of these latter, in most cases, is questionable since it appears as a failure to protect the right to know and a propensity to let a small activist minority express its most extreme point of view.


The case of the Prague cemetery is meaningful.

The Jewish cemetery of the Vladislavova street was in use between the 13th and the 15th century. Many buildings followed one another on this site, especially during the 20th century, and the archaeological service of Prague considered that there was little chance to find any significant traces of the cemetery.

A new building project was launched by an Insurance Company in 1997. A perfect cooperation began under the supervision of the Archaeological service of the City. An agreement with the chief rabbi of Prague, Efraim Sidon, was set up and the exhumation of 88 skeletons and their anthropological analysis could be performed, with the assistance of Alexander Putik, a member of the Jewish community and historian at the Jewish Museum of Prague. Before they were reburied, many interesting observations could be done. An unexpected discovery of a mass grave with human and animal bones testified of violent executions, with signs of extreme heat.


The interest and the emotion raised by these discoveries alerted the usual international organisations, the CPJCE, Athra Kadisha, and the Chief Rabbi Lau of Israel who convinced the rabbi Sidon to make Halacha respected. Pressure relayed by the Embassy of the United States led the Czech government to stop the digging for good and to pour a concrete floor on the whole area. After several long months of delay, hundreds of uncovered burials were damaged by the bad weather, without any possibility for the archaeological service to intervene.

The example of the Jewish burial ground at Jewbury in York shows how it was perceived by the rabbinical authorities. The trial excavations of the necropolis revealed burials oriented north-south in wooden coffins constructed using iron nails. Chief Rabbi Jakobovits said it could not be by any means a Jewish cemetery, since metal nails were avoided and the graves would be aligned east-west. This prejudice and the denial to admit the facts allowed the archaeologists to exhume 482 skeletons and to perform anthropological investigations. Unfortunately, the chief rabbi understood too soon that the evidence ran against tradition, and he obtained the reburial prematurely.

Still, the publication of the results of the excavation remains one of the most complete work on a Jewish cemetery.

The problem is more political than religious. Religious laws cannot be discussed. The only question is to know if public authorities are willing to limit their extent. You cannot give exorbitant rights to a minority without future social damage. And it can be done only if the rest of the population feels unconcerned.

Beyond these ethnic-religious claims, Jewish Heritage is inclined to belong to all the citizens as an integral part of the National and Universal Heritage. Jewish Heritage is not only the heritage of the Jews but the heritage of all.

1 comment on “Jewish Cemeteries/Jewish Archaeology. Max Polonovski

  1. Can you please let Mr Polonovski know his e mail address came back as not valid. This is Klara Benzicron

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