The Jewish Museum of Prague has embarked on the final stage of a complex, years-long project to digitize the gravestones and other information related to the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Czech capital, but it could still be several years before the final database is complete.
The cemetery is one of the best-known Jewish heritage sites in Europe, where probably tens of thousands of people are buried, under a dense thicket of more than 13,000 grave markers. Prominent personalities buried there include Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Löw (c. 1525-1609), a scholar and educator known as the Maharal, and Mordechai Maisel (1528-1601), who sponsored numerous Jewish organizations, activities, and construction projects.
Current work, museum historian Daniel Polakovic told JHE, entails “the final processing of all data (such as names, patronymic and other family identifications, places of origin, occupations, dates of death and burial, bibliographic references, etc.) from all 13,415 tombstones and their fragments. This also involves the continuation of the complete photographic documentation, which is still work in progress, and reading of the rest of the epitaphs.”
The project as a whole, which was initiated in 2003, encompasses a complete documentation of the Old Jewish Cemetery in its current state, continuing and building on older documentation efforts that date back to the 19th century. The goal, Polakovic said, “is to summarize all available documentation in a comprehensive database and thus make it all accessible and searchable in one single digital site.”
The cemetery, whose oldest legible gravestone dates from 1439, was closed for use in 1787. Past documentation efforts range from transcripts of epitaphs completed by the Prague Burial Society (Chevra Kadisha) in the 1880s to a photographic documentation of some tombstones carried out by the State Jewish Museum in the 1950s.
A digital plan of the cemetery was created in 2006. Thanks to this, Polakovic said,
it was possible to process nearly 50% of all preserved tombstones, while the rest had to be left temporarily unidentified due to the poor condition of stones caused by external factors, such as overgrowing vegetation (especially locust tree) and erosion resulting from the overall climatic conditions.
To move forward with processing of the more complicated, damaged part of the tombstones’ inscriptions, we eventually decided to launch another stage of the project, within which we have been able to read the hitherto illegible epitaphs while using modern photographic technology and methods.
A main focus of the project has been the scanning of photographs and other archival documents. These include original Prague Burial Society transcripts (over 2,200 pages) and their alphabetical index (850 pages. (These are now available online in the Museum’s Collective Access database – http://ca.jewishmuseum.cz/index.php/Splash/Index/lang/en_US — search for the keyword “Jmenny rejstrik”).
The final outcome, Polakovic said, will be “a database accessible from the Prague Jewish Museum’s website. It will be searchable in Czech and English. The search results yielded by the system will also include scans of the historical documentation of the tombstones as well as their present-day images.”
He described the project as “a very complex endeavor requiring a vast amount of time and capacity of a highly-qualified personnel” — and, he said, final completion could still take up to four years.