A heavily-trafficked pedestrian promenade in downtown Prague is (at least partially) paved with cobblestones cut from Jewish gravestones.
The cobbles were used to construct the pedestrian promenade along Na Příkopě street, at one end of Wenceslas Square. It opened in November 1985; construction of the promenade — now one of the most upscale shopping areas in the city — coincided with the opening and expansion of the Prague underground metro system.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis frequently uprooted matzevot and used them for paving and other construction, and the practice was widespread in eastern Europe under communism. Among other reports, for example, we have run articles recently about how volunteers worked this summer to recover the Jewish gravestones used to pave a street in L’viv, about a memorial erected in Poznan, Poland using fragments of matzevot that had been used as paving, and about efforts to recover Jewish headstones used for paving in Vilnius.
The Prague example became known after the fall of communism in 1989, but the case appears to have received less attention and outcry over the years than have other such cases in countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. The Pražký Deník newspaper wrote about it in 2013, for example, and Leo Pavlat, the director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, wrote a piece about it for Czech Radio in 2014. But no action has been taken to rectify the situation.
The BBC has now posted a report this week called The European Capital Cobbled with Jewish Gravestones, ahead of the January 27 International Holocaust Memorial Day, and the AFP ran a story last year.
The AFP article states:
Surrounded by dozens of revamped historic buildings, it soon became popular, connecting Wenceslas Square with the Royal Mile that takes millions of tourists annually from downtown to the castle that overlooks Prague.
For decades the Jewish paving stones’ fate has upset some residents, without ever becoming the subject of a wider public debate.
In his 2014 article, Pavlat wrote that he didn’t think it would be feasible to dismantle the Prague pedestrian zone; the matzevot had been cut into such small pieces that it would be difficult if not impossible to put them back together. He said he would, however, want to see an explanatory plaque or information panel erected.
The cobbles are believed to have been cut from granite matzevot taken from a destroyed Jewish cemetery founded in 1864 in the village of Údlice, in northern Bohemia near the town of Chomutov. (According to the International Jewish Cemetery Project, in the mid-1990s construction workers in Údlice also uncovered Jewish gravestones that were used during the 1970s to pave a courtyard of the town hall.)
In his 2014 article, Pavlat recalled how on his way to work at the Albatros childrens’ publishing house in the 1980s, during the work to build the Na Příkopě promenade, he had noticed the piles of cube-like cobblestones heaped up and ready to be laid, and he had recognized at the time that they had been cut from matzevot — the polished sides with the inscription were embedded facedown, leaving rough, bluish-colored granite on the surface; these cobbles were darker than other cobblestones and were used to form patterns in the walkway.
Pavlat pocketed two of the cobbles cut from matzevot, which he conserves to this day — the BBC article includes pictures of Pavlat and the two stones — one bears a Hebrew letter, and the other the date 1895.
Historically, there were two Jewish cemeteries in Udlice; both were destroyed during and after World War II and their headstones used as building material. The Old Cemetery, founded in the 16th century, was used until 1870. The New Cemetery was founded in 1864 and was used until the eve of WW2. Today only approximately 16 gravestones remain there.
There are more than 300 Jewish cemeteries in the Czech Republic, testimony to the more than 150 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia that were destroyed in the Holocaust. During WW2 and afterward, under the communist regime, threats to these cemeteries included theft of individual marble and other headstones for sale or reuse as well as larger-scale projects such as the Prague pedestrian promenade that used them as construction and paving.