The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

Beth Chaim (House of Life)

Thousands of Gravestones in a Small Cemetery

Right in the heart of Josefov, historically Prague's Jewish Town, you will find one of the most famous cemeteries in the world—Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery.

It is Europe's second-oldest Jewish cemetery and was used from the 15th through the 18th centuries and is said to hold as many as 100,000 buried bodies.

According to Jewish law, graves cannot be destroyed and tombstones cannot be removed. So as the cemetery filled up, new layers of dirt were placed on top of the existing graves, then a new layer of bodies were buried there. They say there could be as many as 10 to 12 layers of bodies buried here.

The old tombstones were then stacked on top of the new layer, and new tombstones were added right next to them.

There are currently about 12,000 tombstones (although some sources claim there are as many as 20,000; we didn't count them ourselves) of all different styles visible in the cemetery, some just poking up out of the grassy earth, others tilted at precarious angles. Many are stacked back-to-back, two or three deep, over the layered tombs.

While not a huge tract of land, the cemetery is a lot larger than I thought it would be, and other than paths to walk through it, there is very little unused ground.

There are a few notable graves here, but the most famous is that of Rabbi Loew, the gentleman who created the famous Golem of Prague (which is said to be kept safe in the attic of the nearby Old New Synagogue).

The tombstone of Rabbi Loew.

The tombstone of Rabbi Loew.

Also of note, this is the alleged cemetery where the Elders of Zion met to draft what would become the Protocols of Elder Zion, the legendary document created by Russia to spread antisemitism and features prominently in Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery.

We visited the Old Jewish Cemetery as part of the Jewish Museum in Prague's Prague Jewish Town Tour ($13 U.S. for adults, $4 U.S. for kids with a family ticket, plus a $2.50 charge for photography), which includes access to  six different historic sites in the Jewish Quarter. The cemetery is adjacent to the Pinkus Synagogue, which has the names of 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews who  died under the Nazis hand-inscribed upon its walls.

The Prague Cemetery

by Umberto Eco

19th Century Europe—from the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. What if, behind all of these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay one lone man?

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
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