Memorial Return of the stones: a tribute to Jews without a grave

Prague has since yesterday a new memorial monument for the Jewish community which, in Bohemia and Moravia, numbered around 90,000 people before 1939. Indeed, the memorial Návrat kamenů (Return of the stones) was inaugurated on September 7 at the Jewish cemetery in Žižkov , in the third district of Prague. The work of artists Lucie Ronová and Jaroslav Róna, the monument was created from fragments of 19th-century Jewish headstones that had been used to pave Wenceslas Square in anticipation of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Czechoslovakia in 1987.

Jaroslav Róna and Lucie Rónová | Photo: Vit Simánek, ČTK

Councilor responsible for culture at the city of Prague, Hana Třeštíková is delighted with this highly symbolic act:

“On behalf of the City of Prague, I would like to say that it is very important that this wrong is finally righted. I believe that few Praguers suspected that when they walked in the center of Prague, they were walking on tombstones. But thanks to the efforts of the Jewish community in Prague, this injustice has now been rectified. I am happy that it was completed, and that we can now admire this work of art. »

spiritual world and material world

Photo: Jewish Community of Prague

A Czech artist known mainly for his sculptures exhibited in the public space (including the statue of Franz Kafka in the Jewish quarter of Prague), Jaroslav Róna believes that this memorial gives back their dignity to the stelae used as cobblestones. He describes this new “place of contemplation, where everyone can pay homage to people without a grave”:

“The original idea was to design a memorial that would look like the ruins of a religious building after an excavation, a temple, for example. The fact is that the old Jewish cemetery in Žižkov is composed of destroyed or displaced stelae, made of different types of stones. So I wanted to create something that wasn’t too far off from what’s already here. When I started thinking about the plan, the central circular shape imposed itself, and the symbolism took shape: the domed circle in the center is the eye of God, Creation. There are pavers with inscriptions. The increasingly eroded low walls symbolize our progressively destroyed material world. They are nine in number, a number which, in Kabbalah, represents the passage from the spiritual world to the material world, and vice versa. What is precisely symbolized by this place of eternal rest. »

Jaroslav Rona | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský, ČRo

“It may not look like it, but from a technical point of view, it was very complicated! Because what I didn’t know was that, unlike bricks, pavers cannot be joined with mortar or construction glue: after a few years, it would take on water and would decay. It was therefore necessary to drill each of these cobblestones, and to fix there using chemical anchoring a wire and an iron framework. It is an unimaginable job that the stonemasons with whom I am used to working with, with the help of very talented Ukrainian refugees, whom we hired for the occasion, carried out. »

Steles as pavement

František Bányai | Photo: Jewish Community of Prague

According to historians, who have studied their origin, these stones come from the abandoned Jewish cemetery of Údlice, near Chomutov, in North Bohemia. Prague’s Jewish community had been calling for them to be removed from the pedestrian zone in the center of the Czech capital for years, but it wasn’t until 2019 that things finally changed, as the president of the Jewish community of Prague explains. František Banyai:

“On November 18, 2019, the city of Prague and the Jewish community of Prague signed a memorandum which noted that cobblestones made under the communist regime could be found in the pavement of public roads in the capital, cobblestones cut from the stelae of Jewish cemeteries. This memorandum was signed just in time, because on May 5, 2020, work began on the lower part of Wenceslas Square. There were gradually unearthed 7 tons of cobblestones cut from Jewish tombstones. From sorting to cleaning through storage, the actors involved in the process were numerous; everyone should be thanked, and in particular the employees of the construction company, who dismantled the pavement by hand, and not with a digger. The paving stones with inscriptions were later exhibited at the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague. The road has been long, but the stones cut from stelae have finally found their place in a cemetery. »

A second death

A completely justified “return to the cemetery”, according to the artist Jaroslav Róna, because according to the principles of Judaism, tombstones should not be altered:

“I am obviously very happy with this achievement. At the same time, it’s sad to work with carved tombstones… Especially since according to Halakha, graves – including tombstones – are the property of the deceased. It is not like in Christian cemeteries, where after a certain time, when the concession has expired, the grave is emptied and taken over by someone else. Among the Jews, the tomb belongs to the deceased, with whom it is no longer possible to negotiate! Cutting up a tombstone is like a second death. So I tried to save something from this destruction, in a way. »

Photo: Vit Simánek, ČTK

Jaroslav Róna said he hoped that in a society “more tolerant and more sensitive to the heritage of Jewish religion and culture,” the Návrat kamenů memorial would be the last of its kind. However, its appearance is not final, since it is planned to add the cobblestones which will certainly be brought to light during the work on the upper part of Wenceslas Square. On the lower part alone, 6,000 had been found.

Memorial Return of the stones: a tribute to Jews without a grave