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Dec 2007 Journal

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A small cemetery in Bohemia

My grandparents lived in a small town in central Bohemia – Hostomice, some 35 km from Prague – where my grandfather had a small draper’s shop. My grandmother died before I was born and my grandfather married again; my step-grandmother was always ‘my grandmother’ to me. My grandfather was a member and one-time head of the Jewish community, which included all the neighbouring villages. He was not particularly orthodox and was well respected in the wider community, playing chess with the local priest as one of his pastimes.

As a boy, I spent many of my vacations in Hostomice, roaming the countryside, swimming in the ponds, collecting mushrooms and blackberries. I remember being weighed on arrival on the scales in the hardware shop next to my grandfather’s and again before departure when, to my grandmother’s consternation, she found out that I had put on 10 dkg in spite of being more than well fed for over a month.

At that time, I didn’t take particular notice of the small Jewish cemetery outside Hostomice, which was used by families scattered throughout a fairly wide region. My first real memory of the cemetery, where my great-grandparents and my grandmother were buried, was when my grandfather died in 1934, when I was 16. I remember well the funeral procession winding its way out of Hostomice and through country lanes and meadows on to the small hill with the cemetery. Little did I realise then that this would be one of the last - if not the last - funeral in the cemetery dating back to the late seventeenth century.

In April 1939 I managed to make my way to England; my parents, my sister and her family and many other relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Among the very few survivors was my grandmother from Hostomice, who survived in Theresienstadt and in 1945 came to live with me almost until her death at the age of 95 in 1961. I returned to Prague in June 1945 (on board the first Lancaster bomber to land in Czechoslovakia after the war) and lived there with my family until 1968. During that period I visited the cemetery several times. It was neglected, overgrown, some stones were not upright - but on the whole it was not devastated. When my uncle and aunt from the USA visitedus in 1964, a friend of mine (not Jewish) helped to clear the paths to ‘our’ graves.

Ten days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, my family and I left and within a short time made our way to England again - for my wife and me our second emigration. We settled in Newcastle upon Tyne, where we have lived since, and naturally didn’t travel to Czechoslovakia for 22 years.

After 1990 we returned to Prague on a visit and have had a holiday in what is now the Czech Republic every year since.

Naturally we went to Hostomice as soon as possible. I was appalled by the devastation I found at the cemetery. Not only had the surrounding walls and the small prayer house practically vanished and the whole was completely overgrown, but many of the gravestones had been vandalised, toppled over, broken, any metal lettering gone. Nominally, the cemetery was now the property, and under the administration, of the Prague Jewish community, which had many calls on its attention and funds. Gradually, with the help of volunteers, some of the undergrowth was cleared, but a more fundamental approach was required. In 1994-95 I managed, with the help of surviving relatives, to raise funds which, when matched by funds from Prague, were sufficient to restore the damaged gravestones and clear the site. There was no point in trying to rebuild the walls or restore the prayer house – the cemetery is not in use and funds were not available. Furthermore, the cemetery is now surrounded by mature trees to make it invisible from the road – you can find it only if you know where to look.

A local couple (not Jewish), Marie and Bohuslav, who have lived nearby since childhood (Marie actually remembered my youngest aunt) took up the task of maintaining the restored cemetery by, among other things, clearing the paths. When they grew too old to continue, a younger relative took over.

On one of my visits, Marie told me she had helped to establish a small museum in a room of the former school - now the local council - in a nearby village. Marie, who is looking after the museum, showed me the exhibits. I found local memorabilia, crafts, a document signed by President Masaryk – and in a corner among others a page from a book about the history of Jews in Bohemia, the page dealing with Hostomice and featuring my grandfather’s photograph. At Marie’s request, I supplied more family photographs, copies of documents, data on my family tree and suchlike. On my next visit to the museum, I saw a whole display, arranged by Marie, under the title ‘The Story of One Jewish Family in our Region’.

Marie and Bohuslav have become good friends. I wouldn’t dream now of visiting the cemetery without meeting them – and enjoying their hospitality.

The cemetery is being regularly monitored by staff from the administration of the Prague Jewish community. It has been declared a protected monument and is now a site for peaceful contemplation. Thus, the story of the cemetery has perhaps not a happy, but a satisfactory, ending.

Pavel Novak

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