Daily Archives: February 25, 2011

Czech graveyards as community records

Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish CemeteriesOld Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries by Arno Parik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arno Parik’s introduction opens with the Talmudic law that the dead are to be guaranteed the eternal inviolability of their graves. When founding these historic cemeteries, Bohemian and Moravian Jews purchased land on a permanent basis, which meant they often paid large sums for ground that was too steep or remote from town to serve any other purpose. Those criteria aided in the preservation of graveyards recorded here, even as the Nazis dismantled the Jewish communities of the surrounding area.

Parik describes the historical burial societies who cared for the dying, arranged funerals, and comforted the bereaved. He details Jewish burial practices. Memorial pebbles, placed on headstones whenever someone visits a grave, are explained as deriving from the duty of wayfarers in antiquity to add a stone to the graves they passed in the desert. I found this part of the book fascinating.

Things go downhill once the photographic section begins. Rather than focus on the artistry of individual gravestones, this book demonstrates how gravestones record community. Photographer Petr Ehl was more interested in documenting graveyards as a whole, rather than selecting special stones on which to focus, which limited his photographs to landscapes rather than the close-ups I prefer. The photos underline the similarities between the graveyards: weathered stones poking up between saplings, slanted stones staggering up steep grassy slopes, crowded stones huddling side by side. Unfortunately, the message of the book — that these graveyards (often the only record of the communities they once served) must be preserved — is undercut by the similarity of their documentation. If all the graveyards look the same, why not save one and let the rest fall to ruin? (Luckily, that question is answered by Arnold Schwartzman’s Graven Images.)

One hopes that this book was more persuasive for the audience for whom it was originally published: the Czechs of the living communities surrounding these graveyards.

Copies sometimes turn up on Amazon: Old Bohemian & Moravian Jewish Cemeteries

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