The New Jewish Cemetery

Lenka Reinerová

I know a place in Prague where the time stands still. In fact, it is not so unusual; this happens in all places of this kind. I am talking about the New Jewish Cemetery in Strašnice, in the upper corner of the quarter with the alluring name of Vinohrady, or “Vineyards”. (…)
One summer day I accompanied a few visiting journalists to this place of eternal rest. Having heard about its legendary atmosphere, they were curious to have a proper look without haste. To make sure I would not interfere, I let them have their walk independently and I was waiting on a bench right by the cemetery entrance, in front of a tiny house. Nowadays, there is a computer with name lists of all those people lying there – with some of them only symbolically, not physically buried in the graves. A bony elderly man who seemed to oversee the place in that modest office looked out of the door, and as he saw me sitting on the bench, he went out and sat down next to me silently. (…)
A stocky man wearing a shirt with rolled-up sleeves entered the large latticed gate and strode to the main tree-lined avenue.
“You need to cover your head,” the old man next to me exclaimed and stood up. “Otherwise you can’t be here.”
“Nonsense,” the man replied and paused looking around angrily. “Why should I cover my head? My head is none of your business. Just leave me alone.” He was ready to walk on.
Surprisingly, the old man crossed his way. “That’s impossible,” he said. “There are rules that must be respected. Let me lend you a yarmulke. It’s a paper cap…”
“No way!” the man snorted, obviously irritated. “I’m not interested in your masquerade, I’ve only come here to sit down and enjoy some sun. In peace, I hoped! I don’t care about your silly rules. They’re yours, not mine.”
“You came here for sunbathing?” I was astonished, and I tried to stand by the old man who seemed really upset now. Shivering, he sat down on the bench again. “To the cemetery?”
“So what? The sun is not covered, is it?” The man sat down on the edge of a memorial to the fallen. “I don’t need to go any further. I may as well stay here. But spare me of that nonsense. I’m not wearing a hat in this heat!”
He wiped his round face with a handkerchief and turned to the sun. The old man next to me has regained composure.
“Alright then. But you’re not going further to the cemetery like this.”
The man kept sitting there with his eyes closed without responding. Silence ensued.
“Are you a holocaust survivor?” I asked the old man softly after a moment.
“Yes,” he replied quietly. “They kept me hidden throughout the war.”
I would have loved to hear more, but at that point the sunbather looked up to us and said: “So what’s that crazy rule with a head cover? Such a moronic idea!”
“Stop swearing, this is a cemetery,” said the thin voice next to me. “When you go to a church, you take your hat off. And here it is the other way round.”
The man on the gravestone stared at him with his mouth agape.
“Oh really?” he said looking thoughtful after a while. “Why is that so?”
“Well, there is a reason if you want to know.”
I pricked up my ears. The old man was going to start explaining. “When our ancestors journeyed through the desert, the heat of the sun was scorching. It was thus commanded they had to cover their heads to avoid sunstroke. Even women had to cover their heads. And remembering our forefathers in the desert and showing respect to them, no one is allowed to enter our cemeteries and our synagogues bareheaded.” (…)

Source: Lenka Reinerová. Praha bláznivá. [e-kniha]. Praha: Městská knihovna v Praze, 2020, p. 42–44.

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