A character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being describes Bohemian cemeteries as gardens - with grass and wild flowers growing between and on the grave stones, all but consuming the more modest markers. It turns out that was less of a well worded opinion or personal impression than I read it to be. In fact, an ancient Jewish burial ground, discovered in an excavation in Prague, was dubbed "the Jewish Garden." We visited its descendent, the Old Jewish Cemetery.
It had a fairly exorbitant entrance fee and a tour group moved in through the narrow entrance as we approached the ticket office. There will be other cemeteries in Bohemia, I thought, maybe I should skip this one. But it's Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and it's hard to pass up "Europe's oldest surviving Jewish" anything, to be honest. It, along with the surrounding synagogues, were preserved by the Nazis for a "museum of an extinct race."
Jewish law prohibits the destruction of graves and the removal of tombstones. So, when room inevitably began to run out in the cemetery, soil was layered atop the existing plots and the stones were moved up to the fresh dirt. This continued to happen for centuries, resulting in approximately 12,000 visible headstones and 100,000 graves beneath. Twelve layers of burials dating back to the 15th century.
Some clusters lean against each other, some are blown back or forward in unison, like a field of sunflowers bent toward the sun. The ones above reminded me of a family portrait. Rarely would you see any markings left on the weathered stones and something about the anonymity made it all less morose. Some sections looked like nothing but a rock garden.
It felt redemptive, somehow, to be here. When I attempted to visit family graves in Seda, Lithuania, the cemetery was nowhere to be found. The temple that I thought would help mark the spot was a loose structure of decomposing wood that a moderately big bad wolf could have blown right down. Time and time again, it felt like there were ways to connect to the memory of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors, but none of Europe's long line of Jews who didn't fall into one of those two groups. The cemetery in the Kazimierz neighborhood of Krakow, Poland was another wonderful exception, but something about this one was just so beautiful. Human history almost indistinguishable from nature.