ashes to ashes (Prague cemeteries #3)

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s Old Town, with its picturesque gravestones leaning drunkenly on one another, is a familiar stop on the tourist trail. The New Jewish Cemetery established in 1890, adjacent to the Christian cemeteries at Olšany, is less well known, though pilgrims do come here in search of Franz Kafka.

Aside from Kafka’s grave, Wikipedia tells us, the cemetery “is noted for its many art nouveau monuments.” I find it remarkable for other reasons.

As you enter, you pass a long wall with plaques commemorating people who were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz (Osvětim in Czech) and other concentration camps, and who have no graves here or anywhere else. The plaques signify not their last resting place but its absence.

Several plaques honor the many visual artists, composers, musicians, and theater artists who perished in the camps.

František Zelenka was a frequent set designer for the Liberated Theater. Pavel Haas was the composer and Rafael Schächter the first conductor of the children’s opera Brundibár, which was performed in the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt) fifty-five times in 1943-44. Zelenka bricolaged the sets using whatever materials were to hand. Brundibár was performed for the benefit of a visiting Red Cross delegation in June 1944, whom the Nazis fooled into believing that Terezín was a “Settlement Center” for elderly Jews. Soon afterward Haas, Schächter, Zelenka, and most children in the cast were transported to Auschwitz. Few survived.

Adolf Hoffmeister, discussed in my earlier Prague cemeteries #2 post always with a smile, was the author of Brundibár‘s libretto.

Franz Kafka, whose novels and stories prefigured many of the horrors of the twentieth century, died of tuberculosis in 1924. He shares his tomb with his father Hermann and mother Julie, who died before the war. His three sisters Elli (Gabriele), Valli (Valerie), and Ottla (Ottilie), were victims of the Holocaust. A plaque marks their deaths, but they have no graves.

Elli, Valli, and their families were among the first wave of Jews deported from Prague to the Łódź ghetto in occupied Poland in October 1941. They vanished from the historical record after September 1942. They may have been killed in the experimental gas vans in Chelmno.

Ottla was imprisoned in the Terezín ghetto on 3 August 1942. On 5 October 1943, she volunteered to accompany a transport of orphans to Auschwitz and was gassed on arrival together with the children.

Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod was more fortunate. He escaped with his wife Elsa on the last train to leave Czechoslovakia before the German invasion, taking with him a suitcase full of Kafka’s “journals, travel diaries, rough drafts, fair copies, sketches, hundreds of letters, and thin black notebooks in which Kafka earnestly practiced his Hebrew.”

The Brods made it to Tel Aviv, where Max died in December 1968 – living just long enough to see his hometown occupied for the second time in thirty years, this time by the fraternal forces of the Warsaw Pact.

Just behind Kafka’s grave is the tomb of the Margolius family, many of whose members also died in the Holocaust. It is an apt juxtaposition.

Rudolf Margolius survived the Łódź ghetto and Auschwitz only to find himself caught up in Czechoslovakia’s most notorious communist show trial, the Slánský trial of 1952. All but three of the fourteen defendants were (to quote the official indictment) “of Jewish origin.” Margolius was found guilty and hanged in Prague’s Pankrác Prison on 3 December 1952.

Rudolf’s remains are not buried here either. The bodies of the eleven men who were condemned to death in the Slánský trial were cremated. The communist security police disposed of their ashes on an icy road outside Prague, scattering them under the wheels of their Tatraplan car to provide traction after the vehicle skidded and got stuck in a snowdrift.

Rudolf’s wife Heda remarried in 1955 and left Czechoslovakia for the United States after the Soviet invasion of 1968. She returned to Prague with her second husband Pavel Kovály in 1996, where she died in 2010.

Their son Ivan Margolius, a writer and architect, has lived in Britain since 1966. At his request, when taking these photographs I placed a stone on the grave where Rudolf should have been resting in peace.

Photographs all taken on May 1, 2016

This is the last of three posts on Prague cemeteries. The first on Vyšehrad is here, the second on Olšany is here.

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