Workers restoring Wenceslas Square, an imposing pedestrian area in the heart of Prague’s tourist district, recently made a horrifying discovery. When they lifted up the paving stones, they saw Hebrew inscriptions on the undersides. Many of the stones paving the square were from Jewish tombstones. Experts believe the tombstones were plundered throughout the former Czechoslovakia. The oldest of the headstones seems to date from 1877; the most recent are from the 1970s.

Wenceslas Square was last restored thirty years ago, in the 1980s, when it was turned into a pedestrianized area. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev marked the completion of the Square by touring it in 1987, and since then millions of visitors have strolled through the area’s walkways.

Frantisek Banyai, a leader of Prague’s Jewish community, told reporters that the gruesome discovery highlighted the pervasive anti-Semitism of the Czech Republic’s former Communist regime. “More Jewish synagogues were destroyed in the area of the current Czech Republic during Communist times than under the Nazis,” he explained. “Anti-Judaism was official policy… to be Jewish was negative from any point of view….”

Before the Holocaust, Czechoslovakia was home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, numbering 356,830 Jews, according to the 1930 census. I grew up hearing about its rich, vital Jewish community from my grandmother – she grew up in Vienna, but her large family came from Bohemia, a beautiful region in the west of Czechoslovakia. Grandma grew up spending her summers there, on a cousin’s raspberry farm, hiking in the breathtaking countryside and visiting with her many relatives who ran agricultural businesses and stores in small towns across Czechoslovakia.

Out of her entire large family, only a handful of relatives survived the Holocaust. Those few Jews who remained in Czechoslovakia after World War II faced intense persecution from the Communist regime. Today, fewer than 7,000 Jews remain in all of former Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia split into two separate nations in 1993: Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Today, just 3,900 Jews call the Czech Republic home, and about 2,600 Jews live in Slovakia.

Under Communism, Jewish life continued to be repressed and individual Jews were often persecuted. With the end of Communism, memorials and museums dedicated to remembering Jewish life in Czechoslovakia have proliferated. In 2015, the Czech Republic unveiled a Holocaust memorial in Prague, marking the 71st anniversary of the mass murder of 4,000 Czech Jews in Auschwitz. It joined other memorials and museums in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and elsewhere.

Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, photo: Gerrigje Engelen

The tombstones found in Wenceslas Square will be used to form yet another memorial, slated to be built in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is a national treasure. Dating from the Middle Ages, it’s thought to hold the bodies of over 100,000 Jews. Among the famous Jewish figures finding their final resting place there are Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) – the famous rabbi who legend says built the “Golem”, a monster that defended Jews from anti-Semitism. Despite the great historical significance of Prague’s majestic Old Jewish Cemetery, it was desecrated by the country’s Communist leaders, who destroyed much of it to build first a public park, then erected a massive television tower on the site. 

“These memorials serve a crucial purpose,” explained Rabbi Chaim Koci, a senior Prague rabbi, when news of the Jewish tombstones found in Wenceslas Square came to light. Memorials to the plight of Jewish lives under Nazism and Communism “remind the world of Nazi genocide and other forms of anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Koci declared.

Perhaps these stones serve a deeper purpose. Finding Jewish tombstones used as paving stones in the very heart of one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals is a timely reminder that beneath every street in Europe lies Jewish blood. The persecution of the Holocaust and Communism wasn’t so long ago, and while memorials and museums do serve a crucial purpose in helping us remember, the most effective tribute is to be found in the city’s bustling synagogues and several kosher restaurants, in its two Jewish schools and among the many Jews who are rediscovering their Jewish heritage and traditions after years of Communist suppression.

Stone memorials have their place, but to truly understand the miracle of Jewish history, the best tributes in Prague – and elsewhere – are the beautiful dining room tables where, once again, Czech and other Jewish families celebrate Shabbat.

While writing this, I took out my grandmother’s yellowing pages to read about her life in Czechoslovakia long ago and about her many relatives who lost their lives to the Nazis. Leafing through her memoirs, I’ve been struck by how familiar many of the names are: my children carry the same names of many of these relatives. In a sense, they are living tributes – flesh and blood memorials to these long lost Jews. Each time my children – and other Jewish children and adults around the world – study Jewish subjects, say Hebrew blessings, recite timeless Jewish prayers, enjoy Shabbat and holiday meals, they are carrying on this legacy in a way that no memorial can ever do.

As the newly discovered Jewish tombstones in Prague are finally given the respect and honor they deserve, let’s all remember the unknown Jews whose final resting places were desecrated in this way – and strive to honor their memories by living as full and beautiful a Jewish life as we possibly can.