Menu JTA Search

Jews of Czechoslovakia Succeed in Ousting Hard-line Leadership

Like the Civic Forum movement that succeeded Sunday in wresting control of the Czechoslovak government from the Communists, the Jewish community of Prague apparently has ridded itself of hard-line leaders appointed by the government and begun installing replacements of its own choosing.

The move, which took place at an extraordinary community meeting on Dec. 3, appears to have rehabilitated a veteran of Jewish life in Czechoslovakia who had found disfavor with the authorities in recent years.

According to unconfirmed reports, some 200 members of the community gathered in Prague’s Jewish town hall that day to demand the removal of the country’s official Jewish leadership. They voted unanimously to elect Desider Galsky president of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in Bohemia and Moravia, following which the council’s entire board resigned.

Galsky replaces Bohumil Heller, who resigned his position at a stormy meeting of the council’s board four days before, then tried to rescind it.

The community also deposed its secretary-general, Frantisek Kraus, a government choice who was evidently widely despised. He will remain through year’s end in a caretaker position, managing the community’s affairs until a new executive can be found.

“We have democracy now. We are really free,” Galsky proclaimed triumphantly in a telephone interview last week.

Indeed, the overturning of four decades of government-regulated Jewish life in Czechoslovakia appear to parallel the momentous transformation of the country’s entire political system.

Galsky, 68, who was president of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities from 1980 to 1985, was clearly overjoyed by the extraordinary changes that have engulfed his country.

AN ‘UNBELIEVABLE’ REVOLUTION

“I am a historian. I can tell you that in modern Europe you cannot find a revolution like this, made by young students, from the universities and the high schools, in such an elegant, distinguished way.

“Not one window was broken, not one car was demolished. It is unbelievable,” he said.

The Jewish community meeting was extraordinary, Galsky explained, because there was “no curator from the government. This is the first time (a decision) was made freely, in a democratic way. We had no intentions to ask anybody about it.”

During the meeting, Czechoslovak Jews criticized not only individual leaders, “but the whole board for their activities in the last years,” Galsky said.

He said it had been “the first time in the modern history of the Czech Jews (that) we had leaders on such a low level; not educated people, no feelings for religious questions. They couldn’t even be called to the Torah. They didn’t even know the brachas (biessings).”

Until now, he said, “somebody” from the government would come with a prepared speech for the Jewish leaders to give. “I could never agree with this, that they would write for me a speech,” he said.

At the meeting, “the board did nothing to stop” the people, “and therefore they came up with the idea that the whole board would resign.”

However, the 24 members of the board, or plenary council, will remain in place until elections are held, at a date tentatively set for Feb. 15.

CULTURAL ACTIVITIES FOR THE YOUNG

Galsky explained that the various Czechoslovak communities needed time to elect individual delegates, who needed at least a month to attend meetings.

Galsky said he will hold a community-wide meeting Dec. 17 and a smaller meeting even earlier with a committee of young people, to discuss what to do for them.

“One of the ideas is to create a club of young people,” as well as “friends of the Jewish cultural life, meaning non-Jewish people,” he said. He planned to announce his plans Sunday in Paris, at a board meeting of the European Jewish Congress.

The changes “mean we can have cultural things and not ask official permission. For example, on Purim, we can have performances, teach the Hebrew language. Maybe we can invite someone from abroad,” he said, outlining ideas considered revolutionary for Jewish life here.

Galsky, who was deposed by Kraus, is now getting his revenge. He decided not to accede to Kraus’ wish to return to his original post, managing the kosher kitchen, “because mainly every person is against him.

“So we agreed he should do something else.” the new community president said. “He should manage the cemeteries, (so as) not to be in contact with people.”

NEXT STORY