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Behind the Headlines; Czech Town Infamous for Blood Libel Struggling to Build a Jewish Museum

Local officials in this small town, scene of the last major anti-Semitic blood libel case in central Europe, want to turn the town’s abandoned synagogue into a Jewish museum in order to help educate the public against prejudice.

But lack of money — a constant problem for Eastern Europe’s former Communist countries-has put the brakes on their plan.

Polna is a sleepy little town in the central region of the Czech Republic, halfway between Prague and Brno, and right on the historic border between Bohemia and Moravia.

A Jewish community was established here in the early 16th century, perhaps even earlier. A historic Jewish cemetery dates back at least to 1597, and the section of town which used to house the old Jewish ghetto remains intact. The neighborhood includes a now-ruined synagogue, built about 1682.

Polna became notorious in 1899, when a local Jew, Leopold Hilsner, was arrested for the murder of a local young woman. Though the charge was simply murder, the implication was that he had murdered the girl to use her blood in Jewish ritual.

Newspapers and politicians whipped up an anti-Semitic frenzy, and the case became known as a Czech Dreyfus Affair, particularly after Tomas Masaryk, who later became the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, stepped in to defend Hilsner from the ritual murder accusation.

Under the Communists, little was done to maintain the synagogue or Jewish cemetery. Only a few dozen Jews lived in Polna before World War II, and of the very few who survived the Holocaust, none returned to live in the town.

As in all Czech towns where Jews had lived, the Nazis stripped the synagogue of its furnishings and ritual objects, and sent them to Prague, where they intended to create a museum of an “extinct race.”

The roof of the abandoned synagogue fell in about 30 years ago, and until recently it was just an abandoned shell.

Since the collapse of communism, however, local officials have pressed forward with plans to transform the building.

Detailed plans have been drawn up for a museum, and last year the town constructed a sturdy new roof on the building.

OLD JEWISH CEMETERY REPAIRED

“We did what we could for the synagogue,” said a Town Council official. “We really want to restore the building, but we don’t have any money.”

“What we want is an exhibition in three parts,” said Mayor Radim Janu. “First would be a section presenting the history of the Jews. Second would be a section about Jewish history in Polna. Third would be a section detailing the Hilsner Affair.”

“We want to use the history here — the Hilsner case, etc — to educate people at this time of rising nationalism,” Janu said.

The mayor said the town was attempting to retrieve for the planned museum all the ritual items and furnishings that were sent from Polna to Prague by the Nazis, and which now belong to the Jewish Museum there.

Most of these items are documented by lists and photographs made at the time, the mayor said.

“Everything is at a standstill, because we have no money,” said Marta Vomelova, director of Polna’s local municipal museum. “But we want to create this museum. No one must forget that a Jewish community lived here for 400 years.”

Local young people, she said, know little if anything about the Hilsner case and the anti-Semitic fury around it.

“I’ve been writing to Israel, to Prague, everywhere, asking for financial help,” she said. “The answer we get is that no Jews live in Polna, so they can’t give us anything.

“Many respond that such a museum would be a nice idea, but there are other places, in Prague and elsewhere, that need restoration first,” said Vomelova.

Meanwhile, local volunteers have launched several initiatives to preserve Jewish culture.

Schoolchildren, scouts and other volunteers have cleared the old Jewish cemetery and are repairing the wall; a locked gate has also been erected.

A local historical society also has become involved in documentation.

“Many tourists come to look at the cemetery and synagogue,” said a member of the Town Council. “We are surprised at how many, especially in the summer.

“Foreigners come and are angry at the bad condition of the synagogue — it’s hard to explain to them what the situation is,” the Town Council member said.

“Last year,” Mayor Janu said, “we organized a concert of a flutist and pianist from Jerusalem. It was a benefit concert to support and remember the Jewish tradition of Polna.

“The expenses for organizing the concert were higher than the income, but more important was the spirit of the endeavor.”

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