Museum’s Education Center Promotes Czech Jewish Life

Soon after Hitler’s soldiers marched into Czechoslovakia in 1939, they demanded the confiscation of all Jewish community possessions.

The Nazis intended to open a museum of Jewish artifacts as a testament to an extinct race.

Nearly 60 years later, the Jewish Museum in Prague has opened its Education and Culture Center to teach people about the Czechoslovakian Jewish community, which lives on despite its brutal past.

Some 80,000 Czech Jews died in the Holocaust.

“Our original intention was to establish a center that would cater predominantly to (visiting) Israelis,” said Shalmi Balmor, the director of the center, which opened in late August. “But we now realize that there is tremendous interest among Jews in the Diaspora and among non-Jews as well.”

The center, located in a building that was returned to the Czech Jewish community two years ago, is “a place where people can learn the history behind the sights of Josefov,” Prague’s renowned Jewish Quarter, Balmor said.

The center offers lectures, films, guided tours and educational programs for adults and an outreach program for Czech students.

“I know there was once a vibrant Jewish community here, and that Jews have made important contributions to Czech society, but I know little else about them,” said Frantisek Bouc, a 23-year-old Czech student who has attended programs at the center.

Balmor said the center is designed to ensure that Jewish tourists do not experience the frustration he did during a 1995 visit to Prague.

As a historian and the former director of education at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, Balmor came here early last year hoping to learn about local Jewish history.

“There are beautiful synagogues and relics here that you rarely see elsewhere,” said Balmor, who divides his time between Israel and the Czech Republic.

However, the group of Israeli high school students with which he was traveling wanted to know more about the history of Jewish Prague than they could learn from a Czech tour guide with a cursory knowledge of the topic.

“There was nowhere we could go to have our questions answered,” he said. “The information simply wasn’t available.”

When he returned to Israel, Balmor took steps to establish a place where visitors to Prague “could spend three days rather than three hours learning about the Jewish Quarter.”

Late last year, he gained the support of the Jewish Museum here, which includes two synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery and houses 40,000 artifacts.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture were among the organizations that provided funding for the center’s establishment.

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