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TEN YEARS AFTER THE WALL Czech Jews still bask in freedom the Velvet Revolution brought them

PRAGUE, Sept. 28 (JTA) – In the spring of 1989, a Czech Jewish author and editor wrote an open letter of protest to the country’s Jewish community leaders. Signed by Leo Pavlat and about two dozen others, the letter charged that the leaders were not doing enough to insure the community’s survival. It accused them of autocratic methods and demanded a more open atmosphere and increased access to the State Jewish Museum, which houses a wealth of artifacts collected in Prague during World War II. One revolution and 10 years later, Pavlat is in a position to guarantee access to the renamed Jewish Museum in Prague. He is its director. “I cannot say that I am disappointed,” Pavlat, now 48, said with typical Czech understatement. The revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989, throwing out the Communist regimes that had governed Warsaw Pact countries for 40 years, have brought new problems, Pavlat admitted, but they are minor compared to what life was like under communism. “I am unsatisfied with the political and economic situation,” Pavlat said, “But not compared to the former situation.” Where Pavlat feared for the community’s survival 10 years ago, when there were an estimated 6,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia, he is now optimistic. The average age in Prague’s official community has dropped from around 70 to about 55 in the past 10 years due to the increased involvement of younger Jews, he said, and the Sept. 1 first day of school saw a total of 100 children attending the Jewish kindergarten, day school and high school, all of which have been founded in the past five years. “There has been a revival of Jewish life,” Pavlat said. “”We have a new home for elderly people, a Jewish kindergarten, a Jewish day school, a new rabbi, free access to Jewish knowledge, Jewish broadcasting, new organizations, more people in the community than there used to be. We can be a healthy Jewish community.” Daniel Kumermann, a Czech Jewish journalist who was a window-washer 10 years ago because of his opposition to the Communists, is also confident about the future. The key, he said, is that the region is no longer cut off from the rest of the Jewish world. Ten years ago, he said, “The community was dying because it was left to itself and its own problems. Now if there’s a problem it can be solved with outside assistance.” Kumermann, who was named the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Israel in May, is not concerned that the Czech Jewish community, which numbers in the low thousands, is too small to survive. “I have seen good, viable communities around the world that are even smaller,” he said. It is not numbers that guarantee a community’s future, he said. “It’s in vitality and approach, and we have the structures.” Karol Sidon, the chief rabbi of the Czech Republic – and the only Czech-born rabbi in the country – said the community’s financial stability is important. “Unlike other communities in Eastern Europe, the Prague community is financially able to take care of itself,” Sidon said. That’s critical for survival, he explained. “Economic factors are decisive.” Like Pavlat and Kumermann, Sidon was a dissident before 1989. Born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother during World War II, he discovered Judaism when he was in his 30s. A signer of the Charter 77 human rights petition founded by Vaclav Havel – now Czech president – and others, Sidon immigrated to Germany in 1983 and began to study Judaism. After the Velvet Revolution, which brought democracy to what was then Czechoslovakia, he returned to Prague as its rabbi. “Today’s leadership is the former underground,” Pavlat said. Kumermann pointed out that in at least one respect, Sidon is an odd match for the Prague community. “The [Czech] tradition is assimilation and we have a haredi rabbi – there’s tension there,” he said. Pavlat agreed that there is tension between more and less traditional Jews in Prague, but put a positive spin on the situation. “Of course there will be problems: How to live together in one Jewish community?” he asked. “But everyone faces these problems. They bring us closer to being a normal Jewish community.” A more serious problem, Jewish leaders all said, is the rise of right-wing extremism and violence. Whereas Judaism was practically a fad in the early 1990s – a non-Jewish rock band called Shalom spawned a fashion for fans to wear large black kipot for a while in 1992 – skinheads are now much more common on the streets of Prague than are skullcaps. They target mostly the country’s large and visible Roma, or Gypsy, population, but last year Sidon was verbally harassed on a Saturday afternoon, and a teen-age skinhead was charged with stabbing a Jewish soldier last November. Many Jewish leaders are frustrated at what they see as a lack of concerted action against xenophobia. “I would expect the legal system to act more effectively against extremists,” Pavlat said. “Either they don’t want to do it or they don’t take the problem seriously, and both options are very bad.” “What is challenging is that people are misusing the right to free speech for this,” said Tomas Kraus, executive secretary of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities. “You can see skinheads marching in the center of Prague guarded by police,” Pavlat said, referring to a May 1 demonstration in which police protected a registered skinhead march from anarchists who tried to disrupt it. Pavlat said that Jews need to be concerned about the problem even though Gypsies are the primary targets. “Jews as Jews are indirectly touched by any attack against any person because of their color, because of any discrimination,” he said. But the problems of xenophobia, while bad, could be worse, Pavlat said. “Nobody can compare our situation to that of Jews in Moscow. There are no politicians attacking us,” he said. In fact, Havel is widely perceived as pro-Jewish and plans to host a conference in October to discuss the Holocaust. And in parliamentary elections in June 1998, the extreme right-wing Republican Party failed to gain a single seat for the first time since 1992. Overall, Czech Jewish leaders look back on the changes of 1989 with satisfaction. “Everything has been turned upside down, but in a good way, of course,” Kraus said. “The collapse [of communism] makes me happy every day,” Pavlat said. “The fact that this country is free prevails over everything.”