Tourists Hindering Relief Work in Prague, Jewish Official Says

Curious tourists are interfering with repair work at Jewish historical sites damaged by recent floods, according to a Prague Jewish official.

Sylvie Wittmann, the co-founder of Prague’s liberal Jewish community, told JTA that many tourists were trying to enter flood-damaged synagogues and other Jewish sites to see the damage.

“Some tourists do not understand at all what has happened and want to have a look inside at any costs,” said Wittmann, who also runs a tour guide service in Prague and historically Jewish towns.

In some cases, she claimed, tourists have “physically harassed” guards watching over Jewish properties in Maiselova Street, where the Prague Jewish community’s headquarters is located.

The flooding, Europe’s worst in more than 100 years, caused extensive damage throughout Central Europe.

Czech Jewish leaders have launched an international appeal for aid after the floods caused an estimated $4 million in damage to Jewish holy sites.

Wittmann said she had received requests to visit Terezin, the site of a large Nazi transit camp during World War II, which was seriously flooded.

“I told one man that I would give him a snorkel, some scuba-diving equipment and a rubber boat and take him to Terezin,” she said. “He just didn’t understand how serious the flooding was.”

Wittmann said Israelis were the only group of tourists who respected requests not to interfere with the sites.

“They seem to understand, perhaps because they are used to disasters,” she said.

Wittmann also was critical of Prague’s tourist agencies for doing little to help with the relief work.

“Tourist agencies in the city make millions from the Jewish Quarter, but none of them have done anything to help,” she said.

Wittmann has temporarily closed her business and is directing her staff in flood relief efforts. Wittmann’s team was focusing Wednesday on moving Jewish-related archives from the Small Fortress in Terezin, which served as a Nazi prison during WWII and was engulfed in flood waters.

Leo Pavlat, director of the Prague Jewish Museum, which administers many of Prague’s synagogues, said there may have been isolated cases of tourists trying to look inside Jewish properties, but said he didn’t consider it a problem.

Pavlat praised dozens of volunteers, many of whom are not members of the Jewish community, for helping to clean and dry out buildings hit by the floods.

“There is a group of young people from Jihlava, about 100 miles from Prague, who arrived with cleaning materials to help in the clean-up operation,” Pavlat said. “When I asked why they had come all this way, they said it was because they felt we needed them.”

Among the sites hardest hit was the Pinkas Synagogue, which sustained damage to its foundations and may be closed for several months. The Spanish, Klausen and Maisel synagogues also were affected but should open earlier than the Pinkas.

The Old-New Synagogue also took in water, but it suffered less damage because the 13th-century shul is built on rock.

The Jewish Museum’s administrative building also was badly flooded, and efforts continue to clean out the basement and remove soaked furnishings. All of the museum’s permanent exhibitions, spread across several synagogues, were removed and are being kept well above water level.

All exhibitions will be closed for at least a month.

The Jewish community and the Jewish Museum have established a Web site with information in English about flood damage to historical sites. The site, at www.jewishpragueflood.cz, includes photographs of flooded synagogue interiors and details of a fund launched to offset damage costs.

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