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Cemetery Team Battles Elements to Record Czech Jewish Ancestors

A man planning to convert to Judaism has launched an Internet site to help people all over the world track their Czech Jewish ancestry.

As part of this effort, Jaroslav Achab Haidler has combed dozens of Jewish cemeteries in the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia in order to compile a complete record of burial sites.

Initially, the names of about 800 deceased from several cemeteries have been listed on his Web site, www.chewra.com, along with photographs of their gravestones and details of their Hebrew epitaphs.

The Web site, which was launched this week to coincide with Simchat Torah, is currently available only in Czech. But Haidler said an English version should be available before the end of the year.

Haidler, a theater director, intends in time to visit all of the country’s estimated 340 cemeteries to ensure a record is kept before the information is lost forever through the ravages of time and vandals.

“It is fight above all against time,” said Haidler, who laments the fact that many cemeteries are quickly deteriorating because there isn’t enough money available to fund much-needed repairs.

Haidler and his team of three Hebrew speakers, a computer programmer and a handful of volunteers, have braved the elements on numerous field trips around the country, often sleeping in tents.

Haidler, who taught himself Hebrew during the Communist era, regularly lies in thick undergrowth tracing faint Hebrew epitaphs with his fingers to establish the identities of the deceased and their family histories.

He launched the documentation effort, known as the Keshet Project, several years ago when he discovered that many cemeteries lacked any records.

So far, Haidler has managed to visit and document more than 30 cemeteries, and he expects that it will take him at least another 10 years to visit and record the rest.

Many members of the Keshet Project have used their own money to fund the effort.

“We are just a bunch of enthusiasts who love cemeteries,” said Haidler, who has estimated the total cost of the project at $500,000.

“I have personally invested $13,000 into this project and still have problems sleeping at the night because I haven’t yet paid the programmer who is preparing the Web page,” he said.

The Web site will initially be free, but visitors will be charged a small fee once a substantial part of the project is up on the site.

Money raised will be used to run the Web site, with any remaining planned for repair work on the country’s most seriously damaged Jewish cemeteries.

Haidler, a former Seventh-day Adventist who wants to convert, described Jewish cemeteries as “beautiful.”

“A cemetery is a memory of people who lived here with us, were our neighbors and who meant something to us,” he said.

Haidler added that he is sorry that no Jewish groups had yet agreed to sponsor his project.

The Keshet Project has, however, received cooperation or funding from several non-Jewish sources — such as the town of Velke Hledsebi, in western Bohemia, which gave $4,000.

The project has also received more than $3,000 from the Prague-based Endowment Fund for Victims of the Holocaust to document five Jewish cemeteries in southwestern Bohemia.

“It is a relatively cheap, local activity that, however, can be easily be broadened,” said Jarmila Neumannova, the Endowment Fund’s program coordinator.

Neumannova said the Keshet Project was important because many cemeteries will be lost forever in a relatively short time. She also pointed to its educational value, bringing together schools, museums, student volunteers, young translators, documentary makers and people interested in Judaism.

“That is great P.R. for us and it also fights anti-Semitism,” Neumannova said.

Petr Weber, chairman of the Jewish Community in the city of Brno, said he is aware of the project but is not familiar with its results. The community has launched its own program to document Jewish cemeteries in the Brno area but it does not rule out some future co-operation with Haidler.

The Jewish community in Prague is also playing a waiting game.

“There is always a possibility of cooperation, but that depends on the quality of the project,” said Tomas Jelinek, chairman of the city’s Jewish community.

Haidler refuses to let his financial worries interfere with the progress of the project.

“Now I am only worried that I will not manage to put everything on the Internet and that people will not like it,” Haidler said. “I just need to pray that it all will end well.”

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