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Around the Jewish World Prague Exhibit Traces Century of Relief Efforts for Czech Jews

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A turbulent and tragic century for Jews in Central Europe has been brought to life in Prague’s National Library.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee opened an exhibition there on Jan. 16 detailing its work in the Czech and Slovak lands over 85 years.

The two-week exhibition, which looks back on a century dominated by Nazi and later Communist oppression, was organized by the JDC to highlight its achievements as it winds down its work in Prague to focus on the more pressing needs of Jewish communities elsewhere in Central Europe and northern Africa.

“The Joint’s involvement in the Czech and Slovak lands as presented in this exhibition represents a microcosm of our work around the world,” the group’s executive vice-president, Steven Schwager, said in a statement read on his behalf at the official opening in front of Czech civic leaders and local Jewish community representatives.

Schwager also argued that the exhibition represents the longest and most important involvement of any non-governmental organization in promoting social welfare in the region.

The exhibition features photographs of JDC activities over the years, such as its earliest efforts to provide food supplies to Central Europe after World War I and its food and medical assistance programs in the years just after World War II.

Guests at the opening included Holocaust survivors such as Micha Widlakova, who was freed from the Terezin transit camp as a 6-year-old girl.

Pointing to a thick army-green sweater she was wearing, Widlakova told onlookers, “My father received this sweater from the Joint when we left the camp. And I still have a blanket from the Joint at home.”

The group’s country director for the Czech Republic, Yechiel Bar-Chaim, told JTA before the exhibition that one of its purposes “is to reinforce a sense of the history of the Jewish community because you have such breaks in time” following the collapse of Communism, “such serious situations where today bears no resemblance to yesterday.”

The JDC first set foot in the former Czechoslovakia shortly after World War I, helping Jewish communities reestablish themselves economically, but its most hectic period was shortly after World War II.

At the time, Czechoslovakia played a key role in the passage of some 250,000 refugees from countries behind the Iron Curtain on their way to Palestine and other destinations.

The JDC made arrangements with the Czechoslovak government to allow even Jews without papers to cross into the country and remain there until their emigration could be secured. The JDC ensured that the process went as smoothly as possible.

“In a way, it’s an exhibition about the work of the Joint, but it is also an exhibition that highlights just how important this relatively small Central European country has been in the history of European Jewry and even the State of Israel over the past 85 years,” Bar-Chaim said. “What amazes me is the magnitude of the effort after the war — a quarter of a million people in a war-torn country struggling with its own issues of repatriation and reconstruction.”

By the beginning of the 1950s, the JDC was no longer welcome in Czechoslovakia, after the Soviet Union realized that Israel was not going to act as a counterbalance to Western influence.

It took another 30 or so years before the JDC was able to restart its activities in the country.

“During the 1980s we came back, but it was very dicey and toward the end we couldn’t get visas,” Bar-Chaim continued. “Then, when the Velvet Revolution happened, I came in with the new face of the Joint in a democratic Czechoslovakia.”

Since then, the JDC has focused on helping the Jewish community get back on its feet, providing seed money for new social, educational and cultural projects, including outreach programs, and providing much-needed advice on social care projects for the elderly.

It also has engaged in nonsectarian projects, helping the country introduce new approaches to caring for the handicapped, as well as participating recently in an international effort for flood relief.

According to Bar-Chaim, the Czech Jewish community has come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

“A number of years ago, we exited from the welfare components here. This was the first time it had happened for the Joint, so it was a tremendous achievement,” he said. “At the time everyone thought that others would quickly follow, but in a way the Czech Republic remains exceptional. None of the other countries have come anywhere near as far along the road to what we call self-sufficiency.”

The Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, which co-sponsored the exhibition, paid tribute to the JDC for its help over the years, particularly in turbulent times.

“If there is a conflict or a war or some kind of emergency, who comes in first? The Joint,” federation executive director Tomas Kraus said in an interview. “This is exactly how one should see an international Jewish organization. They are visible only in times of need and are very effective and helpful while keeping a low profile. Their public image is not their priority.”

Bar-Chaim said his focus is now on the former Yugoslavia, where Jewish communities are struggling to cope in a society that has yet fully to embrace democratic principles. He also wants to help develop Jewish educational facilities and improve welfare facilities for the elderly in Tunisia.

Although in one sense the exhibition in Prague is a farewell for the JDC, Bar-Chaim doesn’t see it as a swan song, particularly since he will continue to provide help and advice for Czech Jews if they call upon him.

“It’s more of a coming-of-age for the community and a coming-of-age for the Joint, which shows we know how to pull back when we are no longer needed as we were before,” Bar-Chaim said.

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