PRAGUE (Feb. 13)
The discovery of an ancient mikvah in the Czech Republic has further enhanced the reputation of the town of Mikulov as a treasure trove of Jewish culture. Petr Kubin, an archeologist with the Regional Museum of Mikulov, recently unearthed the ritual bath site as he conducted routine excavations in the town’s one-time Jewish ghetto before planned housing construction was set to begin.
Next to where one of the town’s major synagogues once stood, Kubin discovered a set of stairs clearly meant to be underwater, along with wells paneled with stones.
Arno Parik of the Jewish Museum of Prague, one of the country’s most renowned historians of Jewish sites, believes the mikvah dates back to the 18th century.
“Mikulov is very special due to its significant Jewish heritage. Sadly, much of it was destroyed in post- World War II reconstruction. But this ancient mikvah is surprisingly preserved and should prove easy to protect,” Parik said.
Mikulov, a stunning town full of Baroque architecture not far from the Austrian border, was one of central Europe’s largest centers of Jewish learning for several centuries. It boasted 11 synagogues in the early1800s.
City authorities plan to spend about $65,000 to preserve, protect and display the mikvah. They hope to complete construction of a protective wall and a visitor information display by the end of the year.
The Mikulov mikvah will be only the second mikvah in the country open to the public: One was discovered and preserved in Boskovice a few years ago.
“We have great respect for the town’s Jewish heritage and want to safeguard it for the generations to come, especially since so much of it was destroyed under the previous regime,” said Josef Hromek of the Mikulov City Hall’s heritage conservation office.
In addition, because it was more or less forbidden to practice or study Judaism during the Communist era, private homeowners who might have discovered Jewish artifacts on their property had no way or knowing what they were, Kubin said
And although the town residents are aware that their Jewish sites — a synagogue and one of Europe’s largest Jewish cemeteries — attract visitors, Kubin is sure they have no idea what a mikvah is.
“Part of the people welcome discovery, saying it makes Mikulov exceptional and more attractive to visitors, offering yet another chapter from the town’s history of Jewish culture,” said Kubin. “But most people feel negative about the excavations and see archaeologists as those who delay construction and add to its costs.”
He said that still other residents worry the mikvah would attract too many tourists and disrupt life in the relatively tranquil town of 7,000.
Mikulov is part of the what is referred to here as the Sudetenland, the region of then-Czechoslovakia that Hilter invaded and annexed in 1938.
After the war, the German-speaking population was forced into exile by the new Czechoslovak government and Czechs resettled the area.
Tomas Leskovjan runs a travel firm in Mikulov and is a founding member of the Mikulov Society of Friends of Jewish Culture, which opened an instructional trail in the town in 2000.
He said that at first neither the city council nor the investor who had planned to build on the site had any idea about what to do about the mikvah. “It was a difficult discussion at first,” Leskovjan said.
“They were surprised by the huge wave of interest caused by the discovery and they were afraid about its interfering in investment as well as perhaps having to make the whole area a museum.”
But after people from the regional museum and the national landmark office got involved, Leskovjan said, “The council finally understood it was a nice piece of the mosaic of the town’s rich Jewish heritage and they were constructive.”