PRAGUE (JTA) – On the first night of Chanukah, I stood in the splendid reception hall of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague as the ambassador himself lit the first candle in an imposing gilded menorah and chanted the blessings over the flames.
Since it was the first night of the holiday, these included the Shehecheyanu – the thankful blessing recited when reaching a special or long-awaited moment: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”
How strangely fitting to recite this, I thought, at this very time and in this very place. Two days earlier Vaclav Havel had died, and many people were still in shock at the loss of the shy dissident playwright who had led the Velvet Revolution that ousted the communist regime in 1989 and gone on to become Czechoslovakia’s – and then the Czech Republic’s – first democratic president and enduring moral compass.
Masses of candles in Havel’s memory were glowing on Wenceslas Square, site of the huge demonstrations that had toppled the regime. And plans were going ahead for the somber state funeral.
Why at this sad moment of mourning did I feel that the Shehecheyanu was fitting?
It was because, in a way, I felt it was a blessing that honored Havel himself, for without him and the impact he had had, this Chanukah evening — and what it represented — could not have taken place.
Joined by his family and a few guests, Ambassador Norman Eisen lit the first candle ahead of his official holiday reception for hundreds of diplomats and political and cultural figures. Throughout the evening, the menorah blazed at one end of the hall, while a huge decorated Christmas tree, placed there by the U.S. government as part of its decoration of this public space, glittered at the other.
“It’s my first Christmas tree ever,” Eisen, the son of an Auschwitz survivor from the former Czechoslovakia and an observant Jew who had had the residence kitchen koshered, joked to the crowd as waiters threaded through with trays of latkes.
Eisen opened his welcoming remarks by asking for a minute of silence in Havel’s honor. Then he told the story of the residence – a mansion that had been built by a wealthy Jewish family, the Petscheks, in the late 1920s. The family left in 1938, before World War II broke out. During the war it served as the residence of the head of the German army occupying Prague. Afterward, the mansion became Czechoslovak property until 1948, when the United States purchased it.
There were quite a few Jews at the reception, old friends of mine from the Prague Jewish community such as Leo Pavlat, the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, who delightedly told me how he and Eisen had seats next to each other in synagogue. I was there to make a formal presentation of a big website project I am coordinating on Jewish heritage in Europe.
I couldn’t help but think back.
The postwar communist regime had carried out a policy of persecution aimed at stifling Jewish life, and the state-appointed community leadership had followed the party line, routinely issuing statements critical of Israel. In May 1989, Pavlat had spearheaded a group of young Prague Jews who sharply criticized these regime-approved aparatchiks. He and his friends warned that Jewish life in Czechoslovakia was “in danger of extinction.”
The Velvet Revolution, with Havel as its reluctant hero, changed everything.
One of Havel’s first acts as president was to reinstate full religious freedom. And one of his first state trips abroad was to Israel – bringing with him an entourage of 180 Prague Jews. By the end of 1990, Pavlat was serving as a diplomat in the Czechoslovak embassy in Israel. He remained there until 1994, when he returned to Prague and took up the directorship of the Jewish Museum.
At the ambassador’s reception, I reminisced about those heady days, and about Havel’s impact, with Tomas Kraus, who has served as executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish communities since 1991. Kraus had helped organize Havel’s first trip to Israel and had been part of the Jewish delegation that accompanied him.
“It was exciting,” Kraus recalled. “It was part of the ‘Velvet Europhoria.’ Everything that we had not dared to dream of was immediately possible. The Holy Land had been a philosophical term for us, an image of something that you would never be able to reach – only in a dream. And then, overnight, it was a reality.”
That trip to Israel, he said, was “a very symbolic way to show what Czech foreign policy would be. It was a very important sign of what his priorities would be.”
On the domestic front, too, Kraus recalled, Havel had been extremely important. Not just with his condemnation of anti-Semitism, but with the active role he played in addressing issues such as restitution of Jewish property and in awarding one of the highest state honors to Nicholas Winton, who organized the Czech kindertransport to rescue some 669 main Jewish children on the eve of World War II.
“Today we can look back into history over these past 22 years,” Kraus said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that you are living through history.”
He went on, “Havel’s passing will leave a very big gap. Since he left office, he was in a position without concrete power. But sometimes a moral authority is stronger than armies.”
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," and "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe." She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)