Czech Jews battle for 300-year-old shul


PRAGUE, April 11 (JTA) – Of the historic Jewish sites in the Czech Republic, few can rival those found in the town of Kolin.

Among them is a 300-year-old synagogue that has been restored and converted into a cultural center with a distinctly Jewish tone.

But visitors anxious to steep themselves in Kolin’s heritage won’t find the cultural center listed in the Jewish community guidebook.

Prague’s Jewish Community removed the center from its “must visit” list following a 10-year dispute with the local City Hall.

Prague Jewish officials have long argued that Kolin – whose last professed Jewish resident died 20 years ago – should hand them the cultural center.

But town officials, who restored the synagogue last year at a cost of $500,000, point out that a court decision several years ago made them the building’s legal owners.

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities. “The synagogue was once owned by the Jewish community that lived there, so we should have it back. It is a matter of principle.”

The courts ruled that the synagogue – a protected monument – belonged to the town council.

But Kraus said the ownership question was based on an “unjust” 1991 law.

“The synagogue was taken over by the Communist state,” said Kraus, adding that a 1991 law “stated that former state property should go to municipalities rather than back to former owners. We have received cooperation from other municipalities in the past on this issue, but not in this case.”

Kraus also said the Jewish community did not have money early in the dispute to restore the former synagogue, but could have restored it “a bit at a time” with the help of state aid, he said.

Town officials insist they are blameless.

Negotiations on the issue between the Prague Jewish community and town officials began after the fall of the Communist government and broke down two years ago.

Former Deputy Mayor Jaromir Cabela, who was involved in the negotiations, said there had been no bad will on the part of the council.

“I am sorry that there has been no communication from the Prague Jewish Community for the past two years. We do have Jewish groups from abroad who come here and even sponsor concerts in the center,” Cabela said.

“If the Jewish community here comes back to us with a new proposal the council will listen, but last time we talked there was no room for compromise.”

Cabela also said City Hall had decreed that the center should “respect Jewish traditions” by serving only kosher wine and banning events on the Sabbath.

But Kraus is not placated by such arguments.

“A Jewish cultural center without Jews?” he said. “How do they know what Jewish traditions there are if we are not involved?”

Outsiders have been drawn into the dispute, somewhat unwillingly.

The Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue of London, which has long-standing ties with Kolin, is the proud possessor of a Kolin Torah scroll, one of more than 1,500 Czech scrolls rescued in 1964.

Michael Heppner is chairman of the synagogue’s “Czech Connection,” dedicated to building a bond between the Northwood synagogue and the lost congregation of Kolin. He said his synagogue in the past tried to act as a conduit to advance negotiations between the parties.

“It is very unfortunate that the poor relations between the town and the Prague Jewish Community could not be resolved so as to make possible friendly cooperation in the task of restoration,” Heppner said.

But he might be prepared to step back into the fray.

“Sooner or later the dispute will be resolved, but it will take a change in attitudes and negotiating positions to bring this about,” Heppner said. “Neither side has asked us to help find a solution. We are just interested bystanders who would like to help, but we have been unsuccessful in bringing the two sides together.”

The chasm between Kolin’s officials and the Czech Jewish community may yet be bridged.

“On the matter of ownership, we cannot compromise,” Kraus said. “However, if there is a way in which we could buy back the ownership, that may be a way forward.”

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