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Around the Jewish World a Year After Floods, Prague Jews Look Back on the Costly Disaster

August 18, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Leo Pavlat was a worried man: Persistent rain had been lashing the Czech Republic and water levels on the Vltava River were beginning to rise alarmingly.

The threat of flooding last summer was so real that, on Aug. 12, city authorities warned the public to prepare for evacuation.

Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, ordered all collections of Jewish treasures to be moved out of harm’s way. Two days later, on Aug. 14, tens of thousands of Prague citizens were ordered to evacuate their homes as the river came within inches of bursting its banks.

Finally, the waters miraculously began to recede, and it seemed that Prague’s Jewish community could breathe a sigh of relief.

But there was a shock in store for everyone.

“I was sitting at home watching TV to see what was going on,” Pavlat recalled this week, a year after the disaster. “Finally it said that the level of the Vltava had reached its top, and I wanted to go back to the Jewish Museum to check whether something had happened. To tell you the truth, I was mostly worried about the security, because no one was there.”

Pavlat approached the district police chief, who agreed to let him into the area. A quick check of the Pinkas Synagogue showed limited damage.

But when he went to the Jewish Museum, he was shocked to see water in the basement.

“It was only then I realized that the water came from underground,” he said.

Pavlat found the same scenario in the Maisel and Klausen synagogues.

“Nevertheless, I thought it was not too bad,” he said. “Unfortunately, the next day it continued to get higher and higher.”

Firefighters began pumping water from the Pinkas and Old-New synagogues, but the damage already had been done.

“Nobody even mentioned that water could come from below,” Pavlat said.

The museum’s collections were untouched, but the water destroyed the new air-conditioning and heating systems.

The Old Jewish Cemetery also had to be closed for some time as damage was assessed. In the end, several trees in the cemetery had to be cut down to keep them from falling on graves.

The Pinkas Synagogue, which has the names of 80,000 Czech Holocaust victims inscribed on its walls, was seriously damaged.

In all, the repair bill for synagogues and buildings administered by the Jewish Museum — including the Klausen, Maisel, Pinkas and Spanish synagogues and the museum itself — reached $635,000. Luckily, insurance companies and donations from around the world covered the losses.

The museum revenues also were badly hit by the loss of an estimated 180,000-200,000 tourists.

A number of buildings owned and operated by Prague’s Jewish community also fell victim to the flooding, including the Old-New Synagogue and the neighboring Jewish community headquarters in Maiselova Street.

Community chairman Tomas Jelinek also recalled the fateful day when the waters came.

“We came to the Old-New Synagogue during the night. Everything was very quiet and Prague was dark,” he said. “I was relieved to see that it was still standing. It was a unique moment because not everyone can see the Old-New Synagogue full of water.”

Fifteen buildings administered by the Prague Jewish Community were damaged, with costs estimated at more than $700,000. The community kitchens were totally destroyed and experts had to be brought in to treat the stonework in the Old-New Synagogue.

The disaster made headlines in the Jewish press around the world and drew sympathy from a host of world leaders. Israel reacted by sending its deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, with a check for $50,000 for the Jewish community.

The Czech Republic’s then-president, Vaclav Havel, also toured some of the affected Jewish sites. Both the Jewish Museum and the Prague Jewish Community received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Jewish and non-Jewish sources worldwide.

A year later, Jelinek sees a sliver lining to the disaster.

“I think of it as a test that helped us to grow,” he said. “It showed that the Prague Jewish Community was capable of fighting such a horrible thing and that there are so many people around the world, Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and organizations, who are willing to help us.”

Prague was not the only victim of the flooding: The former Jewish ghetto of Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, was completely flooded, with damage estimated at more than $2 million.

Jiri Janousek, deputy director of the Terezin memorial, said he still found it difficult to talk about.

“First came the shock, and then you started to realize the damage and the work the repairs would require,” he recalled.

Most of the memorial has been repaired, but around $300,000 is needed to complete repairs, including work on Terezin’s crematorium and morgue.

Janousek praised those who helped restore Terezin, including a children’s home in Germany that raised money to buy 3,000 new rosebushes.

“Such solidarity bring tears to your eyes,” he said. “But still you would prefer if it just never happened.”

Janousek pointed to another positive development: Thanks to the flood damage, long-postponed repair projects were moved forward.

Ironically, a lot more people are coming to Terezin than before the floods, according to Sylvie Wittmann, who runs a travel agency specializing in Jewish sightseeing tours.

Back in Prague, work goes on to restore the Pinkas Synagogue, the only Jewish site that remains closed since the flood. Pavlat said he hopes the synagogue will re-open in October.

After that, work will start on restoring the names of 1,500 of the 80,000 Czech Holocaust victims inscribed on the walls. The restoration should be completed in February or March 2004.

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