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Around the Jewish World Defying Odds, Jewish Publisher Finds Local Funds to Rebuild Czech Synagogue

May 30, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Most people thought Michal Klima was a bit loopy when he purchased a Czech synagogue three years ago that had been doomed to destruction. But Klima proved them wrong.

It took more than $300,000 to renovate the 19th-century barn-like structure in Hartmanice, and no one had ever attempted to raise such a large amount locally for a synagogue restoration, in part because the average Czech wage is less than $900 a month.

The government or Jewish communities should rebuild synagogues, some people whispered.

The problem was that as resources are already tied up maintaining 350 cemeteries and 180 synagogues, this type of funding was unavailable. But Klima, publisher of a successful economic magazine who hails from one of Prague’s so-called Jewish intellectual aristocracy — his father is the author Ivan Klima — believed that private fund-raising was the wave of the future.

“I found out about the sale of this synagogue on the Internet and I was shocked. I mean, who knew there were Jews living in the mountains?” he said. “Turns out there were something like 90 synagogues in the area at the end of the 20th century. I wanted to help other people learn about this.”

His foundation to rebuild the crumbling synagogue received accolades from former President Vaclav Havel and numerous government luminaries who were impressed that he wasn’t just asking for a handout. And so it was that last week, one of the few reminders that Czechs, Jews and Germans once lived harmoniously in the dreamy Sumava Mountains was reborn.

The rustic, chalet-style synagogue of Hartmanice was reopened after more than 57 years of disrepair as a museum memorializing the important role that Jews played in the region. Historic photographs displayed emphasize the long cooperation between the three ethnic streams in everything from fire brigades to barn raising.

The hundreds who showed up for the Hartmanice opening ceremony included the president of the Czech Senate, the finance minister, members of Parliament and the country’s chief rabbi.

Standing and craning their necks from the women’s gallery for a view of the Hartmanice children’s choir performing Israeli songs, there were more guests than the synagogue was every meant to hold. It was built in 1895 for a congregation of 100.

The Jewish population declined steadily from that time as Jews left for better opportunities in the cities. Only 20 Jews remained among the mostly ethnic German population when the Nazis marched into town in 1938, taking over one-third of Czechoslovakia.

The Jews’ transport papers to concentration camps and graphic pictures of Holocaust victims are part of the synagogue’s exhibition. But unlike almost any other Czech museum, there is also a section on the misery visited upon the town’s inhabitants after the war, when 1.1 million ethnic Germans were deported from Czechoslovakia in what some historians now believe was a form of collective punishment for the horrors of Nazism.

Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum of Prague, said that of the 40 or so synagogues renovated in the country since the end of communism, “none are dedicated to showing how the lives of Germans, Jews and Czechs were so deeply intertwined.”

The synagogue — now one of the most attractive buildings in town with its intricate wooden beams and cast-iron staircase — was rebuilt by local craftsmen based on archival material from Jerusalem.

“When I came up with the idea to rebuild the synagogue, I realized we didn’t have any information in the Czech Republic about what it looked like, or about the Jews who lived here,” Klima said.

Such historical amnesia is a typical problem in one-third of Czech territory, where the residents are all new arrivals from after the war, as Czechs from other parts of the country took over the towns where the ethnic Germans were expelled.

Klima’s inspiration for the project was a non-Jewish teacher, Vaclav Divis.

Now in his 60s, a few years ago Divis started a theater group at Hartmanice high school to teach the students about the town’s former Jewish residents. He also coaches a children’s choir that sings in German, Hebrew and Czech. His students and many others at the school participated in the “Disappeared Neighbors” project, in which they picked specific Holocaust victims from the town and pieced together their history through archival research and interviews.

Petr Hrubec, an elderly policeman guiding local traffic on the day of the synagogue opening, is impressed with this rediscovery of his town’s history as well as its newest architectural achievement.

“I was watching TV one night and I saw the project that the children of the town were doing, that’s how I learned that Jews had lived here,” said Hrubec, who has lived in Hartmanice since 1945. “Maybe for the older people, they might be not so interested, but the young people, it’s important for them to know what happened here.”

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