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Around the Jewish World Long Neglected Under Communists, Prague’s Jewish Museum is Revived

November 5, 2004
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The Jewish Museum of Prague, founded in 1906, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Can’t work out the math?

Ten years ago, after more than 40 years of neglect and political repression under communism, the museum was handed over by the state to the Prague Jewish community.

With its incomparable synagogues and its ancient cemetery, the museum is arguably Europe’s most impressive Jewish cultural monument. When the Jewish community inherited it from the state, though, its buildings and collections were in utter decay.

Still, the museum has since become a worldwide source of education on Central and Eastern European Jewry and a symbol of the post-Communist revival of Jewish life in the region.

Celebrating the museum’s rebirth, its director, Leo Pavlat, announced that after years of struggling to rebuild its collections and repair its buildings, the museum is set to embark on a new course, hoping to revitalize Jewish life outside of Prague.

“We were not able to got into the regions before because we had to put all our funding into restoring infrastructure and the collection, plus establishing permanent exhibitions and rebuilding the synagogues,” Pavlat said. “It’s done now and we want to help preserve the Jewish legacy outside of Prague.”

The museum is not a single building but includes houses of worship, a ceremonial hall and exhibitions throughout the cobblestone streets of Europe’s best-preserved Jewish quarter.

With more than a half million visitors a year, the Jewish Museum of Prague is the Czech Republic’s most popular museum. No other Jewish museum in the world can make such a claim in its own country, but the achievement is especially stunning in a region where Jews were nearly extinguished and Judaism suppressed for nearly a half century.

“Maybe the most important of all the achievements of the Jewish Museum of Prague during the last 10 years is how it has managed to find a relationship with the public,” said Petr Pithart, president of the Czech Senate.

“It has been extremely lively in devoting itself to its visitors from abroad and the Czech Republic, even more than its own collections. And what I consider particularly important for the future is how successful the museum is at attracting young people.”

Pavlat expressed his hope that the museum could have an even greater impact on Czech Jews, whose number stands at about 10,000. Beginning in 2006, several hundred thousand dollars will be channeled from museum profits to 10 Jewish communities that will decide how to best use the funds.

Pavlat anticipated that monument repairs, the opening of exhibitions, cultural events and teaching projects for the general public could all be undertaken.

The history of the Jewish Museum mirrors Czechoslovakia’s tragic history and that of the former Eastern bloc. As Pavlat points out, the enormity of the museum’s collection is due to the Nazi’s near extermination of the Jewish people.

Hitler’s henchmen used the museum as a central storage facility for artifacts stolen from Jews.

The museum’s prewar collection of 1,000 items grew to 40,000 in the war’s aftermath, including tapestries, textiles, furniture, ceramics, silverware, photographs, ritual objects, Torahs, documents tracing the progress of the Jewish community and some 100,000 books.

“This was after 118,000 Czechoslovak Jews were killed by the Nazis,” Pavlat noted. “The table at which we are sitting at now in my office belonged to someone who was killed.”

In 1950 the museum was nationalized, but unlike many other cultural institutions, the Communists viewed it as a burden rather than a source of pride.

“The Communists revealed as little about the Jewish people as they could,” said the museum director, who like the other few hundred observant Jews living in Prague under communism was continuously harassed and interrogated by the state’s secret police.

“The Jewish Museum was the only museum in the country where public lectures on its content were forbidden,” he said. “People in the country were not able to learn anything about Judaism and Hebrew books, including lesson books, were banned.” The museum was also not allowed to cooperate with museums abroad until the late 1980s.

The Prague Jewish community fought a tough battle to get the museum back in the early 1990s and then, once it succeeded, found itself in the unique position of administering the country’s only non-state cultural institution.

Numerous private foundations and Jewish organizations poured money into the museum, including 16 major sponsors from abroad and 10 in the Czech Republic.

“It took us 10 years to rebuild everything, and don’t forget there were also the devastating floods of 2002 which closed our synagogues and exhibitions,” Pavlat said.

After the fall of communism, each of the synagogues needed to be painstakingly reconstructed and renovated, including the 16th-century Pinkas Synagogue, the 17th century Klausen Synagogue, the 16th-century Maisel Synagogue and what most visitors find most visually impressive, the now-active 19th-century Spanish Synagogue. That synagogue re-opened to the public in 1998 after being closed for nearly two decades and is admired for its breathtaking stained glass, Moorish architecture and the original organ the composer of the Czechoslovak National anthem once played.

Starting from scratch, the museum created permanent exhibitions such as The history of the “Jews in Bohemia and Moravia” and “Jewish Customs and Traditions,” displaying religious objects that date back to medieval times.

In 1996 the museum completed one of the world’s best-known Holocaust memorials, the inscription of 80,000 names of Jewish victims in the Pinkas Synagogue. The memorial later added the famous children’s drawings made in the Terezin Ghetto. Also in 1996, then-President Vaclav Havel marked the opening of the museum’s educational center, designed to help students and teachers across the country learn about Jewish history.

Another problem the museum faced in its post-Communist operations was that the majority of the graves of the 15th-century Jewish cemetery were on the verge of collapse. In 2000 a plan was announced to annually restore 100 of the cemetery’s 4,000 tilting tombstones.

The museum is so integrated into Czech political life that its staff gives the police lectures on anti-Semitism.

In contrast to many other former Eastern bloc countries, openly anti-Jewish sentiment is rare in the Czech Republic. Quite the opposite, Pavlat said. “Half the population thinks its Jewish,” he said.

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