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Around the Jewish World Prague Jews Brace for Revelations from Police Files to Open in Summer

May 14, 2002
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Prague’s top Jewish official is poised to access secret police archives on an anti-Jewish operation run by the former Communist regime.

Tomas Jelinek told JTA he intends to take advantage this summer of a new law allowing the public to scrutinize former StB secret police files. The archives include files on the notorious Operation Spider, under which Czech Jews were spied on, intimidated and in some cases forced to emigrate by officials in the 1950s and then in the 1970s and 1980s.

State officials used a range of tactics, including interrogation and informers, to establish what links Czech and Slovak Jewish communities had with Israel, a state that Moscow regarded at the time as an enemy.

Jelinek said he believed the Jewish community should act quickly to find out what lay behind the state’s operation.

“Those files are now open to everyone, and who but us should be the first to look at them?” he said.

“We should study the issues that are related to us. It is not so much about the Jewish community now, it is more about how the Jewish community was viewed by the Communist regime — the politics of the Communist government against Israel and support of the Arab countries and so on,” he said. “It is more about history than about the present.”

The files may contain information not only about the motives behind the operation but also details about Jews who collaborated with the state, either willingly or under duress, in its quest for information about Israel.

Jelinek accepted the sensitivity of this aspect, but insisted that there was no question of a witch hunt for former collaborators.

“This is not about individuals,” he continued. “Most of the people who will be mentioned in the files are probably not alive any more or are no longer involved in Jewish life,” he said.

“There will be cases involving people which must be in some way discussed with the knowledge that this is not a historical source. It is not so different from those people who studied the Nazi archives,” he said.

However, Jelinek did suggest that action could be taken in certain circumstances.

“If someone was hurt — for example, if they were fired from their job because of a statement made by an individual — a mechanism should be found for these people to receive some sort of settlement. On the other hand, everyone has the right to give their own point of view.”

Jelinek said he hoped to arrange for an independent analysis of the files to ensure a balanced approach.

“The first thing we should be interested in is the Prague Jewish community, and you have to do it in a way that is transparent and which is just,” he added.

The possibility that the files may shed new light on one of the most difficult periods of modern Czech Jewish history is creating a stir in Prague Jewish circles.

Among those eagerly waiting to discover what the files contain is David Stecher, chairman of the Jewish community’s supervisory board.

In February 1982, Stecher became the only community member of his generation to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.

The prayer book he received as a present had to be smuggled into the country. But Stecher’s parents and grandmother, longtime members of the Jubilee Synagogue minyan in Prague’s Jerusalemska Street, were prepared to risk the wrath of the authorities.

“Life later was made quite difficult for me at school because of the Bar Mitzvah, but I had no regrets because I had an opportunity to keep Jewish traditions going in Prague,” Stecher said.

Stecher’s mother Magdalena, who now lives in Germany with her husband, Denis, said the decision to hold the Bar Mitzvah was prompted by the religious devotion of her mother-in-law, Waltraut Stecher, who died ten years ago.

“She said to us, ‘We are Jews and we should be religious. Don’t be afraid.’ We are very glad we held the Bar Mitzvah,” Magdalena said.

The family’s courage can be put in context by the big-brother attitude of the authorities. At the time, a camera was fixed opposite the Jewish community headquarters in Maiselova Street in order to monitor movements, adding to the general sense of fear pervading a community that remembered the Nazi years all too well.

“I was approached by the state police after the Bar Mitzvah,” Denis Stecher recalled. “They wanted me to collaborate and give them information about the community, but I refused.”

The scars of the past run deep for some like David Stecher, who said he still resented the failure of some current members of the community to apologize for collaborating.

“There were some people who collaborated out of fear, but others willingly informed on the community,” he said. “They should be ashamed of themselves because they have never admitted what they did and have never said sorry.”

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