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Czech Jews Wonder What Skeletons Are Lurking in Communist-era Closet

March 14, 2002
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Czech Jewry’s ghosts from the former Communist regime are set to resurface after Czech legislators voted to lift the lid on secret police archives.

Files that will be opened those from a notorious secret police operation code-named Spider.

During the operation, which ran in the 1950s and later in the 1970s and 1980s, Czechoslovak Jews were spied on, intimidated and in some cases forced to emigrate by officials.

The officials were particularly keen to establish what links the Jewish community had with Israel, a state that Moscow and her satellites regarded as an enemy.

In a sad twist of history, the Czech secret police based the operation on a list of up to 30,000 Czechoslovak Jews compiled by the Nazis during World War II.

Czech legislators voted last week on a bill opening the archives, and the legislation is expected to be signed into law by President Vaclav Havel within the next few weeks.

The move has been cautiously welcomed by senior Jewish officials, who believe the archives may yield vital information about the nature of the operation and may help to bring some of those responsible to justice.

“It will be very good to publicize what the state really did,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities. “But it is important to look at the whole picture rather than just a few cases.”

Psychological torture and intimidation were common tactics the regime used to persuade Jews to inform on their neighbors and relatives.

State police, for instance, trained a camera on the Jewish community headquarters in Prague to monitor people’s movements. Many Jews also were interrogated by the secret police.

One senior Jewish community member described to JTA how police tried to dissuade him from observing religious practices by showing him a photograph of a murdered man, implying that a similar fate awaited him.

When he chose not to cooperate, he was threatened with criminal prosecution on trumped-up charges of dealing illegally in foreign currency.

No one knows just how much information is contained in the archives of the Communist secret police — who were known as the StB — because many records were destroyed shortly before the Communist regime fell in 1989.

But many in the Czech Jewish community are concerned that a false picture may emerge, not least because some former community members are known to have collaborated with the regime, either willingly or under duress.

Sylvie Wittmann, co-founder of the Prague-based liberal Jewish community Bejt Simcha, is worried that some may be wrongly identified in the files as informers.

Her concern is based on personal experience, having discovered that she was wrongly identified as an informer in a separate list that a former dissident compiled 10 years ago.

“I don’t see any reason to trust files of an organization like the StB that was based on lies,” she said. “Every coin has two faces. On the one hand, we learn about people who were informing on us, but on the other, can we be sure it is true?”

Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, said opening the StB files is a necessary step toward helping Czechs confront the country’s Communist past.

“Information contained in the secret police files is important and should not be belittled,” said Pavlat, who was regularly interrogated and threatened by state police during Operation Spider.

He added, however, that people should be careful not to make assumptions about people’s guilt.

“I don’t think I am in a position to be the judge of someone else,” Pavlat said. “Everybody knows what he did or did not. There was someone in the community who I thought for a long time had collaborated with the regime, but I later came to the conclusion that I was probably mistaken.

“On the other hand, after making files available to the public, we can also expect some negative surprises.”

Pavlat also pointed to a range of reasons why some Jews cooperated with the police. Some did so out of fear, he said, while others in high state positions were obliged to collaborate to keep their jobs.

Others willingly cooperated on ideological grounds, at least in the early days of the Communist regime, according to Wittmann.

“You shouldn’t forget that some people who came from Nazi concentration camps were socialists and Communists,” she said. “When they were put down by Stalin, they just couldn’t believe it.”

Jewish community members are still waiting to hear whether any of those responsible for Operation Spider will be brought to justice.

The Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes, a police body that began its investigation into the operation seven years ago, said it hoped to access state archives later this year to complete its investigation.

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