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Czech Seeks to Turn Aging Shul into Czech-german-jewish Museum

April 21, 2003
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Michal Klima was surfing the Internet last October when he discovered that a crumbling 19th-century Czech synagogue was up for sale.

Fearing that it might be turned into “a hotel or something worse,” the director of a Czech Internet publishing company embarked on a quest to turn it into a museum of local Czech-German-Jewish history.

Klima paid $5,600 for the synagogue in Bohemia, which fell into disrepair during the Communist era and at one point was slated for demolition.

He’s now launching an appeal for funds to ensure that his dream to restore one of the region’s last surviving synagogues becomes a reality.

Klima says his Jewish origin played a part in his decision to take on the project, but his real motive lies in setting aside his passive role as a media professional.

“In the media, people just cover events but do nothing about it themselves,” he said.

Klima formed a civic association to raise the estimated $160,000 to $200,000 needed to repair the building which in earlier times was a focal point for a bustling town with large contingents of Jews and Germans.

Recent gales that ripped away part of a temporary roof cover and added some $14,000 to the repair costs made his task even more challenging.

“We have already secured some money and are negotiating for more, but we are certainly far from having all we will need,” said Klima.

He will have to settle for little more than moral support for the time being from the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, whose resources are limited by the need to maintain some 350 cemeteries and 180 synagogues across the country.

“We will certainly try to help this project as best as we can,” said Tomas Kraus, the federation’s executive director. “Whether we will be able to find some money for this project this year remains a question,” he said.

But Klima has attracted the support of some powerful figures in the Czech Republic, including the current culture minister, Pavel Dostal, and former President Vaclav Havel. In a recent letter to the civic association, Havel wrote: “This aim is close to me in many ways and is a sign of a functioning civic society. It moves in the direction of bringing together Czechs, Germans and Jews and it will contribute, at least in small measure, to the improvement of the appearance of one town which was devastated during the previous regime.”

The synagogue was built around 1885 for some 100 members of the Hartmanice Jewish community, which declined during the next 30 years.

During World War II, it was turned into a workshop and later became a military storage room under the Communist regime. By the 1980s, the synagogue was in need of complete reconstruction, but the nearby Jewish community in Plzen lacked money to fund repairs.

Klima’s goal of restoring the synagogue to its former glory has also been hampered by a lack of historical records and first-hand accounts of its original design. “The Germans who lived there were displaced and the Jews either died during the war or never returned. We are still searching the archives and conducting historical research,” he added.

For Kraus, the project is particularly exciting because no single individual has ever purchased a Jewish structure for reconstruction in the Czech Republic. “It is a first,” he said. “Turning the synagogue into a museum is a very dignified purpose.”

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