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Prague’s Jews Look for Help After Floods Harm Shuls, Museum

August 16, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish leaders in Prague have launched an international appeal for aid after floods caused an estimated $4 million in damage to Jewish holy sites.

Volunteers have worked around the clock since Monday, sandbagging synagogues and other Jewish sites in a desperate attempt to keep away the waters from the worst floods to hit the city in more than 100 years.

While giant steel barriers on the banks of the Vltava River prevented flooding over land, water seeped through underground channels into the city’s historic Jewish Quarter.

Jewish officials discovered Wednesday night that the Old-New Synagogue had taken in four feet of water, covering pews and damaging the building.

The Pinkas Synagogue also was hit, with water levels inside the building reaching nearly 7 feet and damaging some of the 80,000 handwritten inscriptions of the names of Czech Holocaust victims.

Jewish officials, who had moved all Jewish artifacts including Torah scrolls from the sites before the flood waters hit, were shocked by the damage.

“There has been serious damage to some of Prague’s Jewish treasures,” said Tomas Jelinek, the chairman of the city’s Jewish community. But “in a sense, we are grateful because the damage could have been much worse if the river Vltava’s banks had burst.”

The Jewish Museum was also badly hit by underground flooding, which bubbled up through the city’s sewers.

Officials succeeded in moving precious Jewish artifacts such as Torah shields, pointers, manuscripts and rare books to higher levels before the floods, but the building is likely to be without electricity for up to four weeks after the generator was submerged in water.

The museum’s air-conditioning system also has been knocked out, threatening damage to rare manuscripts and books over the next few weeks.

“This is a very serious blow,” said Leo Pavlat, the museum’s director. “It is hard to see seven years of work in building up the museum be affected so quickly.”

The disaster could not have come at a worse time for museum officials, who have had to cancel several exhibitions across the Jewish Quarter at the peak of the tourist season. It faces losses amounting to thousands of dollars in ticket sales.

“We are suffering huge losses because August is the best month of the year for us,” Pavlat said. “We are not subsidized by the state and rely on entry fees to fund our activities.”

The waters began to recede Thursday.

Pavlat warned that a plan to reconstruct the former Smichov Synagogue in Prague, to house archives and precious objects, now was threatened.

“We are going to have to look at our budget,” he said. “We had wanted to start on the Smichov project at the beginning of the new year, but I’m afraid that may not now be possible.”

In Germany, the flooding has left much of Dresden under water, but the city’s new synagogue so far has been spared, according to a spokesperson for the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Roman Koenig, president of the Dresden Jewish community, reported via the Berlin-based Central Council that representatives were checking daily on all elderly and disabled members of the community. While some had to evacuate their homes, all were safe as of Aug. 15, when the Elbe River peaked.

The Jewish community in Dresden has slightly more than 1,000 members.

Contact with the community remained sporadic due to loss of electricity, as computers could not be used and cell phones could not be recharged. The Dresden train station was severely flooded, putting an end to train traffic in and out of the city.

Venues normally protected by alarm systems were under increased police guard, the council spokesperson said.

“A good friend of mine lives a few hundred meters from the synagogue and is totally under water and can’t be reached,” he said.

Jewish community officials in Prague have set up a bank account for donations in U.S. dollars. The use of funds will be publicly reported and audited, they said.

The account, number 179139212/0300 in the name the Prague Jewish Community, known in Czech as Zidovska obec v Praze, is at the CSOB Bank in Prague 7. The SWIFT number for transfers is CEKOCZPP.

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