Concerts, exhibitions, films mark "Year of Jewish Culture"

Spanish Synagogue

2006 is the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Prague's Jewish Museum, and to mark the event, exhibitions, concerts, films and theatre performances will be held across the country. The festival, dubbed The Year of Jewish Culture, will aim to reflect the huge cultural contribution made by the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia over the centuries.

Leo Pavlat
The Jewish community was of course decimated by the Holocaust. 80,000 Czech Jews were killed in the Nazi death camps; only a few thousand were left alive after the war. But Leo Pavlat, director of the Prague Jewish Museum, says Prague's beautifully restored synagogues are more than just monuments to the past.

"I wouldn't say it's a dead culture because any museum is a dead culture. Of course we present objects which have are no longer in use in synagogues, but at the same time they are very eloquent. They speak about the history of Czech Jews and at the same time they symbolise people who were killed during the war. Knowing that we can say a lot about contemporary life in this world, and of course we can use all these documents and objects in projects and programmes which actually speak about contemporary life."

Tomas Kraus, chairman of the federation of Czech Jewish communities, says the history of the Jews and the history of the Czech Lands are very much interlinked.

Tomas Kraus
"If you ask a man on the street in Prague, or even small children in school, everybody will tell you - oh this is part of our history. It might come from the late 19th century, when there was this Czech rebirth or this nationalistic movement, and it included at a certain stage Jewish culture as a part of the Czech heritage."

How vibrant is that community today?

"The community is very vibrant. It's very small, and as you just mentioned it was decimated by the Holocaust, but unfortunately this was not the end of the story. We had to face another 40 years of Communism which almost completed the work of the Nazis, because there was substantial emigration from the country and of course out of the community as such."

We're standing in the magnificent Spanish Synagogue, a beautifully restored building, and Prague is home to many unique Jewish monuments, but are these buildings simply tourist attractions or are they part of a living, vibrant culture?

Spanish Synagogue
"Definitely they are part of a living, vibrant culture. We don't want to portray ourselves as a dead community. You can still come across this notion that everybody who comes not only to Prague but also to Europe, whether they're from Israel, sometimes from the United States, thinks that this is a huge Jewish cemetery. No - it's not. We have a cemetery - we are very proud of the cemetery. We are proud of the synagogues. We are proud of the heritage. But this is not the full story. The full story is that we are also the descendants of those people who survived - miraculously - the Holocaust, and we are actually the proof that the Nazis did not succeed. We are still here."

There is something of a historical irony, because Hitler is rumoured to have wanted to create a Museum of an Extinct Race in Prague. He wanted to collect all the Jewish artefacts and monuments of the community that he had annihilated and build this museum in Prague. And as a result, Prague is so rich in Jewish artefacts.

Spanish Synagogue
"And some say this is what we are today - a Museum of an Extinct Race - no, we are not. Because the museum is also willing to give these premises to the Jewish community for whatever purposes they need. In the very small area of the Old Town there are six synagogues which of course are housing the expositions of the museum, but at the same time they are used. They're used for kabbalah shabat, they're used for services. For instance this Spanish Synagogue is used every shabat for a kabbalah shabat service. We have the Pinkas Synagogue - with the names of 80,000 Holocaust victims inscribed on the walls - we had a bar mitzvah there only two weeks ago. There are also other synagogues and premises which are now subject to great discussion whether they should host regular services. During the high holiday services we had seven places in Prague which were packed with people. So as far as this community is concerned, I'm quite optimistic about the future."

Ivan Klima
But not all Jewish artists and writers identify themselves as such. Ivan Klima, one of the Czech Republic's most famous living writers, spent much of the war imprisoned in the notorious Terezin concentration camp, and the Holocaust finds it way into several of his books. But Ivan, also present at the festival's launch at the Spanish Synagogue, told me he didn't consider himself a "Jewish writer".

"Probably not. I was invited to Jerusalem, and they recorded an eight-hour interview with me, and right at the beginning I said - I'm a Czech writer rather than a Jewish writer. And they said - for us you are a Jewish writer! I was not educated in Jewish tradition, but I shared the Jewish fate during the occupation, during the war. And of course I used my strongest life experiences in some of my short stories and short parts of my novels. So that's my connection with the Jewish."

Zuzana Ruzickova
The next twelve months will see dozens of cultural events in synagogues, theatres, concert halls art galleries and cinemas up and down the country. Later this month, for example, the Ceska Trebova town museum is hosting the travelling exhibition Neighbours Who Disappeared, providing young people with an opportunity to search for Jews living in their area who disappeared during the Second World War. In March, cinemas in Prague will show films with a Jewish theme. Zuzana Ruzickova, one of Europe's most respected harpsichordists, says the Jewish contribution to the cultural history of the Czech Lands deserves a year-long celebration.

"This is a question which would need at least an hour's lecture. But to be short, I think Jews have contributed in every sense to Czech culture. The mixture of Jewish, Czech and German culture produced wonderful results, such as Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, Rilke and lots of others. I of course, as a survivor of the Holocaust, deeply regret that this period was so violently stopped, and often think about how it would have been, or could have been, if many of those children had survived and contributed to Czech culture."