Czech Jewish community experiences rebirth after fall of communism


The Czech Republic marks Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945. Some 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews perished in the Holocaust, and before the community could even start recovering from the war, the communist regime practically froze its activities. It was not until the fall of communism in 1989 that the Czech Jewish community could start to rebuild.

Prague's historic Jewish Town is the best preserved complex of Jewish monuments in Europe. But rather than a centre of a vibrant religious and community life, it was hardly more than an outdoor museum during the decades of communism.

"During the communist regime it was very difficult to live a Jewish life because the Jewish community was absolutely controlled by the secret police and at the same time there were no books in Hebrew, there was no Jewish education. Any publication in Hebrew was immediately confiscated on the border, people were interrogated under different pretext, so of course, to publicly manifest any 'Jewishness' was very dangerous and it caused the people who dared to do it serious problems."

Leo Pavlat
Leo Pavlat is the director of the Prague Jewish Museum. Around 1989, the average age in the Jewish community in Prague was well over sixty. So understandably, the community had very specific priorities.

"Of course, the first goal was to help survivors of Shoa, survivors of the Holocaust. So the Jewish community of Prague built two homes for these people. Of course, it's not enough, so other people have been helped in terms of money if there was need and also in terms of medicines. The Jewish community was helpful in negotiations about compensation for Jewish survivors with international organisations."

Since the 1990s, many abandoned synagogues, cemeteries and other monuments have been renovated around the country, often with the help of the local authorities. The community could finally look ahead and devote more attention to its young members. Since 1997, a Jewish kindergarten, elementary school and high school have been established.

The average age in the community has been dropping steadily and there is now also an active youth organisation. Daniel Kolsky is the chairman.

"Basically, we are trying to organise activities like all other youth organisations do and especially we organise all kinds of religious, social and cultural activities, like celebrations of Jewish festivals and holidays. One of the most successful programmes we do is an annual seminar for people from all around the Czech Republic and also we invite people from Slovakia and other neighbouring countries. It always has a specific topic, like Jews in the European Union or kosher sex - all kinds of topics which are interesting for young people. We are trying to organise programmes for people to meet each other, to know each other, to create Jewish families and to have fun!"

Over the last year and a half rows within the Prague Jewish Community made headlines several times. While the divisions are a cause for concern for many of its members, they could be seen as a sign that the community, albeit small, is again very much alive.