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Prague: Jewish Hotspot in Europe

by Staff Reporter

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is the hottest tourist attraction in Europe. They argue that the city of this new republic (1989) is more beautiful than Paris. Prague is today the 'hottest' Jewish landmark in Europe. We must note that 'Jewish Prague', a complex of landmarks, is a major tourist attraction to each tourist who visits this unique city. But we, the Jews, must visit it as soon as possible. The Israelis discovered Jewish Prague. You can hear Hebrew in its beautiful streets. There are only 1,500 Jews in Prague. There are only 5,000 Jews in this country.

In 1939, 350,000 Jews lived in this country (Czechoslovakia). And 80,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The communists tried to dismantle Jewish life. The conclusion is that the awakening of Jewish life here is very new. The success of this Jewry is the fact that Jewish Prague became a must to every Jew or Israeli. It is important to point out that the ghetto of Terezin located near Prague is also a must to everyone. This Nazi concentration camp is a very important landmark in the history of the Holocaust. Today, this town is a Czech town and its residents live in the same place and houses which were used by the Nazis to accomplish their final solution. Thousands of victims are buried under the ground of Terezin whose residents live normal lives as if the horror did not exist in the 1940's.

"Jewish Prague is linked to the Federation of Jewish Communities. According to its Executive Director, Thomas Kraus, "The Federation of Jewish Communities serves as an umbrella organization for Jewish Communities and other Jewish institutions in the country. Currently there are ten official Jewish Communities in Bohemia and Moravia with approximately 3,000 registered members of which 1,400 reside in Prague. There is a number of various Jewish 'secular' organizations which fall under the auspices of the Federation, e.g. Beit Praha, the open Jewish congregation gathering mostly ex-patriot Americans and other foreigners residing in Prague, Union of Jewish Youth, member of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), sporting clubs Maccabi and Hakoach, WIZO, the Women's Zionist Organization or the Terezin Initiative, gathering of Czech Holocaust survivors. Altogether, these institutions associate approximately another 2,000 people, however it is estimated that there are an additional 10 to 15,000 unregistered Jews in the country.

"Today, there are 1,400 registered Jews and 3 regularly functioning synagogues in Prague: Old-New Synagogue (orthodox), High Synagogue (modern orthodox), and the 'Jubilee' Synagogue on Jeruzalemska Street (neologue). There are regular Kabalat Shabbat services of Beit Praha in the Jewish Town Hall as well as its High Holiday services organized in one of Prague's synagogues. The main High Holiday services are held at the 'Jubilee' Synagogue. The Prague Jewish Community is operating a kosher restaurant, a home of elderly named after Charles Jordan, there is also a Jewish kindergarten and a Jewish elementary school.

The Chief Rabbi of Prague and the country is Rav Ephraim Karol Dison (orthodox)."

The revival of Jewish life and the fact that millions of tourists can visit, openly, the treasures of Jewish Prague, has to do with the collapse of communism and the famous velvet revolution which has been symbolized by the presidency of the playwright Vaclav Havel and his movement for freedom. Thomas Kraus explains: "In one of his first speeches as President - on New Year 1990 - Vaclav Havel addressed several issues which were of utmost concern of the Czech Jewish community - reestablishing diplomatic relations with Israel (broken in 1967 after the Six-Day-War) and restitution of property, including Jewish. He became one of the most active advocates of this process, though not always his moral appeal was heard. Jewish topics were brought, however, to public and gained an enormous sympathy and support from the wide circles of population. This was caused by many reasons, mostly by the fact that some of Jewish personalities helped - as opponents of the regime - to overthrow Communism. The image of the Jews as victims of the Holocaust which for twenty years could not have been mentioned, played a substantial part as well.

The process of restitution of Jewish property began in 1992 before the split of Czechoslovakia. The Federation of Jewish Communities assembled at that time around 1,000 records of communal Jewish property, i.e. property of former Jewish Communities in Bohemia and Moravia (153 by 1938) and of other Jewish institutions and organization (foundations, unions, clubs, etc.). Final list included only 202 items as most of the buildings and lots could not be claimed (e.g. many synagogues given over since 1945 to various Christian - mostly Protestant - churches with the consent of Jewish Community which preferred to keep religious services in the buildings instead of convert them into warehouses). The list was incorporated into a bill submitted - due to the split of Czechoslovakia only in late 1993 - to the Czech Parliament. The bill included also another two issues: the return of the State Jewish Museum and the possibility to claim individual Jewish property by claimants who were not able or successful in that process after the war.

The Parliament rejected the bill as a whole in February 1994 with reference to a law passed in 1992 which transferred some of the state property to town municipalities. The argument for the rejection was that if the proposed list would have entered into power as a law it would have meant an expropriation of the municipalities similar to Communist practices. Shortly after the rejection of the bill the representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities met the Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus who suggested to find other ways to solve this problem. He released an appeal to respective municipalities to return Jewish property without a law - similar appeal was signed by all three leaders of the ruling coalition parties - and at the same time he assured the Federation that everything owned currently by the state would be returned.

In June 1994 a law was adopted by the Czech Parliament extending the existing individual restitution legislation for claimants who lost their properties between 1938 and 1945 and were not able or successful to regain them by 1948. The law set a limited term for the claims which was, however, prolonged for several times since, the last amendment was possible thanks to the verdict of the Constitutional Court which abolished the condition of permanent residence in the Czech Republic for the claimant and set a new term until September 1996. Though many individuals were successful in regaining the properties, there are still many cases which have not been concluded - mostly where the court proceedings were necessary - and many which were not successful due to formal failures. There are also claims of individuals who are not fulfilling the second condition for a claimant, i.e. the citizenship of the Czech Republic. Besides, another vast circle of individual properties, the heirless, was never even discussed. In general, however, it can be said that the first part of the bill drafted by the Czech Jewish Federation was fulfilled.

The second part was completely successful when in October 1994, the State Jewish Museum ceased to exist and instead a new institution, the Jewish Museum in Prague was established. The founders of this new body were the Federation of Jewish Communities which regained the ownership of the vast majority of Judaica collections from the Museum, the Prague Jewish Community as the old-new owner of the buildings, mostly synagogues housing the expositions, and the Czech Ministry of Culture which kept the possession of a marginal part of the Judaica collection assembled since 1950 when the Museum was nationalized. Together these three organizations have launched an institution which was able in very limited time-frame to change the entire image and work of the Jewish Museum making it one of the most important and successful operations in the country.

The development of the third part of the original bill was less satisfactory. In March and May 1994 the Czech Government under Prime Minister Klaus decided to return all properties owned by March 1994 and by the state. This, with several exceptions, indeed happened. The problem was that the state-owned properties formed only about one quarter of the original 202 items on the list. The rest was owned by town municipalities and, thanks to privatization, private companies. The non-existence of a law exposed the Federation and the individual Jewish Communities to long and complicated negotiations which were not always successful. By mid-1997 only about half of items from the original list was returned including the properties to be returned according to the so called 'restitution full-stop,' a process adopted by the Czech Government in April 1997 in order to return a limited number of properties of all registered churches and religious institutions and unfortunately not completed until today."

According to Prague's precious Legacy Tours, the following are the major Jewish landmarks in this city: The Jewish Museum in Prague. Present at the founding of the Jewish Museum in Prague in 1906 were Dr. Hugo Lieben, a historian, and Dr. Augustin Stein, the representative of the Czech Jewish movement and later head of the Prague Jewish Community. The original aim was to preserve valuable artifacts from the Prague synagogues that were liquidated during the reconstruction of the Jewish Town at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Museum was closed to the public after the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939. In 1942 the Nazis established the Central Jewish Museum, to which were brought artifacts from all the liquidated Jewish communities and synagogues of Bohemia and Moravia. Its founding was proposed by Dr. Stein who, in cooperation with other specialist staff members, sought to save the Jewish memorial objects that were being confiscated by the Nazis. Following long negotiations, the Nazis approved the project to set up a central museum, despite being guided by different motives than the Museum's founders.

After World War II, the Jewish Museum came under the administration of the Council of Jewish Communities in Czechoslovakia. In 1950, ownership of the Museum was transferred under pressure to the state, which, as of 1948, was in the hands of the Communists. The activity of the thus created State Jewish Museum was marked by a number of restrictions that made it impossible for the Museum to fully develop its specialist, exhibition, research and educational activities.

The collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 created the conditions that led to a change in the Museum's status. On October 1, 1944, the Museum buildings and its collections were returned to the Jewish Community in Prague and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic respectively. The Jewish Museum in Prague was founded at the same time as a nonstate organization.

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