Prague subway employee allegedly threatened to ‘cut off’ head of kippah-wearing passenger


The company operating Prague’s subway is investigating a complaint alleging one of its employees threatened to “cut off the head” of a Jewish passenger wearing a kippah.

The incident was reported last week by a member of Prague’s Bejt Simcha Reform Community, Petr Papousek, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, told JTA Tuesday.

The Prague Public Transit Company, he said, “is taking the complaint very seriously, and is investigating the details of the incident in order to draw conclusions on the behavior of the employee in question,” Papousek said. He did not identify the complainant, who requested anonymity.

A man wearing the transit company’s uniform earlier this month harassed the alleged victim in the presence of witnesses aboard the B line, which runs through the Czech capital and its Old Town, the Jewish news website ZTIS reported. According to the account, the uniformed man told the Jewish passenger:  “When we meet next time, Jews, it’ll be to cut off your head.”

None of the other passengers intervened, according to the report. The alleged victim took a picture of the man who he said threatened him. It shows a man with a shaved head facing away from the camera while putting on a black coat over the company’s blue uniform. He is wearing black boots.

Papousek said he had no reason to doubt the veracity of the report, but added that “it is a rare and unusual incident in Prague, which is safer for Jews than many other European cities, including Budapest.”

The complainant further said that another employee of the same company advised him not to wear a kippah while taking the subway because it invites attack. But the firm denies this.

In a statement published last week, the transport company promised to punish the man accused of threatening the Jewish passenger if the alleged perpetrator turns out to be an employee of the company and if the accusation against him checks out.

“If it turns out that the behavior described was by a staff employee of the Prague Public Transit Company, he will face consequences for his actions,” the company said. “But we resolutely reject that our employee had recommended a dress code or made any other proposals.”

Jewish man, 38, killed in Manhattan crane collapse


A 38-year-old Jewish man was killed when a construction crane collapsed on his car in Manhattan.

David Wichs, an immigrant from Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, was standing outside his parked car on Friday morning when the giant crane collapsed, crushing him to death, several media outlets reported.

Three other people were injured, two seriously, in the accident in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca.

According to The Associated Press, Wichs worked at the computerized financial trading firm Tower Research Capital in New York. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager and graduated from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics. While at Harvard, he served as co-chair of a men’s group under the auspices of the campus Hillel.

Wichs and his wife Rebecca were members of Kehilath Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper East Side.

The couple lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, according to The New York Daily News. An unidentified man interviewed as he was leaving Wichs’ apartment building said he was Wichs’ rabbi and told The Daily News Wichs was “an absolute angel.”

Wichs is listed as a donor on the websites and publications of numerous charities, both Jewish and secular, including Avodah, Mazon and Teach for America.

An unidentified employee at Bay Crane, which manufactured the crane, told The AP an investigation of the collapse was underway.

Politics, Putin cast shadow over Auschwitz liberation anniversary


When they announced the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polish officials insisted that at this year’s event, “the eyes of the world will be focused” on about 300 Holocaust survivors whose presence Tuesday at the former Nazi death camp near Krakow may be the last gathering of its sort.

The generation of Holocaust survivors, after all, is dying out.

Yet critics are charging that politics and tensions between Russia and its neighbors are nonetheless eclipsing the focus on the survivors and even muddling the historical record. Many believe that behind the main event, at Auschwitz, was an organized effort to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending — a reprisal of sorts for Russia’s annexation last year of Ukrainian territory.

Putin in his earlier stint as president attended the 60th anniversary ceremony in 2005. This time, a tentative invitation was extended to the Russian Embassy but not to Putin directly.

An attempt to keep out Putin was “a serious failure in commemoration because it was Russian troops who liberated the camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the human rights organization. “This attempt to erase the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Nazism is casting a shadow on this commemoration and creating a vacuum in which untruths flourish.”

One such distortion: On Jan. 21, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told a local radio station that Ukrainians, not Russians, liberated Auschwitz, citing the fact that the Red Army unit that reached Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. And on Jan. 8, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the Soviets “invaded  Ukraine and Germany,” when, in fact, it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union. His spokesman later explained that Yatsenyuk had in mind the carving-up of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

These historical inversions “show the level of hatred that exists for Russia for the moment,” said Peter Feldmajer, a vice president of the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz.

In addition to the event in Auschwitz, the camp’s liberation was scheduled to be commemorated in Prague on Jan. 26 and at the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 28.

But Putin’s presence would have been an especially sensitive matter in Poland, where anger over Russian aggression in Ukraine is mixed with bitter memories of Russian domination during and predating the Soviet era and fears of its return.

Polish officials denied that Putin was deliberately disinvited or discouraged from attending, noting that no other head of state had been officially invited, owing to the policy of focusing on survivors.

Many, however, doubted this argument, as the list of attending dignitaries at the Auschwitz event grew. Among others it included French President Francois Hollande and his German and Ukrainian counterparts, Joachim Guack and Petro Poroshenko, as well as the Dutch and Belgian premiers, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel, respectively.

Putin, however, had been invited to attend an event near Prague co-organized by the European Jewish Congress that brought hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries to commemorations of the Auschwitz liberation and to the nearby Terezin Memorial for the Theresiendstadt concentration camp.

EJC’s Russian-born president, the industrialist Moshe Kantor, set up the event near Prague with the Czech government to provide a commemoration ceremony where Putin would feel welcome, according to Peter Brod, a board member of the Jewish Community of Prague’s foundation.

“The feeling was that the Russian contribution to the liberation should be honored and commemorated in some way, and this led to the event,” said Brod, a former BBC journalist.

But Arie Zuckerman, a senior EJC official, said the event near Prague — which featured debates about anti-Semitism today and legislation to curb it — were never meant to serve as an alternative to the Auschwitz event, “which, unlike our event, is only about commemoration.”

Marek Halter, a well-known French Jewish author who survived the Holocaust in his native Warsaw before escaping to Russia, said he and his generation “have a responsibility to protect [the] historical record for as long as we can.” The record, he said, “is in danger of being lost in the politics of the new cold war we are entering between the United States and Russia.”

Putin’s attendance at Auschwitz, he added during an interview with JTA, “should have been facilitated to defend against this sort of obfuscation.”

Serge Klarsfeld, a Romania-born Jewish Nazi hunter who survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and whose father died at Auschwitz, said he “could understand the Polish state of mind regarding Putin,” but that he should have been invited.

“It’s not, as some Poles claim, that the Russians liberated Auschwitz because it was en route to Berlin,” he said. “They came to free Auschwitz, and the survivors will never forget the Red Army’s arrival there.”

Still, Halter said he could think of no place more appropriate than Prague and Terezin to commemorate the Holocaust.

“Prague was the only old Jewish city that the Nazis left intact because they wanted to turn it into a Jewish Jurassic Park, a museum to an extinct people,” he told JTA. “Convening hundreds of Jewish community leaders and dignitaries is a powerful response.”

But how the message is carried is changing as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, Frans Timmermans, a vice president of the European Commission, told JTA at the Prague’s Municipal House, where Czech President Milos Zeman welcomed leaders of European Jewry and politicians with a brief address.

“We are at a critical point in European history because living memory is becoming history,” Timmermans said. “Soon there will be no more people with numbers on their arms to tell the story, and the tendency to beautify a terrible record is tempting.”

In Auschwitz, one of the survivors who is still telling his story is Ernst Verduin, 87, who lived in hiding in the Netherlands before he was deported to the death camp with his family. Verduin arrived at Auschwitz suffering from a severe lung infection and was sent immediately to the gas chambers.

“As we said goodbye, my sister wished me a quick death,” recalled Verduin, who survived because he left the gas chamber group and snuck to the group of men sent to work.

EU official: Tensions with Russia must not muddle Holocaust record


Political tensions with Russia must not be allowed to obfuscate the historical record on the Holocaust, a senior European Union official said.

Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — made the plea Monday at an event in Prague commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet troops.

“It would be horrible to have a debate about who liberated Auschwitz,” Timmermans told JTA during an interview at a commemoration event titled “Let My People Live” that the European Jewish Congress and the Czech government  organized for hundreds of dignitaries at venues across Prague.

Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, was reacting to a Jan. 21 statement by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, who infuriated Russian officials when he said during a radio interview that “Ukrainians liberated [Auschwitz], because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day.”

Relations between Russia and its western neighbors have deteriorated drastically following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory last year and its arming of rebels against the government in Kiev, which some formerly communist states perceive as a threat.

The soldiers who liberated Auschwitz belonged to a Red Army unit named the First Ukrainian Front because it was deployed in Ukraine, “but the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, that’s a historic fact,” said Timmermans, who in the past has harshly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

“I would feel very bad indeed if it were to be claimed by some, or if others were excluded from this. It would be terrible.”

Historical accuracy is crucial now, he said, because “anti-Semitism is rising in Europe.” As Holocaust survivors die out, “we will no longer have people who can show you tattoos on their arms.”

The EJC’s Moscow-born president, Moshe Kantor, reacted to Schetyna’s remark when he presented the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy — himself a harsh critic of Russia — with the memoirs of a Russian who participated in Auschwitz’s liberation.

“In this book by Anatoly Shapiro, you will see who really opened the gates that read ‘work sets you free,'” Kantor said.

Survivors relive horrors of ‘model ghetto’ Theresienstadt


Dozens of survivors of the Theresienstadt concentration camp near Prague returned to the site for a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of their rescue.

Tuesday’s commemoration took place on International Holocaust Memorial Day, which the United Nations set in 2005 for Jan. 27 because it was on that day in 1945 that Russian army troops reached the Nazis’ Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, where 1.1 million people were killed.

The troops reached the smaller Theresienstadt camp on May 8, but “the day that the Red Army reached that place of absolute evil is symbolic for the liberation of all the camps, from Austria to Estonia, by the Red Army or by the Allied Forces,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, whose father survived Theresienstadt.

More than 155,000 Jews passed through the camp, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Of those, 35,440 perished at Theresiendstadt and 88,000 were deported to be murdered.

Lawmakers from most European countries attended Tuesday’s event, part of a two-day conference organized by the European Jewish Congress and titled “Let My People Live.” Those on hand included European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Israel’s Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein.

Theresienstadt, a ghetto that also served as a transit and concentration camp, was unique in that the the Nazis allowed some Jews there to retain something of a cultural life, including putting on concerts. It was the only camp that foreign observers were allowed to visit and was used as a model for propaganda aimed at discrediting accounts of the barbarity that existed in other camps.

Even so, Felix Kolmer, a 92-year-old Czech physicist who survived Theresienstadt, said he and others who made it out of the camp are “haunted by the nightmares made of memories of friends who died in our arms.”

He added: “It was not simple for us to think of Germans without hate, but it was a necessary process. Hate is never a good policy.”

The Jewish dressmaker FDR turned away


Was the Jewish “lady tailor” who ran a Prague dressmaking shop a potential Nazi spy? The Roosevelt administration apparently thought so.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee recently opened a remarkable exhibit about the late Hedy Strnad, a Jewish-Czech dressmaker who with her husband, Paul, attempted to immigrate to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.

The exhibit has its roots in a December 1939 letter sent by Paul to his cousins in Milwaukee asking them to help seek permission for him and his wife to come to America. Paul enclosed eight of Hedy’s clothing design sketches. He knew the U.S. authorities would turn away refugees who might have trouble finding employment; Hedy’s sketches demonstrated her professional skills.

Testimony submitted to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, by the Strnads’ niece, Brigitte Rohaczek, provided the Milwaukee exhibit designers with additional information. She shared poignant memories of her vivacious Aunt Hedy — her real name was Hedwig — and the dressmaking shop she owned and operated in Prague. Hedy — a “lady tailor,” as Rohaczek described her — sometimes had her seamstresses sew clothes for Rohaczek’s dolls.

The directors of the Milwaukee museum came up with an innovative way to remember the Strnads: enlisting the costume makers from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to create clothing based on Hedy’s sketches.

The resulting exhibit, “Stitching History from the Holocaust,” is a powerful and moving way to introduce an individual, personal dimension to Holocaust remembrance. It features eight outfits — among them fitted blouses and blazers, paired with A-line skirts, and knee-length dresses that cinched at the waist.

Why were the Strnads denied admission to the United States? America’s immigration laws at the time made it difficult for refugees such as the Strnads to enter, and the way the Roosevelt administration implemented those laws made it even harder.

Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department piled on extra requirements and bureaucratic obstacles. In an internal memo in 1940, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long sketched out his department’s policy to “delay and effectively stop” refugee immigration by putting “every obstacle in the way,” such as requiring additional documents and resorting to “various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

The annual quota of immigrants from Czechoslovakia was small — just 2,874 — but even that quota was not filled in any year during FDR’s 12 years in office.

In 1940, the year the Strnads wanted to immigrate, the Czech quota was only 68 percent filled; nearly 1,000 quota places sat unused. Even though there was room in the quota, and even though Hedy was a successful businesswoman and the couple had relatives in the United States, the Strnads’ applications were turned down.

At the same time the Strnads were seeking a haven, refugee advocates were trying to convince the Roosevelt administration to permit European Jews to settle in areas that were at the time U.S. territories but not states, such as the Virgin Islands and Alaska.

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands offered to open its doors to Jewish refugees, but Roosevelt personally blocked the proposal.

In public and private statements, FDR claimed that Nazi spies might sneak into America disguised as refugees. U.S. officials imagined that if spies reached the Virgin Islands, it would put them within easy reach of the mainland United States. (No Nazi spies were ever discovered among the few Jewish refugees who were let into the country.)

As for proposals to settle Jews in Alaska, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes Jr. noted in his diary that Roosevelt said he would support the plan only if no more than 10 percent of the settlers were Jews — so as “to avoid the undoubted criticism that we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews,” FDR explained.

Shortly after, the administration pushed through legislation that made it even more difficult for Jewish refugees to qualify for U.S. visas. The “close relatives” edict, as it was called, barred the entry of anyone who had close relatives in Europe. The theory was that the Nazis might take their relatives hostage in order to force them to become spies for Hitler. An interesting theory, but there was no evidence to substantiate it.

With all doors shut, the fate of Paul and Hedy — and countless other Jewish refugees — was sealed. They were sent first to the Terezin concentration camp, an hour north of Prague. Then they were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto.

What exactly happened next is unclear. They may have been murdered in Warsaw, or they may have been deported, along with the other Jews of Warsaw, to the Treblinka death camp and perished there.

The “Stitching History” exhibit, open through Feb. 28, is a fitting tribute to a life taken too soon. It is also a sad reminder of a time when the U.S. government regarded Jewish refugees — even a lady tailor from Prague — as a danger.

(Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)

Czech police find weapons at Palestinian mission


Czech investigators found unregistered weapons at the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Prague, police said on Thursday, a day after the ambassador was killed in a mysterious explosion after opening a safe.

“We have gathered many pieces of evidence, we secured weapons that will be subject to expert evaluation,” Prague police chief Martin Vondrasek said on Czech Radio.

“We can say the weapons have not gone through a registration process in the Czech Republic,” he said, without revealing the quantity and type.

Police reiterated they believed the blast that killed ambassador Jamal al-Jamal on New Year's Day may have been caused by mishandling an explosive that could have been securing the safe. They have said they are not treating it as an attack or a terrorist incident.

Jamal suffered lethal injuries to his head, chest and abdomen. He had been in Prague only since October.

Embassy spokesman Nabil el-Fahel said the safe was being used on a daily basis to store cash for the mission.

The mission is in the process of moving into a new embassy and residence, which share the same compound. Jamal was killed at the new residence.

Fahel's account contradicted Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, who said the safe had not been used for two decades or more, possibly going back to the time when the Palestine Liberation Organisation maintained a mission in Prague.

STAFF UNAWARE

Some safes can be fitted with small charges to destroy secret documents in the event of the lock being tampered with. But Fahel said embassy staff were not aware that any explosive mechanism was attached to the safe that Jamal opened.

He later said on Czech Television he had no information on weapons being seized by police. But a Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the mission's staff in Prague had submitted the weapons to Czech authorities.

He did not elaborate on the type of weapons involved, but said they had been retrieved from an old sack and had been untouched since Cold War times.

The Vienna Convention, which covers diplomatic relations between states, does not set out arrangements for diplomats holding weapons.

The Czech Foreign Ministry said diplomats' weapons were subject to local laws on arms, which require registration and licensing. This suggests that if the weapons were unregistered, they were illegal.

The ministry said it was not changing its position on the Palestinian mission in the country. “We can hardly draw any conclusions from partial results and findings,” spokeswoman Johana Grohova said.

Communist Czechoslovakia maintained friendly relations with the PLO in the 1980s, but the Czech Republic, an EU and NATO member country, has been supportive of Israel.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Kafka — demystifying the man behind the “Kafkaesque” mystique


Franz Kafka has entered our language as an adjective — “Kafkaesque” is applied nowadays to almost anything that strikes us as senseless or surreal — but the man himself remains obscure. Saul Friedlander’s short biography in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, “Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt” (Yale University Press, $25.00), offers an intriguing effort to fill in the blanks of a famous but little-understood author.

Friedländer, of course, is a much-honored historian of the Holocaust, but he is also a man of letters, a native speaker of German — the language in which Kafka wrote — and, significantly, a deeply sensitive and reflective observer of the world in which he lives. (His memoir, “When Memory Comes,” is an account of his own experiences during and after the Holocaust, both courageous and sublime.) Above all, he feels a kinship with Kafka because both of them are products the precarious Jewish community of Prague.

“My family’s world was that of Prague Jews, belonging to a slightly younger cohort than Franz’s generation,” he writes. “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended some fifteen years before….  My mother’s first name was Elli (Gabriele), as was that of Franz’s eldest sister. And, like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps. All of these hidden links, discovered over time, may have added to my predilection for Kafka’s texts, beyond the appeal of their intrinsic greatness.”

As the author of commanding works of history on the Holocaust, Friedländer regards his own book on Kafka as “a small biographical essay,” and he acknowledges that he is approaching his subject as a non-specialist. But his modesty is unnecessary. He has clearly mastered the vast scholarship that has attached itself to Kafka, and he brings fresh insights of his own to the challenging body of work Kafka left behind.

To various Kafka scholars, Friedländer explains, the enigmatic author “appeared as a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more; in short, he has become the most protean cultural figure of the past century.” But the flesh-and-blood Kafka, he insists, aspired to none of these roles: “Kafka was no builder of theories, no designers of systems; he followed dreams, created metaphors, and unexpected associations; he told stories; he was a poet.”

Yet Friedländer concedes that Kafka’s work is illuminated by the facts of his life, and the biography serves as a companion and a key to the novels and stories.  After studying Kafka’s letters and journals, as well as his fiction, Friedländer concludes that Kafka’s family conflicts — and especially the lifelong tensions between father and son — prompted the writer to “[take] upon himself the role of toreador in a lifelong corrida, meant as the secret assertion of his own particular self.”

Friedländer is especially interested in how Kafka understood his Jewish origins and identity. His Hebrew name was Anschel; he went through the motions of a bar mitzvah, which his parents referred to as a “confirmation;” he was intrigued with Yiddish theater and Chasidic folklore and once participated in an audience with the Belzec Rebbe. But he felt as estranged from his father’s religion as he did from his father: “What have I in common with Jews?” the young Kafka mused. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe….”

The frail and sickly young Kafka, as Friedländer shows us, was afflicted by a sense of doom that finds expression in all of his writing. For example, Friedländer gives us a close and thoughtful reading of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” pointing out the “wanton sexual violence” that the doctor confronts but fails to prevent, the “shamanistic healing ritual” that unfolds during the “surreal night journey,” and he finds a dire meaning below the surface of Kafka’s narrative: “Uncovering the truth about oneself and about the evil at the core of mankind could have become the first step to redemption; in Kafka’s world, though, truth seems to open the gates of annihilation.”

Friedländer is perfectly willing to venture his own interpretations and explanations, but he quips that “Kafka wouldn’t be Kafka if all signs were easily accessible.”  Kafka himself acknowledged as much in one of the letters that he wrote to one of the women in his life: “You have no idea, Felice, what havoc literature creates in certain heads.” Yet Friedländer has succeeded in ordering the seeming chaos inside Kafka’s head, and his “Kafka,” although modest in length, is rich in meaning.


 Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at the Newport Beach Public Library on September 19; at American Jewish University on October 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on November 1.

Czech Jews to gather info for national bone marrow registry


The Jewish community in the Czech Republic will search for bone marrow donors among its members to strengthen the national registry.

The move follows requests from the country’s National Register of Marrow Donors to expand the list of donors from varying ethnic backgrounds, the daily Mlada fronta Dnes reported.

The community will begin its campaign at a synagogue concert for young people. The date and location have not been made public for security reasons, according to Dnes.

During the concert, those interested in donating will have their blood samples taken and deposited with the national register.

The expanded search in the community likely will increase the chances of finding donors for Jewish patients in need of a transplants, Tomas Svoboda of the Czech Republic's National Registry said.

Svoboda said the features sought after in suitable donors “are hereditary and their specific combinations are typical of particular geographical areas.  That is why we want the registry to be complemented by donors from ethnic minorities, including Jews, who have not much genetically changed for long centuries.”

Clinton: U.S. will take action should Syria use chemical weapons


The United States is planning action should the Syrian regime use its chemical weapons, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

“I'm not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people,” Clinton said Monday in Prague, where she is on an official tour. “But suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action.”

Multiple reports in recent days have quoted intelligence agencies as saying that Syria is moving its chemical weapons.

The Obama administration has made clear repeatedly that the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad to quash an uprising that has cost tens of thousands of lives would precipitate U.S. intervention.

The Atlantic on Monday quoted “intelligence officials in two countries” as saying that Israel is considering bombing the chemical weapons sites.

Prague rally shows Israel support


More than 300 people participated in a pro-Israel demonstration in Prague.

Rally participants on Sunday in the Czech Republic's capital held banners reading “Gaza murderers are killing, Israel has a right to defend itself,” “Free Gaza from Hamas,” “Israel you are not alone” and “Israel we love you.”

“Israel has the right and duty to defend its citizens against attacks by the terrorist organization Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip for more than five years,” said Vera Tydlitatova of the League Against Anti-Semitism, which organized the demonstration.

Petr Necase, a former adviser to the Czech Republic's prime minister, said, “Israel gave part of its territory in exchange for peace. Gaza could be a real pearl of the Middle East. Instead, the Palestinians chose Hamas and lost their historic opportunity.”

Jaromir Stetina, a senator, during his speech held a banner saying “Hamas are murderers, Israel must defend itself, don't lie media!”

NYU evacuates Tel Aviv program


New York University's Tel Aviv program was suspended for the rest of the semester, and its students and faculty were evacuated to London.

The university is considering whether to reopen for the spring semester, according to NYULocal, a student news blog. The northern Tel Aviv campus was evacuated due to the current violence between Israel and Gaza terrorists firing rockets into Israel.

The 11 students may transfer to NYU overseas campuses in  London, Prague or Florence, or return to New York, according to the blog.

The NYU administration said it did not think the students were in any immediate danger.

“We wanted to avoid a situation where the students would get the end of the semester and have difficulties returning home,” John Beckman, the university’s vice president for public affairs, told NYULocal Sunday evening.

Beckman said that students accepted to study in Tel Aviv for the spring semester have been notified that the campus may not reopen.

Madeleine Albright reveals secret past in ‘Prague Winter’


Madeleine Albright and Christopher Hitchens are two famous figures who discovered their Jewish ancestry only in adulthood. The discovery did nothing to temper Hitchens’ harsh view of religion in general or the State of Israel in particular. For Albright, by contrast, the belated disclosure of her Jewish identity has prompted a remarkable work of self-revelation.

Albright explores and honors her Jewish legacy in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948” (HarperCollins, $29.99), co-written with Bill Woodward, a blend of history and memoir that reveals in rich, poignant and often heartbreaking detail a story that had been hidden from her by her own parents.

“I had no idea that my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust,” she writes about her understanding of her origins on the day she took the oath of office as Secretary of State in the Clinton administration at the age of 58. “I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality.”

“Prague Winter,” in fact, is Albright’s courageous effort to reveal the real history of her family. She was raised as a Roman Catholic and converted to the Episcopalian church when she married. Not until 1997 did she learn conclusively from an investigative report in the Washington Post that three of her grandparents, along with numerous other relatives, were Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Albright reaches back into the early history of the Czech people in order to explain the upheavals in the 1930s that prompted her family to flee, first to London and then to America. Thus, for example, she first mentions Terezín (known in German as Theresienstadt) as the military fortress erected by Emperor Joseph II in the late 18th century to reinforce his authority as the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only later would the old fortifications be re-purposed by Nazi Germany as a “model” concentration camp where Jews were displayed to the International Red Cross before being sent on to die at the death camps further east.

As a veteran diplomat, Albright is attuned to the frictions among peoples and nations, including the ones that boiled up among the Czechs, Slovaks and Germans who found themselves living together in the territory that would later (and briefly) comprise Czechoslovakia. Caught among them was an ancient, accomplished but endangered Jewish community. “Poor Jews, where should they stand?” Theodor Herzl mused. “Some tried to be Czechs; these were assaulted by the Germans. Others wanted to be Germans, and both the Czechs and the Germans attacked them. What a situation!”

Albright’s father and mother, Josef and Mandula Korbel, found themselves in a similar predicament. A Jewish background was an impediment to the career that her father was pursuing in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Korbel family was highly assimilated long before the Nazis arrived in Prague in 1939. “On the marriage certificate,” Albright reveals, “my parents were identified as bez vyznáni: without religious confession.”

His disavowal of his Jewishness, of course, was not enough to save her father’s job. Within two weeks after Czechoslovakia was dismantled in a cynical deal struck between Hitler and the Western democracies, her father was dismissed from his post. Many years later, Albright saw with her own eyes the official letter that explained why he was fired: “Dr. Korbel and his wife are Jews.” By April 1939, when Prague was under German occupation, the family managed to reach London, where her father joined the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and served as an announcer on the Czech broadcasts of the BBC. Thus was Albright cut off from her doomed Jewish relations and her own Jewish identity.

Only in England in 1941 did her father and mother formally convert to Catholicism, a decision that Albright struggles to explain to herself. One factor, she speculates, “might have been my parents’ desire to underline our family’s identity as Czechoslovak democrats.” Then, too, she speculates that “my parents thought life would be easier for us if we were raised as Christians instead of Jews.”

Intriguingly, she concludes that “my parents would not have made the choice they did had they waited four more years,” that is, until the details of Nazi genocide were fully revealed. “When viewed through the lens of the Holocaust, the moral connotations of such a choice had been altered irrevocably.” She also cites the Holocaust as the reason why her parents never revealed to her that she was a Jew. “Before the slaughter of six million Jews, they might have found the words,” she writes. “[A]fter it, they could not.”

Albright herself reveals the fate of the relatives who remained behind with candor and compassion. She discovered that her maternal grandmother, Růžena Spiegelová, was arrested in 1942 and shipped first to Theresienstadt and then to a destination in Poland, perhaps Trawniki, where she was murdered. “At the time of my birth, she had helped to care for me and was the first to call me ‘Madlen’,” Albright recalls. “In the frightening days after Hitler’s invasion, she had taken me in again while my parents moved about Prague, devising a plan for escape.”

“Prague Winter” is largely a work of diplomatic and political history, but the beating heart of the book is Albright’s searing account of her intimate family saga. She was too young to have first-hand memories of their fears and hardships, and her own parents concealed the truth from her throughout their lives. To her credit, she has worked hard — and courageously — to retrieve and share the things that were kept from her.

Her reminiscence about her murdered grandmother, for example, rings with the rachmones that suffuses the book in its entirety: “I have also remembered a detail: as a child, I loved to swim in cold water. When I did, my mother used to exclaim: ‘You are just like your grandmother,’ ” Albright writes. “I only wish that her fortunes had more closely resembled mine.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which will be published by the Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at book@jewishjournal.com.

Proposed shopping center on deportation site is protested


Opponents of a proposed shopping center to be built on the site where Jews were deported to Nazi death camps want to ensure that an appropriate monument also is erected.

Protesters wearing yellow Stars of David and pushing empty shopping carts met Monday at the site in Prague where construction on a controversial shopping center is set to begin, the Czech News Agency reported. The protesters are wary of a pledge by the United Kingdom-based developer Lordship to build a monument to the Jewish transport victims who left from the site and also want to ensure that the monument will be dignified..

A spokesperson from the municipality said the developers came up with the idea for a monument on their own initiative. Prague Jewish Community Chairman Frantisek Banyai has said there already is a memorial plaque to the site as part of the adjacent Park Hotel.

Developers said they plan to design the monument once they receive a construction permit for the now empty lot. Lordship leased the lot in 1997 and did not obtain a land-use permit until 2006.

Local residents have protested previously against the planned shopping center over potential traffic problems and its effect on neighborhood shops.

At Chanukah, Czech Jews marvel at blessings of Havel’s revolution


On the first night of Chanukah, I stood in the splendid reception hall of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague as the ambassador himself lit the first candle in an imposing gilded menorah and chanted the blessings over the flames.

Since it was the first night of the holiday, these included the Shehecheyanu – the thankful blessing recited when reaching a special or long-awaited moment: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”

How strangely fitting to recite this, I thought, at this very time and in this very place. Two days earlier Vaclav Havel had died, and many people were still in shock at the loss of the shy dissident playwright who had led the Velvet Revolution that ousted the communist regime in 1989 and gone on to become Czechoslovakia’s – and then the Czech Republic’s – first democratic president and enduring moral compass.

Masses of candles in Havel’s memory were glowing on Wenceslas Square, site of the huge demonstrations that had toppled the regime. And plans were going ahead for the somber state funeral.

Why at this sad moment of mourning did I feel that the Shehecheyanu was fitting?

It was because, in a way, I felt it was a blessing that honored Havel himself, for without him and the impact he had had, this Chanukah evening—and what it represented—could not have taken place.

Joined by his family and a few guests, Ambassador Norman Eisen lit the first candle ahead of his official holiday reception for hundreds of diplomats and political and cultural figures. Throughout the evening, the menorah blazed at one end of the hall, while a huge decorated Christmas tree glittered at the other.

“It’s my first Christmas tree ever,” Eisen, the son of an Auschwitz survivor from the former Czechoslovakia and an observant Jew who had had the residence kitchen koshered, joked to the crowd as waiters threaded through with trays of latkes.

Eisen opened his welcoming remarks by asking for a minute of silence in Havel’s honor. Then he told the story of the residence – a mansion that had been built by a wealthy Jewish family, the Petscheks, in the late 1920s. The family left in 1938, before World War II broke out. During the war it served as the residence of the head of the German army occupying Prague. Afterward, the mansion became Czechoslovak property until 1948, when the United States purchased it.

There were quite a few Jews at the reception, old friends of mine from the Prague Jewish community such as Leo Pavlat, the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, who delightedly told me how he and Eisen had seats next to each other in synagogue. I was there to make a formal presentation of a big website project I am coordinating on Jewish heritage in Europe.

I couldn’t help but think back.

The postwar communist regime had carried out a policy of persecution aimed at stifling Jewish life, and the state-appointed community leadership had followed the party line, routinely issuing statements critical of Israel. In May 1989, Pavlat had spearheaded a group of young Prague Jews who sharply criticized these regime-approved aparatchiks. He and his friends warned that Jewish life in Czechoslovakia was “in danger of extinction.”

The Velvet Revolution, with Havel as its reluctant hero, changed everything.

One of Havel’s first acts as president was to reinstate full religious freedom. And one of his first state trips abroad was to Israel – bringing with him an entourage of 180 Prague Jews. By the end of 1990, Pavlat was serving as a diplomat in the Czechoslovak embassy in Israel. He remained there until 1994, when he returned to Prague and took up the directorship of the Jewish Museum.

At the ambassador’s reception, I reminisced about those heady days, and about Havel’s impact, with Tomas Kraus, who has served as executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish communities since 1991. Kraus had helped organize Havel’s first trip to Israel and had been part of the Jewish delegation that accompanied him.

“It was exciting,” Kraus recalled. “It was part of the ‘Velvet Europhoria.’ Everything that we had not dared to dream of was immediately possible. The Holy Land had been a philosophical term for us, an image of something that you would never be able to reach – only in a dream. And then, overnight, it was a reality.”

That trip to Israel, he said, was “a very symbolic way to show what Czech foreign policy would be. It was a very important sign of what his priorities would be.”

On the domestic front, too, Kraus recalled, Havel had been extremely important. Not just with his condemnation of anti-Semitism, but with the active role he played in addressing issues such as restitution of Jewish property and in awarding one of the highest state honors to Nicholas Winton, who organized the Czech kindertransport to rescue some 669 main Jewish children on the eve of World War II.

“Today we can look back into history over these past 22 years,” Kraus said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that you are living through history.”

He went on, “Havel’s passing will leave a very big gap. Since he left office, he was in a position without concrete power. But sometimes a moral authority is stronger than armies.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.

For Jews, Vaclav Havel wasn’t just a friend but a champion of freedom


Vaclav Havel was a friend of the Jews and of Israel, but prominent Jews who mourned his passing this week said the Czech leader’s greatest legacy was his universal message of freedom.

“Vaclav Havel was one of the few islands of intellectual freedom in the sea of totalitarian rule,” Natan Sharansky told JTA, speaking of the late 1960s and the 1970s, when both he and Havel were struggling against communist rule—Havel in the former Czechoslovakia and Sharansky in the former Soviet Union.

Havel, a dissident playwright and human rights champion, helped lead Prague’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and was a hero in the Cold War struggle for democracy in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. In 1977 he was a co-author of the human rights manifesto Charter 77, which became the catalyst for the Czech dissident cause.

Just weeks after the collapse of communism, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia, on Dec. 29, 1989.

After the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated into two countries in 1993, he was elected president of the Czech Republic and served until 2003.

Sharansky learned of—and said he was not surprised by—Havel’s Jewish connections later in life. But in 1977, when Sharansky was sent to Siberia, what gave him succor was the universalist message of Charter 77.

“He played an important role in keeping the spark alive,” said Sharansky, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “He launched a counter attack which liberated people intellectually, and then physically.”

Havel demonstrated his commitment to Jewish causes by making one of his first foreign trips after becoming Czechoslovak president a three-day visit to Israel in April 1990. He was accompanied by 180 Czech Jews. In 2010 he was one of the founding members of the Friends of Israel group of international political figures.

Havel’s last public appearance was on Dec. 10, when he met with the Dalai Lama and signed an appeal in support of dissidents around the world. He died Sunday at 75, apparently from respiratory ailments.

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memorialist and Nobel peace laureate who met frequently with Havel after he became president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, said Havel was proud of his nation’s Jewish heritage.

“He spoke a lot of Jewish philosophy and study,” Wiesel said Tuesday in a phone interview with JTA.

The European Jewish Congress called Havel a “great friend of the Jews” who “did much to confront anti-Semitism and teach the lessons of the dark chapter of the Holocaust during his two terms in office.”

The American Jewish Committee in a statement recalled how Havel in 1991 expressed of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism his “metaphysical feeling of shame of the human race, of mankind, of man. I feel that this is his crime, his disgrace.”

A statement from the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities said that Jews had respected Havel as a statesman and a world-renowned writer, and felt close to him “as a friend who had an understanding of human concerns and joys.”

Wiesel said he often wondered how a fellow writer dared enter the political sphere.

“I asked him once, why did he want to become president, you are already a great writer and a great playwright,” Wiesel recalled. “As president you have adversaries, as playwright no one was your enemy.”

Havel responded, according to Wiesel, that he was the only one capable of overseeing the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“My nation had to split,” Wiesel recalled Havel as saying. “Only I could do that, to split a nation in peace.”

Sharansky said Havel’s courage as a dissident long outlasted Czechoslovakia’s emergence from communism. It was Havel’s reputation that led Sharansky to convene the 2007 Democracy and Security International Conference in Prague in 2007.

Havel, along with Sharansky and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, was a co-chairman of the conference, although Havel was mostly absent—his illness already had hobbled him. But his message pervaded the proceedings.

“His moral clarity, his courage, his charm, his sense of humor really influenced many people at the conference,” Sharansky said. “His experience was their experience whether they came from Egypt, from Iran, from Iraq, from Sudan.”

Havel and Aznar were co-founders of Friends of Israel, a grouping of European leaders who sought to counter the burgeoning anti-Israel rhetoric on the continent.

That’s where his appreciation for Jews and Israel and his deep commitment to human rights converged, said Josh Block, the group’s U.S. director.

“People who have the experience of fighting intolerance and repression understand how important it is to stand for those countries that stand for democracy and freedom,” Block said.

It was a stance that the pro-Israel community appreciated, said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.

“At a time when many European leaders find the opportunity to upbraid Israel, he would stand his ground, seeing Israel as a strong democracy in the place of nations,” he said.

Ruth Ellen Gruber contributed to this report from Prague.

Books: Czech teen’s words and art put a face on the Holocaust for me


I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality against war protesters during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.

I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course, the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?
Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of “The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942,” which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Ginz was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of 16. His diary had been lost for 60 years but resurfaced in 2003. Ginz’s younger sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her brother’s diary entries, which were translated from the Czech by Elena Lappin. They cover the 11 months before his deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Ginz’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Ginz had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Ginz’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed among the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Ginz loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor, as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Ginz’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor titled, “Ghetto Dwellings,” that captures a foreboding atmosphere difficult to replicate in words.

Ginz had a particular love for the linocut, which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Ginz describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white. There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Ginz explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Ginz proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Ginz and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The 5-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. His face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including, “Devil Talk: Stories” (Bilingual Press). His book reviews have appeared in the El Paso Times, The Multicultural Review, La Bloga, The Elegant Variation and elsewhere. He makes his home in the San Fernando Valley. His Web site is

PASSOVER: Prague’s Matzah Metamorphosis


An anonymous source breathes heavily on the other end of the receiver, softly intoning that the only way to get the goods is from an inside contact.

Through friends, I discretely discover my intermediary, who leads me through several dark corridors for an encounter with an angry man.

His gruffness is unmistakable: He is the Czech version of the infamous “soup Nazi” from “Seinfeld,” a man so demanding of his customers that he would ban them for life if they showed any signs of sauciness. I am trembling, fearing that if I cross him, all is lost.

The problem is, I don’t want the whole box; I don’t need that much. This angers my ersatz dealer.

“Well then what do you want?” he asks, irritated.

I make a pathetic gesture indicating that I will take half. He sniffs disapprovingly, but cajoled by a front woman, he surrenders.

For the final score, I have to come back in a few hours, go deep into a Prague basement, find a waiter whom I only know by first name, and pay an exorbitant amount for the rest of my booty.

It’s all very hush-hush, and, of course, Kafkaesque. And it’s not cocaine or heroine I am trying to obtain, although I feel as if embroiled in the drug deal of the century.

It’s matzah I’m after, plus gefilte fish, and for years this is the kind of ordeal one had to go through if one was in Prague for Passover and was not a member of the Prague Jewish community.

And this was the best of times, meaning the matzah was there and I was able to buy it.

The great matzah hunts of years past reflected the growing pains of a tiny Jewish community in a post-communist country, where the availability of kosher foods was severely limited and foreigners were long kept at arm’s length.

This year, the rumor is, everything has changed.

There is a new community board, a new rabbinical presence and the matzah, like the freedom it represents, will now reportedly be available to all.

But before I put that to the test, some reflections on past panic-stricken searches for unleavened bread. In my first Passover in Prague, 2002, I called a rabbi who works outside of the official community, Ron Hoffberg, formerly of New Jersey, now the representative of Conservative Jewry in the Czech Republic.

He laughed at my naiveté: “Matzah? Get real. They don’t sell it here at the stores and the community has it, but it’s only for the community.”

I had no idea what that meant. I am a Jew, why can’t I buy matzah?

A Czech co-worker confirmed Hoffberg’s warning. I was doomed to a matzah-less Passover, along with the other foreign Jews in Prague.

But that was a different time, when the community of some 1,500 was so inwardly focused that tourists’ knocks on the door of its headquarters were often met with a harsh rebuffs.

“Go away, this is not the museum,” was the retort I once got from the guard of the beautiful Baroque building in the heart of Prague’s Old Town. I thought he would hit me with a flyswatter.

The second year, in preparation for more matzah derring-do, my colleague contacted a sympathetic rabbi.

Still unable to show what locals said was an “American face” for fear of revealing my outsider status, my Czech co-worker kindly agreed to fetch the matzah.

However, she was stopped by what she described as “some old crones” at the matzah pickup point who were not sure she qualified.

She dropped the rabbi’s name, and they reluctantly handed it over.

Fast forward to 2006: “Now it’s all over and everyone can get matzah, as well as lots of other kosher stuff. We have a fully stocked store,” says the cheerful Rabbi Menachem Kalcheim, an Israeli assistant to the country’s chief rabbi, Karel Sidon. “And if we run out of matzah, well, we’ll just run to Vienna to get more. No problem.”

He even has an English-speaking assistant at the rabbinate to take calls from matzah-hunting tourists.

Kalcheim explains that for years, the community was afraid to sell to outsiders because as a nonprofit organization it would take a loss if it overbought.

As for stores, a spokeswoman for Tesco, the leading purveyor of foreign imports in Prague, explained that although it had stocked matzah about six years ago, it didn’t sell very well, so the store stopped buying it.

When my day of reckoning — and shopping — arrives, the security guards at Kalcheim’s store are ready for all matzah seekers, shyly smiling and pointing them to the refurbished community store.

It’s still only a corner with some closets, but now there’s a frozen section with enough chicken and beef to keep a kosher refrigerator well stocked.

The friendly attendant also can offer matzah packages for $2 each, as well as gefilte fish.

Kalcheim says that the community will subsidize the cost for families, as the country’s average monthly salary is $700.

While my matzah purchase was pleasantly painless, my other long-dreamt of treasure, macaroons, were sold out. Kalcheim insists I take his.

Instead, I begin calling the Chabad rabbi.

Will he take pity on me? Probably. Because as an American, he is one of few people in the Czech Republic who even knows what a macaroon is.

 

Deep Spiritual Rift Grows in Prague


He fought a desperate battle against communism, crafted award-winning plays and books and functioned as an intellectual and spiritual compass for Prague’s Jewish community for more than a decade.

But in late June, something extraordinary happened: Karol Sidon was forced out as the community’s chief rabbi.

Leaders from Jewish Community of Prague, the governing body that dismissed him, said that the Orthodox rabbi could no longer perform his duties. Although Sidon will keep his post as the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, three other rabbis will share local religious and leadership duties. But while Sidon’s dismissal from his important leadership role — just weeks before the community celebrates the High Holidays — shocked local Jews, it also exposed a profound ideological rift between the country’s aging Orthodox community and a tidal wave of younger, liberal worshippers.

“We are an old community with a death rate of about 80 people per year,” said Tomas Jelaapluralistic community.nek, leader of Prague’s Jewish community. “To attract the hundreds of Czech Jews who are not affiliated, we have to build a pluralistic community. We need a different approach. No one group should have a monopoly.”

Such is the debate among Prague’s Jews, a community of about 1,600 averaging 58 years of age. As many 10,000 Czech Jews live in the country today, but secularism has taken its toll, and to the members of Prague’s leadership, a large segment of the country’s Jews remain frustratingly unaffiliated. Some think the community will dwindle even further if a new approach is not taken.

While Reform and Conservative Jewish groups attract new members at a swift pace, membership in Prague grows at a crawl. Many wonder if the community can survive without members of different sects. Some even see signs that it will soon be forced to include members without Jewish mothers or Jewish grandparents.

Deep Secularism

In the eyes of halacha, Martin Smok is definitely a Jew.

Born to a Czech Jewish mother who unveiled her heritage after the fall of communism, Smok knows his way around a Prague synagogue, can navigate the nuances of Hebrew prayer and song and is familiar with the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat. But despite his comfort with the religious rituals — developed after his mother revealed her secret — Smok remains uneasy with the spiritual side of Judaism.

“If I was in this country and I was trying to live a religious life, I would feel like I was putting up a theater show,” Smok said. “It’s really about the religion not being a part of me in my formative years. I feel that I would be faking it — it’s not who I really am.”

Such is the outlook of many Jews in what is now the Czech Republic, home to the same Jewish community that included Franz Kafka, Rabbi Loew and the legend of the Golem. If the attitude of today’s Czech Jews could be captured in one phrase, it would be this: Jewish in heart, secular in spirit.

“I think the rule here, especially in Prague, is that the Jewish tradition has always been to not have any Jewish tradition,” Smok said. “What I have observed is Czech Jews not interested in being Jewish, and non-Jews extremely interested in being Jewish.”

After Hitler murdered 85 percent of the country’s Jewish population, the surviving community of Czech Jews found themselves driven toward secularism once the communists took over and institutionalized religious persecution. Many Jews simply surrendered their religious heritage to intermarriage and assimilation.

But when the last of the Soviet tanks finally rolled out of the Czech Republic in the late 1980s and democracy took a foothold for the first time in decades, many Czechs surprised their families by revealing a Jewish heritage.

“My mother, like many, ‘came out’ after communism fell,” Smok said. “But she worshipped in her own way, which sort of combined Christian and Jewish symbols.”

Such a patchwork of religious practices is typical, if there is even a religious element at all: for many Czech Jews, the decades of religious oppression stripped their Judaism of its spirituality, leaving them with cultural roots but no desire to actually worship. With so many Czech Jews declining to embrace their religious legacy, the community has begun exploring ways to expand its membership beyond the traditional definitions of what it means to be a Jew.

A recent post-communist influx of non-Orthodox organizations like the Reform group Bejt Simcha and Conservative group Bejt Praha, have encouraged many Czech Jews to challenge the notion that one must have a Jewish mother to be fully accepted as Jewish. These younger organizations court halacha Jews, but also younger, liberal Jews who might have a Jewish grandparent or might have no Jewish ancestors at all.

“A lot of this is happening because there is so much intermarriage, that even people with a Jewish background do not have a Jewish mother,” said Rabbi Arnold Turetsky, one of the co-founders of Bejt Praha. “There is a lot of desire to convert.”

An Uncertain Future

If you were to take a lunchtime stroll into the building that houses the Jewish community’s leadership in Josefov, you would most likely find a large, cavernous lunchroom filled with a few small clusters of members talking quietly. Despite the large space and many tables filling the building’s cafeteria, most of the chairs sit empty. To Barash, this practically empty room is an obvious symbol of the failure by the community to capture the hearts of Czech halacha Jews.

“The community for the last eight years has had a membership between 1,500 and 1,600,” said Chabad Rabbi Manis Barash, who recently replaced Sidon as the official rabbi for the Old-New Synagogue. “There has never been a real campaign to try and get new members into the community. People who do come here come on their own accord, almost as if it is discouraged to do so. The only benefit to join right now is a subsidized lunch, and even then there are only about 10 regular members who take advantage of this. There is a feeling toward those who want to join the community that, ‘We don’t want you to be a part of our community — this is my community, not yours.'”

But Barash still maintains that halachic Jews are the key to the group’s survival.

“We have a real opportunity to make this community grow,” Barash said. “I’m not talking about non-Jews. There are enough [halachic] Jews here, but surely the community can do better than it has done. Anything would be better.”

Many blame the community’s membership woes on the application process itself, saying that becoming an official member of the Jewish community is far too complicated and intimidating, even for Czech Jews born to a Jewish mother.

“The community has the potential to be one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe,” Barash said. “But it is easier to become a Czech citizen then to join the community. You have to provide proof of a Jewish mother, and it is a complicated process. As Jews, we have to have the [physical] security to protect ourselves. But we should be welcoming in other ways — especially to those who seek us out to join.”

There are some promising signs that the community is opening itself up to non-Jews.

Jelaanek says he has been working since September 2001 to expand the official community beyond membership, and points to a recent development in which the community began to offer affiliate membership to those with a Jewish grandparent. But to the liberal groups on the outside who receive neither funding nor support from the community itself, the move simply isn’t enough. They say that the leadership should represent the typical Prague Jew.

“Why should we be in secular Prague with an Orthodox rabbi?” said Sylvie Wittmann, leader and founder of Bejt Simcha, a Reform Jewish congregation based in Prague made up of more than 145 Czech Reform Jews. “Everyone is interested in their roots, but we are a secular community. The roots of Czech Jews are not Orthodox.”

Western Influence

Today’s Czech Jews face a question they never had to confront until the early 1990s: explaining which type of Jew they are. Before the Velvet Revolution forced the communists from power in 1989, Jews were simply Jewish. But, with the Iron Curtain drawn back, several Western groups moved in and put down roots in the Czech Republic during the tumultuous and exhilarating years of the early 1990s, Smok said, inadvertently fracturing the community.

“The activists moved in after the fall of communism and began using these labels,” Smok said. “Now, if you are labeled as a Reform Jew, it’s often used as an excuse not to learn certain things. Many of the liberal Jews show up to the synagogues, happy to embrace the Jewish faith. But in the end, they sometimes don’t even know how to pray.”

If you strip away the confusion brought on by Western-style labels, however, some say that the community’s fractious discord is less an issue of theology and more an issue of authority over the restored Jewish monuments and memorabilia that remain in Prague. After the Nazis and communists stripped Czech Jews of nearly all of their prized property — from synagogues to artwork — the community spent the years since the fall of communism attempting to regroup and reclaim it, said Tomas Kraus, leader of the nation’s Federation of Jewish Communities. This important responsibility continues today, but the various groups disagree over who exactly would do the best job handling it.

“This is how we started in the 1990s,” said Kraus, of the small group of Jews who banded together after communism to rebuild the community. “No social network, no organization. We had to start from scratch. Of the properties taken during the Holocaust, 90 percent were not returned. We had to fight for them and are still fighting for them.”

While different factions argue over the future of these historical and religious sites, Reform groups like Bejt Simcha feel completely left out of the decision-making process.

But here is increasingly distant hope among community leadership that Czech Jews would ever fill these synagogues, however, even if the synagogues stayed places of worship. With diminished birthrates across the country, some Czech Jews feel that the millions of dollars earned by tourist visits to Prague each year should be used to recruit members into the community. But whether that recruitment focuses on Reform, Conservative or Orthodox members still remains to be seen.

“Right now, we have a complicated system where not everyone is equal,” Jelaanek said. “But if change is going to be made, it has to be made soon. If we don’t get to people now, we will die out.”


Jennifer Anne Perez is a former Los Angeles Times reporter now working as an international freelance journalist based in Prague. Andrew Steven Harris is a former Los Angeles Times editor who now teaches journalism at the State University of New York’s international campus in Prague.

Q & A With The Golem


Flurries of white flakes gently cascade onto the spires and turrets of Prague’s skyline, bringing a color relief to the pink, green and blue painted castles, churches, concert halls and magnificent architecture of everyday buildings.

Above the slippery, snowy cobblestones, past the hundreds of European tourists braving the bitter cold, is the Alte-Neue Shul, or the Old-New Synagogue. A gothic structure built in the 13th century, the synagogue is one of the oldest in Europe, and a central attraction in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague.

Inside the sanctuary, the walls are marked by small peepholes for the women to share in the services (some things never change), and if you look upward, you can see cryptic Hebrew acronyms plastered around the sanctuary. But look closely at the ceiling, and you might notice that it sags in some places; listen and you might hear footsteps coming from above, even though the second floor has been closed off for years.

In the back of the Alte-Neue Synagogue, a rope ladder hangs from a small aperture in the attic. I shimmy up the spiked metal fence, stand atop it and fling myself across a 5-foot space to grab the ladder. Fifteen steps and I am at the window. The opening is too small for me to climb inside. But I can see inside perfectly. And that’s when I see it. Him.

The Jewish Journal: Are you The Golem of Prague?

The Golem: No, I’m that other clay creature created by Rabbi Loew, who’s been locked up in his shul for 423 years. Of course I’m The Golem.

JJ: Many people say that you’re a myth, that you don’t exist.

TG: Oh, would that they had seen me in my days of glory! I ruled this town in 1580.

The rabbi was worried about how to his people, so he created me. I wiped out the Jews’ enemies — and a few others who got on my nerves — but did anyone thank me? No. For this I get sent upstairs. "It will only be for a little while," the rabbi told me. "Until things calm down a bit." And now people have forgotten me.

Ah, the fleeting nature of fame.

JJ: But you are famous, especially in literature and film. Every century someone writes about you. Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein" in the 1800s, Gershon Winkler "The Golem of Prague" in the late 1900s and just recently Michael Chabon even won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," starring you.

TG: They’re all riding on my coattails.

That Frankenstein was an embarrassment: the stitches on his forehead, the green skin, the awkward shuffle. I was in a good mind to sue for copyright infringement, but the guy came and spoke to me directly, asking me to "share the monster wealth" a bit, so I decided to back off. As for Chabon, couldn’t get through it — it’s a monster of a book.

JJ: You’re everywhere here in Prague.

TG: Actually, I’m about to file a lawsuit against the commercialization of my image here.

JJ: Are you talking about the statue of you? The Golem Mall? The Golem sandwich?

TG: Yes, the mall. They don’t even have a major fast-food chain there, no movie theater, no nothing. It’s not even housed in a stately architectural structure, like my shul here.

We’re actually working on some cross-promotionals with the Golem sandwich. We’re in talks with Mickey D’s. "The McGolem." What do you think?

JJ: I don’t really eat at McDonalds. But I was looking at the statue and wondering if you don’t mind being exploited?

TG: Exploited? Listen, lady, I was as happy as a pack of mud could be, lying around, oozing and squishing it up, when the rabbi and his friends gathered me together to form this blob of a guy. I know they wanted me to be intimidating, but couldn’t they have made me a bit thinner? More muscular? I guess that just wasn’t in vogue back in the 16th century.

They sent me out to kill their enemies, but as soon as I started to have a bit of fun, you know, doing my own thing, the rabbi called me back here.

So if we’re going to talk about exploitation, we’re going to have to begin a long, long time ago.

JJ: Are you a magical creature? What went wrong?

TG: I was created with kabbalah, not magic. The rabbi, I guess you call him the Maharal, dreamed that God told him how to solve the Jews’ problems. The rabbi wrote God’s name on a piece of parchment, and placed it in my mouth. That’s how I was born. But he couldn’t handle the negative PR, I think.

Some people think the rabbi destroyed me, removing the parchment from my mouth, but he just sent me up to this attic. I like to think that he couldn’t bear to destroy something that he had a hand in creating.

If you want to know the truth, what’s really going on here is a classic tale of a father who couldn’t bear to let his son go, who couldn’t stand to see me out on my own. My agent presented it to Dreamworks last month as "Shine" meets "Finding Nemo" with a splash of "Dracula " — but you know, we want to avoid the whole monster thing.

JJ: Um. Good luck with that.

Some people say that the Jewish people today need a Golem. Will you ever roam the streets again?

TG: What do you mean, again? Who do you think saved this synagogue from excessive flooding? (OK, before the water reached the attic.)

I don’t really think that the Jews are in any worse trouble than they were in the 1500s; actually, they’re much better off than they have been for centuries! (Especially the last one.) But I can feel it, especially in this new millennium: things are getting worse … but they’re still much, much better than ever.

I don’t think it’s time for me to come out of full retirement just yet, but I do take a little job now and then.

(Pager rings).

TG: Excuse me, I’m on call tonight. Someone at King Solomon Kosher restaurant is complaining that their soup is too cold. The Golem to the rescue!