A Precious Legacy (Extract)

Forty years after the Prague Spring, Leo Pavlat and his museum reflect the reemergence of Czech Jewry

09maisel (photo credit: Daniel Savery)
(photo credit: Daniel Savery)
Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Leo Pavlat was 17 years old when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in August 1968 and put a brutal end to the brief period of political liberalization that became known as the "Prague Spring." For the next two decades, until the Iron Curtain was ripped down in 1989, the Czech capital's cultural and religious life was virtually silenced by the Communist regime. Today, 40 years later, Dr. Pavlat is director of Prague's Jewish Museum, the Czech Republic's most popular museum. It is located next to the beautifully-restored Spanish Synagogue, a Moorish-style building completed in 1868, which is part of the museum complex and houses a permanent exhibition on the history of Czech Jews. Indeed the museum is the unifying heart of Prague's Jewish community. The museum maintains four historic synagogues - Maisel, Spanish, Pinkas and Klausen and the Hevra Kadisha hall, as well as the old Jewish Cemetery. One can easily spend an entire day wandering around the fascinating museum. One of the most intriguing aspects of the museum is that its collections and exhibitions are dispersed in refurbished synagogues around the Jewish Quarter. Sometimes disturbing, often inspiring, the exhibitions provide a unique window into perhaps one of the most precious collections of Judaica left in Europe. In the Pinkas Synagogue, visitors can view pictures drawn by children killed in the Terezin ghetto/concentration camp and read 80,000 names, of about one third of Czechoslovakia's Holocaust victims, inscribed on its walls. The Jewish cemetery dates from the 15th century and is the burial place of Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, often associated with the Golem folktale. The Maisel Synagogue is a superb example of Renaissance architecture - and has survived fires, pogroms and decades of neglect. In fact, each building has a significant story to tell. Speaking to The Jerusalem Report in his spacious, modern office, Pavlat, the son of a Holocaust survivor, says that having grown up under Communist repression, he understands the true value of freedom. In the 1970s and 80s, after obtaining a doctorate in journalism, Pavlat's day job was editor of a children's publishing house, but he was also unofficially in charge of underground activities in the Prague Jewish community and one of a circle of young activists who campaigned for democracy by writing for underground magazines and pirate radio stations. These activities brought him to the attention of the secret police and he was forbidden to meet certain people in public and, for years, he couldn't visit Jewish institutions. "At that time the Jewish Museum was like an island," says the bespectacled, grey-bearded, but youngish-looking Pavlat, speaking English with a gentle Czech accent. "It existed but at the same time it did not exist. It was partly opened for foreigners, but local researchers working here were not allowed to be in touch with their colleagues abroad. There were no books in Hebrew and it was almost impossible to learn the language. When I became more active in the underground movement, I was labeled a Zionist and a subversive element, so I was not allowed access to the Jewish Museum's library. It was strictly controlled by the secret police and was not able to do its job." Pavlat's personal tale echoes that of a whole generation of Czech Jews. From 1968 to the end of 1989, he was unable to express his Jewish identity in public because of state anti-Semitism. During this period, the Holocaust could not be mentioned, since this was considered a subversive topic by the secret police and survivors were silenced. After the 1990 "Velvet Revolution" led by playwright and newly-elected president Vaclav Havel, Jewish topics became enormously popular, partly because some Jewish personalities such as Pavlat had helped overthrow communism. Diplomatic relations with Israel, broken off in 1967 after the Six-Day War, were restored and, in July 1990, Pavlat, who had joined the Foreign Ministry, became the second secretary at the Czech Embassy in Tel Aviv. When he returned to Prague in 1994, he was appointed director of the Jewish Museum. It has become an enormous international success and in 2007 alone, it welcomed 660,000 visitors. The museum was established in 1906 to preserve artifacts from synagogues that had been recently demolished due to the reconstruction of the Jewish quarter. In a bizarre and tragic irony, it was the Nazi invasion in March 1939 that led to the huge expansion of its collection. Hitler intended the entire Jewish Quarter of the city to become a museum of an "extinct race" and the museum to become a storehouse for over 200,000 objects, books and archival material from all over Central Europe. The wartime Jewish staff, who had already lost their families and working under constant threat of deportation and death, devoted themselves to preserving this legacy, under the supervision of Dr. Karel Stein (1906-1961). The staff only survived while they could prove that they were 'useful' to the Nazis. The vast majority lost this fight and were deported to Terezin and Auschwitz. However, one specialist who survived was Hana Volavkova, who after the war returned to work at the museum. After the Nazi defeat, Dr. Volavkova (1904-1985), became the director on behalf of the community. "The existence of the Jewish Museum in Prague was paid for by the lives of nearly all those who worked there during the war," she is quoted in a booklet published after the war. "It was these people - people who were to die without burial - who laid the foundations for the post-war museum." In 1950, ownership was transferred to the Communist regime and it was renamed the State Jewish Museum. Volavkova remained director, but during the tense atmosphere of the political trials of the 1950s, Jewish themes were suppressed. The only exhibitions held at that time displayed children's drawings from Terezin. When Vilem Benda became director in 1961, the number of exhibitions increased slightly, culminating in the 'Millennium Judaicum Bohemicum' (The Thousand Years of the Jews of Bohemia) exhibition in 1968. During the two decades after the Soviet invasion of August 1968, the museum fell into disrepair and hardly any new exhibitions or renovations were carried out. In 1994, its collections were handed over to the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC), which serves as an umbrella organization for Jewish institutions in the country. "The Jewish Museum won fame for having survived the war and the Communist era, but when it was inherited by the Jewish Federation, it was in a very poor state. There was only one computer and everybody was writing on typewriters," says Pavlat. "It was absolutely neglected, no care, no exhibitions. So, of course we wanted to secure what we had - a very precious Jewish legacy." After 10 years of restoration, today it is one of the most famous Jewish museums in the world. Ghetto life began in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1179, when the church announced that Christians should avoid touching Jews and a set of walls was built in the Stare Mesto area of Prague. By day movement was free, but in the evening and on festivals the gates of the ghetto were locked. In medieval times the Jewish community faced pogroms, banishments and murder allegations. In the 16th century, the ghetto became a center of Jewish mysticism and had a population of around 7,000 inhabitants, among them, Rabbi Loew. The museum will mark the 400th anniversary of his death, September 7, 2009, with a special exhibit. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.