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Czechs salvage soggy treasures

Flooding this month caused at least $30 million in damage to cultural treasures and historic sites.

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2002


Ondra Sindelar and his younger brother Jura sit in the muddy debris of their home, wistfully turning the pages of their beloved books – such as a collector's edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy – all now soggy and stinking of sewage.

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The two teenagers, who lost everything they owned in the flood that swept through their village outside Prague earlier this month, look blank as flood-relief volunteers break apart their waterlogged piano with sledgehammers and carry it to a rubbish heap.

Books, art, architectural monuments and other touchstones of culture, both public and private, are among the most important victims of this summer's record floods in Europe.

"Many museum pieces, art collections and archives have been terribly damaged, many of them irreversibly," says Josef Stulc, director of the National Institute for Historic Sites. He estimates that damage to cultural objects in the Czech Republic alone will amount to at least $30 million.

In the flood's wake, Czechs have come to one another's aid in a dramatic outpouring of solidarity and goodwill. Across the country, 20,000 volunteers have dropped everything to help.

Every day, 50 to 60 volunteers show up at the Archa Theater in Prague's medieval Old Town. Fifteen feet of water have destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars in artistic works and technical equipment. The theater's moveable walls and floors, which made it famous as the most modern dance and music theater in the Czech Republic, were wrecked, along with sound systems, costumes and sets.

"I live near the river, and I spent the first few days helping neighbors whose homes had been flooded," says artist Stevo Capko, one of the volunteers, who also include journalists, students, and many people still evacuated from their homes. "When we had communication to the outside world, I heard that Archa needed help urgently, so I came. Of course, we are tired, but the work has to be done immediately or the whole building will rot and mold."

"[The volunteers] helped save our video archives, the spirit of this theater," says Ondrej Hrab, the theater director, dark circles under his eyes. "The floods have brought people together like never before, and I think Czechs have stopped taking our cultural heritage for granted. Now, we see sharply the value of what we lost and what we still have."

The floods claimed half a million books in Czech public libraries and archives. The rare-book collection of the Prague Municipal Library, including thousands of irreplaceable volumes, such as the first Czech bible, printed in 1488, drowned in sewer water.

Prague's medieval quarter Mala Strana, the most valuable architectural treasure in the Czech Republic, according to United Nations cultural organization UNESCO, was inundated with several feet of mud, sewage and river water.

In Prague, the Vltava river raged into dozens of historic buildings, including the Waldstejn Palace, seat of the Czech Senate, and the National Theater, ruining the equipment of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Five feet of reeking water filled the sanctuary of the 13th-century Old-New Synagogue. The Holocaust monument of Terezinstadt, northwest of Prague, was also inundated.