Czechs salvage soggy treasures

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Several historic towns to the south, including jewels of renaissance and baroque architecture, were submerged, as was Cesky Krumlov, in south Bohemia, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.

With all the damage, tourism, the second-largest sector behind the auto industry, is expected to decline over the next six months to a year by 50 to 70 percent. The streets of Prague's Old Town, usually packed tightly with tourists, are now eerily silent.

UNESCO has pledged $1.5 million for the repair of Czech cultural and historical sites.

The floods, the worst in at least 175 years, drenched nearly the entire western half of the country and remain at dangerous levels in several rural areas. About 220,000 people have been forced from their homes in the Czech Republic, 20,000 in neighboring Germany. Thousands now have no homes to return to and many more are now living among wreckage. The Prague metro, the heart of the city's transportation system is almost entirely shut down, with 17 stations flooded. Repairs to it alone will cost $65 million.

The flood damage estimate for Central Europe currently stands at $20 billion, and it is rising daily. Germany and the Czech Republic were the worst hit, but Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia have also suffered.

In Germany, the buildings of Dresden's Semper Opera House and art museums were damaged when the Elbe River overwhelmed a dike. But all of Dresden's famed art collections were saved by museum workers and soldiers who carried 4,000 works by Old Masters to upper floors of the Zwinger Palace by candlelight moments before the water poured in.

In Prague's Czech National Gallery and Kampa modern art museum, where floodwaters reached the third floor, thousands of artworks and museum pieces were also saved in attics.

But the archives of the Czech Technical Museum and the Institute of Archaeology, both in the low-lying district of Karlin, were decimated by 10 feet of water. Of 70,000 volumes of original archeological scholarship, only 600 were saved. Many soggy manuscripts have been frozen to prevent further deterioration, in hopes that some day they will be restored, but experts say it could take decades.

In Libcice, the Sindelar brothers beg the flood-relief volunteers not to discard their treasured, disintegrating books.

"It is a horrible shock to see what the floods have done to this village," says Petr Miculek, who left his home on the eastern side of the country in the middle of the night to come to the aid of the Sindelar family and other villagers. "There is mud everywhere and the stench is so bad you can barely breathe. The people here lost almost everything." He carries out ruined furniture and shovels mud and refuse out of the Sindelars's kitchen and the children's bedroom. "We will do whatever we have to help," he says. "I'm sure, if we were in this kind of trouble, they would do the same."

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