In Prague, the `Jewish Question' Lingers

Debate explodes over future of Josefov - and religious freedom. HISTORIC CZECH DISTRICT

IT IS Rosh Hashana. Few signs of the Jewish New Year are visible in the Josefov ghetto, once a focal point for Central European Jewish culture. A few bouquets of flowers mark the graves at the astonishing cemetery, where thousands of gray tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions tumble over each other. They date from 1439. Because of a lack of space, the graves had to be piled atop each other, 12 layers deep.

Ancient prayers marking the Jewish New Year echo inside the haunting Old-New Synagogue. Built around 1270, it is one of Europe's finest examples of Early Gothic architecture, framed by vaulted ceilings, suspended brass light fixtures, and arched windows. But only a few faithful are present to celebrate.

``Please, please enter,'' one worshiper says excitedly, hungry to meet a foreign Jew. ``You are very welcome.''

Like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Prague's thriving Jewish community was wiped out by the Holocaust. Hitler issued an order to turn Josefov's breathtaking monuments into a ``Museum of the Extinct Race.'' Out of a total of 300,000 Jews in 1944, only about 44,000 survived.

Most of these survivors fled postwar persecution in communist Czechoslovakia. In the early 1950s, the infamous Stalinist show trials carried strong anti-Semitic overtones - 11 of the 13 defendants in the trial of former party leader Rudolf Slansky were Jewish. Today, there are only several thousand Jews left, and all four synagogues in Prague are museums.

But Prague's ``Jewish question'' won't vanish. How should the vital centuries-long Jewish contribution to this part of the world be commemorated? What responsibility do the East Europeans hold for the Holocaust and its aftermath? Similar unanswered questions hang everywhere in Eastern Europe.

Poles are torn by an emotional dispute between Carmelite Nuns and world Jewry over a planned monastery for Auschwitz. East Germans are divided over whether to pay reparations to concentration camp survivors. Hungarians finally are debating their role in deporting Jews.

Here in Czechoslovakia, the future of the Josefov ghetto and its small Jewish community also has exploded into a front-page political quarrel. For those involved, the stake is nothing less than the soul of the Czech nation.

``The treatment of the `Jewish question' is an essential human rights question,'' says Petr Uhl, author of a recent Charter 77 human rights document on the issue. ``We must properly recall the tragedy of the Jews, the anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.''

Inside the Jewish community, this battle for memory has mobilized a group of young Jews. They want more freedom to learn about their faith - and practice it.

David is typical. His parents, both Holocaust survivors, never told him that he was Jewish. Out of fear of reprisals, he still requests anonymity.

``They were scared, they just wanted to forget,'' he says. ``When I asked her about the mark on her arm, she just replied, `It's the war.' I asked, `Were you sent to the camps because you were a communist?' That's what we're taught in school. `No,' she said. `I am Jewish.'''

After the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, David began a long search to construct a meaning around his Jewish identity. ``In 1967, I was 17 years old, and I felt frightened,'' he recalls. ``Israel's victory was a victory for me.''

The next year, a gust of freedom swept through Czechoslovakia. Communist chief Alexander Dubcek proclaimed ``socialism with a human face.'' Censorship was eased. At a crucial writer's conference, Milan Kundera and other leading artists demanded the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

But a few months later, Soviet tanks invaded. As a grim process of ``normalization'' descended on the country, the most prominent Prague Spring participants found themselves cut off from their jobs and futures. The Soviet-sponsored regime turned virulently anti-Israeli.

David and a few fellow ``reborn'' Jews continued their studies. He studied Hebrew in secret - there was no rabbi or school where he could learn. He began keeping kosher - even though there is no butcher in Prague who respects the Jewish dietary laws.

If anything, the difficulties of practicing Judaism have worsened in recent years. Heinz Galski, the talented former president of the Jewish community, was forced to resign after the exhibition of Prague Jewish treasures toured the United States to rave critical reviews. The reason remains unclear, but according to rumor, positive publicity in the US press about Mr. Galski angered former ideology chief Vasil Bilak.

Two communist-appointed bureaucrats were appointed to lead the Jewish community, Bohumil Heller and Frantisek Kraus. They proceeded to sponsor an official ``peace action'' of Jewish communities throughout Europe, supporting a plan by Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Milos Jakes to create a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe.

After large antigovernment demonstrations this January, Mr. Kraus and Mr. Heller wrote to Rude Pravo, the Communist Party newspaper, expressing their support for violent police action used to crush the peaceful protest. They also have issued frequent declarations condemning Israel.

In protest, David and other young Jews have published a petition calling for a more positive attitude toward Israel and profound changes in the teaching of Judaism within Czechoslovakia: Reopening of two Prague synagogues closed for several years for ``repairs,'' offering Hebrew classes for adults, and publishing more books on Jewish themes.

Official reaction is negative. Frantisek Kraus is a Holocaust survivor. His reaction to the tragedy is accommodation.

``These young people want to separate Jews and other Czechs,'' he complains. ``We have complete religious freedom.''

He points to Talmud Torah classes for children and a functioning kosher restaurant. The closed synagogues will be reopened, he promises. As for his criticism about his attendance at the the communist-sponsored ``Peace Conferences,'' he retorts, ``without peace, there is no life. Peace comes first.''

Amid this bitter quarrel, one ray of hope is Daniel Mayer, the community's 34-year-old rabbi trained in Budapest. He earns respect from David and other angry youngsters, while guarding a good working relationship with Kraus and the older cautious bureaucrats.

Rabbi Mayer lobbies carefully in private for more Hebrew courses, for bigger and better celebrations of Rosh Hashana and other holidays. His goal is nothing less to keep alive Prague's 2,000-year-old Jewish history.

``A decade ago, Jewish friends from the West used to come and predict that our community would die out,'' he says. ``We still have a community - and as long as I'm here, we will have a community.''

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