Carving Christmas beauty for a lifetime

While Jaroslav Benda was denounced and imprisoned by the former Czech Communist regime, devotion to a simple project kept him going.

Spread out along a rickety worktable in Jaroslav Benda's attic, the display of carved figures looks as if a whole town has turned out.

Bakers, millers, bagpipe players, kings, and peasants all bustle along, livestock in tow, to greet the new arrival: a tiny child in a manger. Some are arguing, others are taking a nap. All carry some kind of gift.

"From each according to his means," chuckles their creator ironically, echoing the Marxist mantra that shaped - and blighted - his adult life.

There is a centuries-old tradition in the Czech Republic of carving wooden nativity scenes - known as "Bethlehems." But, over the past 60 years, Mr. Benda has taken the hobby to a new height, working to carve a better life for himself in the process in this town named for another biblical city.

The son of a peasant farmer, Benda began work on his Bethlehem when he was eight years old.

At the end of World War II, when he inherited his father's homestead and took out a loan to buy a few extra acres, carving was still just a hobby.

But that changed in 1948, the year the Communists seized power. Because of his modest prosperity, Benda was branded a "social parasite" and sent to the uranium mines. His passport was stamped "return undesirable" - meaning a life sentence.

During his time underground, Benda whittled away when he could, in the dark, keeping a spark of hope alive through his work.

He spent five years in the mines, where the average life expectancy was three. Benda was released when the political climate eased after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's death in 1953 and allowed to return home.

Once back in Jerusalem, however, he was assigned only menial jobs on the collective farm that had been established on his family's land.

"My children were shunned, humiliated, no one would talk to us," he recalls. Surrounded by informers and neighbors displaying petty jealousy, he retreated into his own world, hiding his 10-inch statuettes in the belfry of the church next door where many succumbed to damp.

"My little Jesus, look what happened to you," he croons over the streaked colors of his very first piece.

FOR Benda, each addition to the 800-plus entourage tracks his spiritual and creative development.

The earliest figures have the two-dimensional innocence of the medieval artisan before the discovery of perspective. Mounting health problems, including failing eyesight, have simplified his technical skill, lending the same moon-faced innocence to his latest efforts.

The most emotionally powerful pieces date from his long hospital stays, a legacy of his time in the mines. "I made those in the early 1950s," Benda recalls, pointing at a group of minstrels who have paused for refreshment under a palm tree.

"There were still nuns [in the hospital ward] then, and they gave me my own little room to work in," he says.

The carvings almost seem to take on a life for Benda. "Look at them, they're arguing about what they're going to play," he observes of the minstrels. "If they don't hurry up, they're going to miss the show completely!"

It's his knack of drawing in the viewer that so attracts fans. A small but steady trickle of visitors come each year to see the attic display.

"This is genuine, living folk art," enthuses Nad'a Valaskova, an anthropologist at Prague's Ethnological Institute.

"A hundred years ago, every country home had someone in charge of making the Bethlehem. Mr. Benda is the last of them," she says.

Far from being bitter for the turns his life has taken, Benda feels he's had the last laugh. As the elderly craftsman says goodbye at the front door, a gaggle of local women standing by the nearby bus stop pause in their gossiping and look over, sneers visible on their faces from 20 yards.

No matter, he says. Godless communism is a spent force these days. With their graven images long since torn down, their false prophets consigned to the garbage bin of history, such people have nothing left to believe in.

"Their lives were wasted," he muses. "No one can say that about me."

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