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Jewish Community Has Staged Its Own Uprising With AM-Czechoslavia, Bjt

December 11, 1989

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia (AP) _ Parallel to the revolution around it, Prague’s 700-year-old shrinking Jewish community has staged its own tumultuous uprising and deposed old leaders who had accommodated the Communists.

Freedom might fire the dwindling band with fresh life, the new leader said, but even that may not be enough.

Furor erupted when the Council of Jewish Communities did not protest the police beating of student demonstrators Nov. 17. It was the only Czechoslovak religious group to remain silent.

Rabbi Daniel Mayer sent his own letter, decrying ″brutality and arrogance,″ then threatened to quit if Bohumil Heller and Frantisek Kraus did not relinquish command of the council.

Young Jews already had criticized the two, in another letter, for what they described as sacrificing principles to appease authorities.

In a noisy open meeting Sunday, Prague Jews reinstated Desider Galsky, a 68-year-old historian who was council president until Czechoslovak authorities forced him out in 1985.

″Everyone is watching me now,″ Galsky said, ″but I cannot create a heaven in 24 hours. These will be difficult times.″

His main concern is that simple attrition will accomplish what Adolf Hitler could not: turn Prague’s 13th century Old-New Synagogue into a museum.

The Nazis found 47,000 Jews in Prague and killed most of them, but spared the medieval Jewish Quarter, with its relics and documents, as a museum of deviant culture.

Jews returned after the war, but more than 1,000 are on community rolls, fewer than 2,000 others live in the city and three-quarters are over 65. About 10,000 Jews live elsewhere in Czechoslovakia.

″For every 20 who die, two or three others join,″ said Mayer. ″We are very worried about the numbers.″

Asked whether new freedoms in Czechoslovakia would help the Jews, he replied without a pause: ″No.″

Mayer said the government Council on Religious Affairs probably would end its subsidies, and the community would find it hard to survive. Jewish leaders accept the money on grounds the state seized priceless objects in the 1950s and never paid compensation.

Pressed on the subject, Mayer chuckled and added: ″On balance, I suppose I’d rather have freedom.″

Galsky said he was negotiating to keep the annual stipend, equivalent to about $30,000, but only if other religious groups retained theirs.

″We hope that Jews around the world will help us,″ he said.

Money aside, many Prague Jews think a more open Czechoslovakia will bring out Jews who once feared praying in public.

″I think things will be better,″ said Vida Neuwirthova, a 27-year-old puppeteer who runs a Jewish children’s troupe and works with the Jewish choir. ″We badly need young people.″

Her choir has emerged from years in which authorities would not let it perform in public because choir members refused to exclude the wife of Ivan Klima, a dissident writer whose works were banned until recently.

Ms. Neuwirthova knows it will be an uphill fight. She has yet to persuade her husband, who is not a Jew, to allow a bar mitzvah when their 2-year-old is 13.

″He does not want his son to be different,″ she said.

Bar mitzvahs average one every two years, but Galsky plans to encourage foreign Jews to come to Prague for bar mitzvahs and weddings in what he calls the oldest continuous Jewish congregation in Europe.

Saturday morning services are in a narrow, vaulted room off the locked main temple. A dozen old men in shawls murmur Hebrew, sitting at a kitchen table whose plastic cover is patterned with gaily colored animals.

Much livelier is the community’s kosher restaurant in the building next door, not to be confused with the nearby Old Synagogue Restaurant, which serves roast pork and dumplings.

Tourists normally outnumber Jews in the cobbled streets that wind among houses built centuries ago by merchants and intellectuals. Two old synagogues are museums, containing 300,000 of the silver ornaments, prayer shawls and documents Hitler planned to display.

At the old Jewish cemetery, visitors thread their way among broken stone tombs where people were buried up to nine deep to save precious space.

Only for holidays, and in times of crisis, do Prague Jews come out in force, and the question is how long there will be enough.

″Who knows?″ reflected Galsky. ″In 10 years, we might still be all right. But in 20?″

At the open meeting, Jiri Radvansky, a 33-year-old pediatrician who reads no Hebrew and wears no yarmulke, drew loud applause for a tongue-lashing.

He said he joined the community as a child to be among other Jews and was distressed to see people leave it over the years because of internal squabbles. Clearly, he was unhappy about compromises made with communism.

Radvansky excoriated Jews who fight among themselves as their numbers dwindle, and proposed a group for people interested in Jewish culture, whatever their own religion.

″We must stop this stupid bickering and protect our heritage,″ he said. ″Otherwise, we will disappear.″

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