Tuesday, 23 December 2014
The Westminster Synagogue building will be closed until the beginning of January. While we shall have access to MST e-mail, we will not be able to welcome visitors to the museum in person or respond to your voicemail until 2nd January 2015.
Thank you for your interest and best wishes for this holiday season from the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Following a General Meeting yesterday, Westminster Synagogue announced that as of 1st January 2015, 4 new Trustees have been appointed to the Memorial Scrolls Trust: Jeffrey Ohrenstein (Chair), Sarah Derriey, David Goldberg and Shelley Laddie.
The MST Administration would like to record its esteem and gratitude for the many years of dedication and work from the outgoing Trustees (seen above): Evelyn Friedlander (Chair), Philippa Bernard, Peter Goldsmith and Cynthia Landes.
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Here is the mini article in the Community News section of the Jewish News last Friday. Note the photo of the Orthodox Chief Rabbi with the Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism!
Tuesday, 9 December 2014
Nearly 100 people joined the Trustees of the Memorial Scrolls Trust at the Jewish Museum in Camden on Sunday for the launch of the new Travelling Exhibition and Education Pack. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis offered some eloquent words of welcome, praising the work of the Trust. Magda Veselska brought greetings from the Jewish Museum in Prague, and Ruth-Anne Lenga introduced the Education Pack that she has produced for the MST. The pack may be downloaded here.
At the end of the day, the Travelling Exhibition was packed up and delivered to its first booking at West London Synagogue. If your community is interested in receiving this free exhibition about the Czech scrolls, please contact the MST for further details.
Many thanks to all those who helped to make this day possible, especially the Jewish Museum in Camden and Ben Rich. A small gallery of photographs from the afternoon may be viewed on the MST website here.
Thursday, 4 December 2014
We are excited about the launch of our Travelling Exhibition and Education Pack this weekend at the Jewish Museum in Camden!
For the cost of shipping, the essence of the MST Museum can come to your temple or community organisation!!
And the pack is already available for download from our website!!! The direct link to the download is here.
Contact us at the MST for more details (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
David Bernstein, Rabbi Ariel J Friedlander, Evelyn Friedlander (MST Chair), Lord Triesman
Photo: Marc Morris Photography
Last Monday, the Memorial Scrolls Trust was delighted to host an evening of conversation as a fund-raiser for our work. David Bernstein and Lord David Triesman were interviewed about the current state of Association Football in England by the writer and sports journalist Anthony Clavane.
Around 70 people were in attendance to hear about the relevance of their Jewish identity to the speakers' lives and work in football, the grass roots work of the Football Association in support of minorities such as non-white coaches & managers, gay footballers and women's football; and the politics of international football governance.
The Davids were relaxed and in response to questions from Anthony and the audience they spoke passionately about matters close to their hearts. However, since the Chatham House Rule was not in effect, there were certain opinions that they felt it not prudent to share, particularly in response to questions about FIFA.
The MST began the evening with a brief film about its work and an appeal to the audience. After a fine football discussion, it concluded with each guest explaining why he felt the Scrolls were important.
All of us at the Trust are filled with gratitude for the support we have received from David Bernstein and Lord Triesman. Thank you to Anthony Clavane for moderating the conversation so flawlessly. We would also like to thank Westminster Synagogue, the Jewish News, and an anonymous sponsor for their assistance in the creation of a wonderful evening.
Monday, 20 October 2014
On the 7th of October 2014, the Jewish Chronicle published the following article about the upcoming launch event for the MST Travelling Exhibition and Education Pack. By the way, please note that the photograph used by the JC is NOT of our scrolls. We do not know its origin, but shall be writing to the paper to point out this mistake and ask them to change the caption in their archives.
Chief to attend 'scrolls' event
By Sandy Rashty, October 7, 2014
The scrolls before they were brought to Britain
Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is to be the guest speaker at the opening of an exhibition about Torah scrolls which survived the Nazis, in a move which marks another departure from his predecessor Lord Sacks.
The display will mark 50 years since 1,564 scrolls were brought from Czechoslovakia to Westminster Synagogue by philanthropist Ralph Yablon.
Rabbi Mirvis said: "The Czech scrolls project is a symbol of the post-Holocaust triumph of Jewish faith."
The scrolls were sent by Jewish communities across Czechoslovakia to be held in safekeeping at the Central Jewish Museum in Prague in 1942. They survived the war and were bought from the Czech Communist government by Mr Yablon, a Westminster congregant, and brought to Britain in 1964.
Past events involving the scrolls were not attended by Lord Sacks, thought to be because Westminster is a non-Orthodox shul.
"We're delighted that Chief Rabbi Mirvis is coming - it's a recognition of our work," said Evelyn Friedlander, chair of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which is responsible for restoring the scrolls and loaning them to communities.
She added: "The scrolls came from rural communities, which did not survive. That's why they are so important."
More than 200 people are expected to attend the launch at the Jewish Museum on December 7. The exhibition will be taken to schools and synagogues around the country. The scrolls themselves will not be on show as they are too fragile.
Last year, Rabbi Mirvis visited the Limmud educational conference, which Lord Sacks never attended.
Monday, 13 October 2014
Last week the MST hosted a group of 27 visitors from the Jewish Deaf Association. After a talk by MST Chair Evelyn Friedlander, and the chance to wander around the museum, we all had a lovely lunch together. Thank you to our volunteers: Sarah Derriey, Cynthia Landes and Colette Price!
Monday, 6 October 2014
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
The Torah in Judaism
an essay by Rabbi Albert H Friedlander, first published in "The Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre: A Historical Account", MST 1988.
The "Shrine of the Book" in Jerusalem preserves the earliest known copies of Biblical texts - the Dead Sea Scrolls. Our Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre has a similar task: it preserves and guards Torah scrolls which have lived through times of darkness and now once again serve the Jewish community. Visitors, Jewish and non-Jewish, come frequently to see the scrolls, and some seem quite puzzled about the nature of these parchments. What is the Torah? What is its function? Is every scroll identical with the others? And why are they so sacred to us?
The word "Torah" is derived from a Hebrew root which means "to teach". It is primarily used to indicate the most sacred text in Jewish life, the Pentateuch, which is also known as the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The text is written upon parchment by a dedicated scribe, placed between two rollers, covered with a mantle and silver decorations and housed in the Holy Ark of the Synagogue. It is then opened and read every Sabbath and on certain weekdays and festivals, and becomes the centre of worship and Jewish study. The word "Torah" can therefore mean teaching, instruction, or doctrine. Since it contains most of the legislation guiding the Jewish people from the time of Moses until the destruction of the first Temple, Torah is often translated as "law"; and indeed, so much of the ethical and religious teaching in these first five books of the Bible continues to make moral demands upon us that the term is not incorrect. Moreover, traditional Jewish life is based so largely upon the ceremonial law found in these pages - the dietary laws, the customs presented as divinely inspired - that "Law" is precisely the sense in which the Torah is understood by most Jews. But it is a law to which individuals commit themselves freely, out of their understanding of what God requires from each human being. At that point, knowledge and study become crucial to our free assent, and the translation "instruction", "teaching" becomes even more relevant.
How did the Torah move through three millennia of Jewish life to achieve such centrality? There is, first of all, the text. The tradition states that Moses received it in its entirety more than three thousand years ago, high on top of the Mountain. There, on Mount Sinai, Moses listened to every word of God and recorded all that he heard. Each word is therefore considered sacred and may not be changed, and the laws are also immutable. Yet interpretations can change over the centuries. Farming and commercial legislation of that early time was radically re-interpreted a thousand years later, with the rabbis engaged in that task confident that they were doing no violence to the basic intention of the text. Their interpretations came to be called the "Oral Torah", found in collected writings called "Talmud". It is the Talmud, a work of many volumes, which is today the basic text in traditional places of learning.
This did not mean that the Torah was forgotten; it remains our central book of instruction, far more so than other words in the Bible. According to tradition, it was first read by Moses to the people; and it is significant that when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile, Ezra the Scribe again assembled the people to read the Torah to them, even though some had forgotten much in captivity and required a translator to render the text in Aramaic. Around the Temple in Jerusalem, synagogues were beginning to emerge, and in these the reading of the Torah was the central source of revelation. When the Romans destroyed the Temple, the Torah and its study replaced the Sanctuary, despite Roman hostility. Rabbis were burned wrapped in Torah Scrolls; and tradition tells of one martyr crying out: "The parchment burns, but the letters fly upwards!" Meanwhile, in Babylon, the study of both the "Written Torah" and the "Oral Torah" (the interpretation) developed during the next thousand years and preserved the Jewish people.
Gradually, in the synagogues, a formal type of worship developed around the reading of the Torah. The scroll was taken from the Holy Ark at a set point in the service, and paraded through the synagogue. Its wrappings were taken off, and it was elevated so that all could see it and proclaim: "This is the Torah given to Moses. It is the inheritance of the Children of Israel!" Blessings were said before it was chanted, and afterwards. Members of the synagogue were honoured by being called forward to take part in the ritual. The text itself was divided into segments to be read consecutively each week, so that the Torah was read from beginning to end in the course of the year (some communities used a 3-year cycle); and this led to another joyous festival in the religious calendar: "Simchat Torah", the festival of Rejoicing in the Law. On that day, which follows the harvest festival of Tabernacles, the last page in the Torah (dealing with the death of Moses at the border of the Promised Land) was read by a prominent congregant who became the "Chatan Torah" - the Bridegroom of the Law. When he finished, another scroll was opened at the first chapter of Genesis (B'reshit) and another person - the "Chatan B'reshit" (Bridegroom of Genesis) read the story of the creation of the world. The basic premise was clear: Jews are to read and re-read the Torah, to turn it again and again - for everything is in it. The Jewish calendar was organised around the Torah to such an extent that every week is known by the name of the portion assigned to it. When young Jewish men or women come of age, they are entitled to the privilege of being called up to read from the Torah; the full identity of the Jew is derived from the fulfilment of this special mitzvah or religious obligation. The ceremony is called Bar mitzvah, son of the commandment, with a corresponding Bat mitzvah, daughter of the commandment, as equality was achieved in Jewish life.
A scroll of the Torah is expected to be perfect, without blemish. Yet a scroll rescued from the Holocaust may bear the mark of that experience upon it. An American scholar, Solomon Freehof, was asked whether such damaged scrolls could be used in the synagogue. In his reply he pointed out that according to tradition "all depends on fate, even the sacred writings." Some scrolls live fortunate, happy lives. They are carried around during services with flourishing communities surrounding them; they are taken out for Simchat Torah services, and rabbis dance holding them aloft. Other scrolls are unlucky, pushed to the back of the Ark, unloved, silent. Still other scrolls suffer a tragic fate and go through fire and suffering, die, or survive in a damaged condition. Yet all contain the same sacred words, all are holy in the eye of the beholder. A damaged Torah should not be used for regular services, and most communities bury flawed scrolls. But those responsible for the Czech scrolls have perceived that the last survivors still deserve their place in life, that they are witnesses who must stay alive in order to be heard. And so they still live, not only at Kent House but throughout the world where communities have received memorial scrolls to show that the Torah does not disappear, that it must be heard.
Throughout the ages, Torah scrolls have been written in many styles and with varying shapes of Hebrew letters. Yet the text always stays the same. The Sephardi tradition has a totally different style of calligraphy from the Ashkenazi - Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean contrasted with Germany, Poland and Eastern Europe. The text is never vocalised and maintains the ancient tradition of consonants without vowels. Sephardi communities place the scroll in a rounded case; in the Ashkenazi communities it stands freely inside the holy Ark. Keter Torah, the Crown of the Torah, is the most favoured decoration on the embroidered mantles; but in modern times one often sees a tree - the Tree of Life, to which the Torah itself is compared; one holds fast to it and survives. That has been the history of the Torah within the Jewish tradition. For more than three thousand years Jews have walked its paths, interpreting it strictly or freely, traditional or progressive in their response to its teaching. All agree that the Torah, that handwritten roll of parchment containing the words of God, is the true symbol of Jewish life.
Did you know that the MST Museum also has a magnificent collection of Torah binders from Bohemia & Moravia? In 2015 we hope to offer a small booklet with photographs and information about our most interesting specimens!
Tuesday, 23 September 2014
MST Trustees Philippa Bernard, Cynthia Landes & Evelyn Friedlander meet with Tammy Kustow of Graphical to discuss the progress of the MST's Travelling Exhibition.
Join us for the launch at the Jewish Museum in Camden on Sunday 7th December at 3pm. If you would like an invitation, contact us at email@example.com asap.
Tuesday, 16 September 2014
Stolpersteine, or "stumbling blocks" are cobblestone-like memorials for individual victims of Nazism that are placed outside the last known residence of the person to whom the memorial is dedicated. The creator of this project is Gunter Demnig - do visit his website.
At the MST we love to hear about the different activities in which our scroll-holders take part that concern our scrolls and the communities whence they came. This past weekend (14th September) was the culmination of many months of work by the Westminster Synagogue Scrolls Committee in London. Their synagogue cares for MST #931 from Horazdovice, and has chosen to sponsor Stolpersteine in memory of the Jews from this Bohemian town.
Starting with the first names on the lists of Jews transported to the concentration camps, Stolpersteine for members of the Adler family:
were set into the pavement by Herr Demnig (in the hat) and his assistant.
On his website, Demnig "cites the Talmud saying that 'a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.' The Stolpersteine in front of the buildings bring back to memory the people who once lived here. Each 'stone' begins with HERE LIVED ... One 'stone'. One name. One person."
Westminster Synagogue members Liliane Fredericks (whose photographs these are) and Cynthia Landes were proud to represent their community in Horazdovice as they stood outside the former Jewish home and witnessed the final piece of a project into which so much care and work have been invested.
It is said that before the Shoah there was a custom in parts of Germany for non-Jews to say when they tripped over a protuding stone "Da liegt ein Jude begraben", i.e., 'there must be a Jew buried here'. Demnig has taken this less than pleasant idiom and created an incredible monument of over 40,000 stones that remind us of all those who have no grave to mark their unjust death.
Thursday, 11 September 2014
Jewish interest in football in the United Kingdom has always been strong. The background to this situation was explored earlier this year in the Four Four Jew exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London. Encouraged by the current enthusiasm, as a fund-raising event during the MST's 50th Anniversary year, we invite you to join two machers of English Football in conversation at Kent House. The event will take place on Monday 3rd November at 7 for 7:30 pm.
For further details please contact Westminster Synagogue via the link here.
We all believe - this event's gonna be magic!
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
To all the friends of the MST who know and love the story of our first sofer, David Brand, we would like to offer for your enjoyment this photograph. The picture was taken by the Salamons when they visited him in Israel in December 2013. Except for a couple of white hairs, he really doesn't look a day older than when he was working at Kent House!
To learn more about Sofer Brand and the work he did for the Czech scrolls please visit the MST website via the link here.
Wednesday, 27 August 2014
Monday, 28 July 2014
A beautiful and rare colour photograph of Sofer David Brand working on the MST Scrolls!
Now I have your attention, please note that unless you have already arranged a personal tour of the museum, we shall be closed 1-15th August. We shall respond to all voice and e-mail as soon as we return on Monday 18th August.
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Wednesday, 25 June 2014
We've just received a printed copy of Benjamin Frommer's review in Judaica Bohemiae XLVIII-2 of Magda Veselska's book Archa pameti/Ark of Memory - The Jewish Museum in Prague's Journey through the Turbulent 20th Century, published in Prague in 2012. You may have have to subscribe to read it all online, or you could come into the MST office and read the version on our desk! The review is very positive, as it should be.
In order to support our ongoing project to share the current perspective on the myth of the 'Museum to the Extinct Jewish Race', here are some relevant quotes from Frommer's review:
"The amazing collection of Jewish religious and social artifacts (sic), unparalleled in the world thanks to their great extent and coherence, the guides explain, survived the war only thanks to the Nazis' perverted desire to create a 'Museum to the Extinct Jewish Race'. According to that story, the perpetrators of genocide allegedly sought to commemorate those whom they had erased from the earth. That illogical aim, to memorialize precisely what the Nazis sought to eliminate, illustrates the contradiction at the heart of this well known and, as Magda Veselska convincingly demonstrates, fundamentally untrue story ... Veselska demonstrates to the contrary that the Jewish Museum was and remains a remarkably successful project of the Jews of Prague themselves, who sought before, during and after the war to protect a legacy that was threatened with destruction."
"Veselska's deconstruction of the 'Extinct Race' myth begins with a thorough investigation of the Museum's origins. Ironically, the Czech Jews who first imagined and then founded the Museum, did actually seek to memorialize something on the verge of erasure: the old Jewish quarter of Prague. The founders saw the so-called Asanace, the fin-de-siecle urban renewal of the Josefov quarter, which included the razing of three synagogues, as an opportunity to document a Jewish way of life that was quickly disappearing through assimilation."
"Contrary to popular belief, the author illustrates that the directors and employees of the Jewish Museum, and not the German occupiers, were the driving force behind the survival and astronomic expansion of the Museum's collection. True, German antisemitic policies of expropriation, forced emigration, and ultimately genocide provided the tragic opportunity. But it was the Museum staff itself that worked tirelessly to gather the materials left behind by Jews who departed first for abroad and later for concentration camps and ghettos. The staff, and not the leading Nazis in the so-called Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zentralstelle), developed the concept behind wartime exhibits."
"The chiefs of the Zentralstelle, Hans Guenther and Karl Rahm, demonstrated the greatest interest in the Museum. Contrary to the theory of a Nazi-planned museum, however, the two men neither communicated their views on the Museum to their leaders back in Berlin, nor did they seek to micromanage the staff's activities. Guenther did call for an exhibit on "interesting things" from pre-emancipated Jewish life in the ghetto, but he left it to the employees to determine the content."
"Having undermined the myth of the 'Museum of the Extinct Race', Veselska then sets out to discover where this so widely spread falsehood originated. She shows that the concept was nowhere to be found in the writings of the few museum staff members who survived the war. Instead, H G Adler ... and ... Egon Erwin Kisch first expressed the idea that there was coherent German plan (sic). But Veselska concludes that Vilem Benda, Director of the Jewish Museum in the more open 1960s, may have been responsible for spread of the idea of a 'museum of a liquidated race' in an effort to draw international attention to its collections."
Thursday, 5 June 2014
Tuesday, 3 June 2014
Our Chair, Evelyn Friedlander, visited the Czech Republic last week. She met with our friends at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and was able to visit several synagogues and other Jewish sites, including some outside the city.
This is the ark in the High Synagogue in Prague. The beautiful parochet (ark curtain) is a modern design that uses pieces of old tallitot (prayer shawls). This is another example of a second life for a Jewish ritual object that might otherwise have been discarded.
Tuesday, 20 May 2014
Get your tickets now by telephoning Jonathan Zecharia at Westminster Synagogue (0207 584 3953) or e-mailing him via firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a lot of interest in this talk so do make sure you reserve your seat as soon as possible!
Friday, 2 May 2014
Monday, 31 March 2014
News has just reached us at the Memorial Scrolls Trust of the death last week at age 92 of Rabbi Ezra Spicehandler. Through his friendship with the Friedlander family, he and his beloved wife Shirley were frequent visitors to Kent House, and he often led services for Westminster Synagogue.
Jonathan Sarna writes:
"... emeritus professor of Hebrew Literature at HUC-JIR. The son of Abraham Spicehandler, one-time editor of Hadoar, Ezra Spicehandler was ordained and received his Ph.D. at HUC-JIR. Early in his career, he spent time studying Judeo-Persian in Iran, purchasing important manuscripts for HUC-JIR. For 14 years (1966-1980) he served as Dean of the Jerusalem School of HUC-JIR, which he helped to place on a firm footing. He then returned to Cincinnati, where he taught for the remainder of his career. In 1982, he was elected president of the Labor Zionist Alliance. Prof. Spicehandler wrote, edited and translated numerous books, most famously THE MODERN HEBREW POEM ITSELF (1st ed, 1965) with Stanley Burnshaw and Ted Carmi. He was also a recognized expert on H. N. Bialik. Spicehandler taught generations of students at HUC-JIR and was greatly respected for his wide-ranging knowledge and wisdom."
Our thoughts are with his family at this time. May he rest in peace.
Friday, 14 March 2014
Monday, 10 March 2014
Just received a link for Helen Epstein's tribute to Jiri Fiedler in the New York Times yesterday. In case you cannot read the link, here is a cut-and-pasted version for you to read:
“EACH piece of reportage has many authors and it is only thanks to long-established custom that we sign the text with a single name,” wrote the literary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. “They arrange contacts, lend us their homes, or quite simply change our lives.”
Jiri Fiedler changed mine. He opened the door to my family history, as he did for hundreds of people who had been cut off from their family pasts by war, dispossession, totalitarianism and emigration. Working mostly alone, unpaid and anonymous for decades under Communism, and later as a researcher at the Jewish Museum in Prague, he documented the history of Jews in the Czech lands and was a prolific and often unacknowledged contributor to reports, books, articles and museum exhibits.
Last week, not long after I received one of his cheerily eccentric emails with attachments about malapropisms in Czech and English, I discovered that he and his wife, Dagmar, had been brutally murdered in their apartment on or about Jan. 31. The news came via an email from someone I’d met on the reportorial road in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands.
Though Jiri and Dagmar Fiedler lived in a panelak, one of the enormous blocks of apartments on the outskirts of Prague, with hundreds of residents around them, their bodies weren’t discovered until two weeks after the murder. At 79 and 75, they were regarded as “old people with a cat,” according to a tabloid story that reported the murder but did not give their names. In that story, the current president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, who once lived in the building, was quoted as saying, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I didn’t do it.” That was all the press coverage I could find.
Murders are still rare in Prague, and the police declared a news blackout while they conducted their investigation. Dagmar and Jiri’s three children, and his brother, sent a discreet notice of death to family friends and colleagues. Most of the people who knew him and his work remained unaware of his death. Jiri had always been reticent, like many in his generation who had grown up under Nazism and spent their adulthood under Communist rule. He was naturally a loner, “individualistic and a little bit mysterious,” according to Arno Parik, one of his colleagues at the Jewish Museum.
I first met Jiri by mail — snail mail — in 1990, a year after the Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent transition from Communist to democratic rule in what was then Czechoslovakia. I was writing a book about three generations of women in my Central European Jewish family and had sent out inquiries to historians of all kinds, to the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem and to many other places. One day, I received a letter from Prague.
“Because I myself am engaged in researching the history of the now-extinct Jewish community,” my unknown correspondent began, “I know you have written to the director of the Regional Museum in Jihlava, to the National Library and to the Central Archive. I put some things together in my mind and that is why I allow myself to disturb you with this letter.”
I remember wondering whether this self-deprecating formulation was a Czech convention or a particular personality trait.
“I have at home relatively rich files covering the now-extinct Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia. They are mostly documents concerning synagogues, cemeteries and houses, but sometimes you can find in them the names of their owners. Maybe on your next visit you could go to the State Central Archive. I don’t have the time to do it myself. But if you need me, I will be happy to advise you.”
So began our friendship. We met in 1991 at the children’s publishing house where he had worked as a translator and editor for most of his professional life. He was then 56, an elfin man with a pronounced stutter who seemed as modest as the tiny vase of dandelions on his desk. Collecting Judaica was his longtime hobby, he hastened to tell me. It had nothing to do with the rest of his life. He had scrutinized his family tree many times searching for a Jewish ancestor to explain it and found none. “Some people smoke,” he said. “Some people strangle little girls in parks. I bicycle around the country documenting dead Jews.”
I smiled politely. It was not the kind of politically correct remark I’d hear in Cambridge, Mass., where I then lived. Perhaps, given his long and solitary preoccupation with dead Jews, I thought he was pleased to be talking with a live one.
But after that first remark, Jiri Fiedler turned out to be quite shy. I made out that he had been born in the old Moravian city of Olomouc in 1935, that he was 10 when the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia ended, that he had witnessed the retreat of German soldiers and seen concentration camp survivors, who were given temporary housing at his school.
At 15, he came across and grew interested in an old Yiddish newspaper. By himself, working slowly and patiently, he deciphered the Hebrew characters as though they were hieroglyphics and taught himself to read Yiddish. He dated his interest in local history to about the same time. Mistopis, as local history is called in Czech, was one of the few intellectual pursuits that could be safely enjoyed under Communism. He began to ride his bicycle down back roads near his home, photographing and sketching old churches and other ruined buildings, and making lists of historical landmarks.
After completing his doctorate in linguistics, Jiri took a job as a copy editor and by the late 1960s was working for Albatros, a famous publisher of children’s literature in Prague. He translated from Polish and Serbo-Croatian and proofread hundreds of books, but regarded that as his day job.
His passion was mistopis. By the 1970s, his interest widened to include old Jewish cemeteries and synagogues as well as churches. “Those cemeteries,” he told me, “called out to be photographed.” He also began to do rubbings of the inscriptions. The tombstones were so overgrown that he began to carry gardening tools on his bicycle.
A former schoolmate of his worked at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and during the Communist years, Jiri repeatedly tried to gain access to its archive. But the Jewish Museum was closely watched by the secret police during the Communist period and access to state archives was tightly controlled. Academics researching Jews in Renaissance Prague were able to do their work, but applications by individuals researching more recent history were closely tracked and reported.
He continued to amass his maps, postcards, index cards of data on the dead and his photographs alone.
It became an addiction he could not give up. He had deeds and tax records of former Jewish houses and streets; town maps with Jewish houses marked in red (including my father’s hometown and the house my great-grandfather had built); files of correspondence with dozens of local archivists. He knew the locals everywhere he went and by the 1980s had become an international consultant to anyone researching Czech Jews. His Judaica collection filled the shelves and cabinets of one whole room of his four-room apartment and included some 70,000 photographs.
In 1996, after the Jewish Museum was reorganized on post-Communist lines, Jiri was invited to join the staff. He published his one book, “Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia,” and continued to work on the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Settlements in the Czech Republic” a 30-year project that now contains 1,670 entries in electronic form.
He had no Wikipedia page. No one in Prague could locate a résumé or interview or short bio.
Jiri was allergic to personal P.R. Once, when I asked him to raise his hand and be acknowledged at a reception at the American ambassador’s home in Prague, he quipped that I was creating a “cult of personality” around him. In our age of way too much information, Jiri left barely a footprint online.
But just as he had been one of the authors of my reportage, I want to be one of his. Several of the people in Prague who knew him sent me their impressions of him, but none had any firm facts to provide. A neighbor describes an elderly couple who kept to themselves and consulted her only when they had some problem with their cat. Various colleagues have learned that the apartment was not forced open. Nothing seemed to have been stolen. The police have no suspect and no motive.
An announcement posted on the website of the Jewish Museum of Prague is carefully worded. “The circumstances of his death have not yet been fully clarified,” it reads in part. “On account of his work, he earned the animosity of the secret police and aroused the suspicion of others.” And, “At a time when the Jewish cultural heritage of Bohemia and Moravia was treated with utter contempt, he produced a trove of work that can be drawn on by future generations of researchers in the area of Jewish topography.”
Jiri was a man who managed to hold on to his humanity under two of the most brutal periods of totalitarianism in the 20th century. He did so unobtrusively, with grace and a good measure of mischief. His memory is a blessing and an inspiration.
Correction: March 9, 2014
An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misspelled the first name of the researcher. He is Jiri Fiedler, not Jili.