“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.