The late president Václav Havel was honoured by Prague’s Jewish community on Wednesday during a Chanukah lighting ceremony in Jan Palach square in the centre of the capital. Jewish leaders, along with diplomats and the mayor of Prague, said the festival celebrates the same values Václav Havel always stood up for.
Rabbi Manis Barash from the Chabad congregation in Prague recited Psalm 23 in honour of the late president Václav Havel at the start of the Chanukah candles lighting ceremony in the centre of the capital on Wednesday.
The congregation has held the event for the 14th time in downtown Prague but this year, the eight-day holiday of Chanukah was tinged with sorrow. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah commemorates a successful revolt of a Jewish rebel group called the Maccabees against foreign oppression – very much like Václav Havel stood up against oppression in his own country, says rabbi Barash.
“I think that Václav Havel was a modern-day Maccabee. It was Mr Havel who said that ‘truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred’, and that’s really the message of Chanukah. The Maccabees, few and weak, fought courageously against a stronger force in order that truth and love prevail over lies and hatred.
“So it’s special that we were able to do the Menorah lighting to honour his memory, and I think it was a beautiful tribute to president Havel.”
Some 150 people watched as rabbi Barash, along with the mayor of Prague Bohuslav Svoboda, US ambassador Norman Eisen and former Czech prime minister Jan Fischer ascended an aerial platform which took them to the top of the menorah, a nine-branch candelabrum standing in the middle of the square.
When the three lights on the menorah were lit and those who kindled them returned to the ground, I asked US ambassador Norman Eisen to share his thoughts on this special occasion.
“My thoughts are very much with Václav Havel. As I said in my remarks, he really symbolizes Chanukah for me because Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates freedom and throwing off oppression, and that is exactly what Václav Havel did. So from now on, whenever I celebrate Chanukah, I will also think of him.
You also said Václav Havel was a great friend of your nation, the United States. What do you think he found so appealing and why do you think he liked the US so much?
“Svoboda. The United States, like the Czech Republic and like this holiday, is really about freedom. I think that he felt at home in the United States and all Americans regardless of party and creed embraced him as one of us. We are all very sad to lose him but his values and ideas and his plays will live on, and will be an inspiration to all those who love freedom in the US and the Czech Republic, in Israel and around the world.”
In his note of condolence, President Barack Obama said Václav Havel was an inspiration for him personally, as he was for millions of others. In what ways do you think he was inspirational for Americans?
“President Obama ran for office on a platform of hope and change. That is exactly what president Havel brought, first to the fight against communism as a dissident, then to the Sametová revoluce, and then to governing in the Czech Republic. So I think the values of president Havel, his courage, his commitment to his values, his willingness to stand up for something he believed in, that’s something all Americans cherish. We are very said to lose him. We know the first loss is for the Czech nation but we feel it’s a loss for the United States as well.”
The Israeli envoy in Prague, Yaakov Levy, also addressed the gathering, remembering Václav Havel as a great friend of his country. I asked Mr Levy how he felt celebrating the holiday of Chanukah at a time of mourning for the former Czech leader.
“Happiness because of the holiday is mixed with great sorrow because not only was Václav Havel a great world leader and a major figure in the modern history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic but he was also a great friend of Israel and was admired by all Israelis for his stand against totalitarianism and his great friendship with us.”
The Lord Mayor of Prague, Bohuslav Svoboda, asked the assembly to hold a minute of silence in honour of the former president. He said he was happy that Václav Havel was remembered at the ceremony.
“This evening, the Chanukah light is very symbolic. Our president Václav Havel passed away, and for us, he was light. We now kindled the lights here and I’m very happy that today, we lit the Chanukah light and remembered him at the same time.”