International volunteers work to rescue a town's Jewish heritage


In the small Bohemian town of Libochovice, about 60 kilometers from Prague, a unique international relief effort is taking place. Volunteers are working to restore the town's old Jewish cemetery. They hope that the restored site will help both visitors and locals alike to remember a vanished part of this region's heritage.

Up a narrow dirt path behind a brick factory a few hundred meters outside Libochovice one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Czech republic lies in a state of disrepair. The wall is crumbling. The well is filled with dirt and debris. Many of the tombstones have been overturned. The Hebrew lettering and relief work is now barely visible.

But today, volunteers from Germany, Italy, France, Estonia and Libochovice itself are working together trying to rescue the cemetery from the damage wrought by Nazi destruction and Communist neglect. The effort is being funded by the Czech-German Future Fund, an organization that helps to finance projects to foster Czech-German cooperation and improve relations between the countries. Sonia Dederova from the fund describes what makes the Libochivice project unique.

"This is very interesting because there is an organization in the community in Libochovice where young people are involved in the renovation of the Jewish cemetary and there is another organization in Germany and the cooperate together. The young people living in Libochovice will continue to take care about the cemetary and also the history of the Jewish people there."

The last train carrying Jews to the death camps left Libochovice in 1942 ending the nearly 400 year Jewish presence in the town. After the war the old neighborhood was gradually demolished to make way for new contruction. The old synagogue building was destroyed in the mid-eighties when a local homeowner wanted to expand his garden. Only the cemetery now remains, though irreversible damage was done to it as well.

"The cemetary was destroyed by the inhabitants of this town and also the Communist regime. The people go here and take the stones for the houses and so the wall around the cemetary was destroyed. The gravestones were given for the streets and so the condition of the cemetary is so bad."

Stephan Hietzig from Dresden is the German group's coordinator and was described by volunteers as the project's "spiritual father." He says the cemetery's reconstruction is only one part of the project's goals.

"The working is the first part but we're also learning. We make workshops about the Jewish religion and Jewish culture and we have trips to Terezin and Praha and also the local culture. I think it is very important for understanding."

The volunteers, who spent last Wednesday afternoon digging a trench for a new wall, all seemed to find the experience extremely rewarding.

"I think it's an experience that everybody should do because a lot of times people don't speak each others...don't understand each other just because they don't meet. It's not like studying history books. Sometimes when you meet each other you realize that it's just a political question or religious difference that make people far away. Working all together gives the chance to understand each other better."

"It's a very good experience and I think it's very good for my life. I think I would do this everytime."

Michal Dostal, a volunteer from Prague was thrilled that international volunteers were taking an interest in this region and it's heritage.

"The other participants are not Jewish so this is their first experience with Jewish culture, Jewish religion so for them the educational part is maybe even more important. It's good to see that people from different countries and different background are interested in this region and our Jewish history and are willing to come here and help."

But those with the strongest emotions about this project may be the volunteers from Libochovice itself. Jakub Kletner, a local high school student, said he first became interested in the cemetery after writing a school report about the history of the town's Jewish community. A subject, which he says was almost never discussed in the town when he was growing up. He described what he hoped Libochovice would gain from the cemetery's restoration.

"When the cemetary is finished we hope it will not only a place where tourists can visit but also a place to remind us that this country's history was created not only by ethnic Czechs but by Jews and German-speaking people as well."


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