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Jewish Journal

An Appeal for Help

Jewish communities in Dresden and Prague dig out from floods.

by Toby Axelrod

August 22, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Two men paddle a canoe across the flooded Czech national memorial at Terezin on Aug. 16. The town, where a former Nazi concentration camp still stands, has been completely cut off by floodwaters. Photo by Ivan Babej/CTK

Two men paddle a canoe across the flooded Czech national memorial at Terezin on Aug. 16. The town, where a former Nazi concentration camp still stands, has been completely cut off by floodwaters. Photo by Ivan Babej/CTK

Floodwaters have forced some 150 Jewish immigrant families to evacuate their refugee home in Dresden.

They have joined at least 30,000 other residents of the historic German city who have lost homes and belongings in recent days, as floods from the Elbe River swept downstream. By Monday, 15 people had died as a result of the floods in the state of Saxony in eastern Germany.

In Dresden, the raging waters damaged landmark buildings -- including the city's new synagogue -- and cut off much communication and travel.

The Jewish immigrants, most of whom had come from the former Soviet Union within the past six months, evacuated their refugee home last Friday as waters rose and engulfed apartments.

"These are very poor people, and they lost everything," said Rabbi Shneor Havlin, who runs a Lubavitch congregation in Dresden. "We are giving everything to these families -- places to sleep and eat -- until the government can help," said Havlin, director of Chabad Lubavitch in Saxony.

Roman Koenig, president of the Dresden Jewish community, reported on Aug. 15 via the Berlin-based Central Council of Jews in Germany that representatives were checking daily on frail or disabled members of the community.

But on Monday, it was still unclear whether everyone was safe.

"We will not know for a few days what happened to our friends and neighbors because people cannot reach each other," Jewish community board member Nora Goldenbogen said.

Telephones were still not working and cell phones could not be recharged since there was no power in much of the city. E-mail, too, was cut off.

Not far from Dresden, in the Czech capital of Prague, Jewish leaders have launched an international appeal for aid after floods caused an estimated $4 million in damage to Jewish holy sites.

On Sunday, President Vaclav Havel visited several historical Jewish sites that were damaged last week during the Czech Republic's worst floods in more than a century.

Havel expressed sympathy for the Jewish community while touring the 13th century Old-New Synagogue and Pinkas Synagogue. Both sites took in several feet of water, and experts are still examining the extent of the damage.

Havel's spokesman said the president had informed Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Czech-born former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the damage and was hopeful help would be forthcoming.

Volunteers worked around the clock last week sandbagging synagogues and other Jewish sites in a desperate attempt to keep the waters away.

While giant steel barriers on the banks of Prague's Vltava River prevented flooding over land, water seeped through underground channels into the city's historic Jewish Quarter.

Jewish officials discovered Aug. 14 that the Old-New Synagogue had taken in four feet of water, covering pews and damaging the building.

The Pinkas Synagogue also was hit, with water levels inside the building reaching nearly seven feet and damaging a substantial number of the 80,000 handwritten inscriptions of the names of Czech Holocaust victims. The synagogue will be closed for several months because of damage to the foundations. Jewish officials, who had moved all Jewish artifacts including Torah scrolls from the sites before the floodwaters hit, were shocked by the damage.

"There has been serious damage to some of Prague's Jewish treasures," said Tomas Jelinek, the chairman of the city's Jewish community. But "in a sense, we are grateful because the damage could have been much worse if the River Vltava's banks had burst."

The Jewish Museum also was badly hit by underground flooding, which bubbled up through the city's sewers. Officials succeeded in moving precious Jewish artifacts such as Torah shields, pointers, manuscripts and rare books to higher levels before the floods, but the building is likely to be without electricity for up to four weeks after the generator was submerged in water. The museum has had to cancel all of its art exhibitions in the city for at least a month. Coming at the height of the tourist season, it estimates losses in income amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Czech Jewish officials also were trying to assess damage to buildings and equipment in the Terezin Ghetto.

Ghetto Museum director Jan Munk said efforts were being made to save damaged documents relating to wartime transport lists. Munk added that all tourist sites in the ghetto were closed until further notice.

A planeload of Israeli aid arrived in the Czech Republic on Sunday with detergent materials to help restore flooded Jewish sites, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), is setting up an international Jewish task force in an attempt to save and restore historical Jewish sites damaged recently in the floods in Europe, according to Ha'aretz.

Singer said the WJC planned to raise money from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources and also to enlist volunteers from around the world to assist in the restoration works.

In Germany, it was difficult for representatives of the Central Council of Jews to visit Dresden, as the city's train station was severely flooded, temporarily halting train traffic in and out of the city. By Tuesday, however, some service had been restored.

The basement of the city's new liberal synagogue, dedicated in November 2001, was flooded despite the desperate efforts of the fire department and countless volunteers. Before noon last Friday, the waters poured over sandbags and filled the cellar.

But it could have been a lot worse, Goldenbogen said.

"We worked from Thursday on in shifts," she said. "We watched as the water rose, and then decided we needed help. There were not enough sandbags. So we called the fire department and they reacted very fast."

"They were there for more than 20 hours, pumping," said Goldenbogen, a historian and director of the Hatikva Meeting Place in Dresden, a source for cultural and historical information about the city's Jewish community. "Eventually the water went in, but it was one of the few buildings in the old city that was not so terribly affected."

Volunteers ran the religious gamut, she said, and firefighters came from across Germany.

The firefighters "said to me many times that they saw it as their duty to protect the synagogue," said Goldenbogen. Dresden's original synagogue was burned down on Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom against Jews and their property in November 1938.

Last week, preparing for the high water, community members brought the Torah Scrolls and prayerbooks to the community house, which -- like the Hatikva center, as well as the older Jewish cemeteries -- is on higher ground, Goldenbogen said.

Early reports that the city's new Jewish cemetery had been flooded turned out not to be true, she said.

A spokesperson for the Central Council said extra security measures had been taken all across Dresden -- including at the new synagogue -- to make up for alarm systems shut down with the loss of electricity.

Katsav phoned German President Johannes Rau, offering assistance and the "sympathy and solidarity of the Israeli people."

According to the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, Rau expressed his thanks and hopes that the "catastrophe would soon come to an end." He also invited Katsav to visit Germany. Should he visit Dresden today, Katsav would likely find devastation and hospitality in equal measure.

This past Sabbath, some 50 people managed to cross one bridge before it was closed in order to reach the Chabad House for services and a "big kiddush." Some families stayed overnight in the rabbi's home and in the Chabad house nearby.

Havlin and his wife, Chana, who moved to Germany from Israel five months ago, live in an area that was spared the worst of the flooding. They were reached by cell phone.

"Our contact with the Jewish community is very good," Havlin said. "They are not Orthodox and we are, but we have a very good connection."

By Monday, the Elbe had dropped about three feet, reaching a level of under 25 feet. But the underground water table continued to rise, endangering the foundations of buildings even in areas not affected by the flooding, according to Germany's Inforadio.

Until the waters recede, the extent of damage to Dresden's landmark buildings, apartments and private homes will remain unknown.

On Monday, experts said they feared the famous organ in Dresden's Semper Opera house was ruined, as its main works lie below ground. In TV news footage, the beloved landmark appeared to float in a sea of brown water. The true state of affairs will only be revealed once layers of mud, trash and sewage are cleared away.

The Jewish community soon will assess the damage to its new synagogue, which was dedicated last fall, exactly 63 years after the original synagogue was destroyed by Nazi arsonists.

The synagogue, which has room for 300 worshippers, cost more than $10 million and was supported by the city of Dresden, the state of Saxony and the private Foundation for the Rebuilding of the Dresden Synagogue.

Jewish community officials in Prague have set up a bank account for donations in U.S. dollars. The use of funds will be publicly reported and audited, they said.

The account, number 179139212/0300 in the name the Prague Jewish Community, known in Czech as Zidovska obec v Praze, is at the CSOB Bank in Prague 7. The SWIFT number for transfers is CEKOCZPP.

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