On 1 January 1993, the Czech Republic came into existence as a successor state of Czechoslovakia. At the time, 10 Jewish communities existed on its territory with approximately 3,000 members, most of them living in Prague. Another 2,000 Jews were organized in different Jewish associations. The Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic estimated that approximately 15,000–20,000 Jews were living in the Czech Republic, most of whom were not registered with a formal Jewish community. Some of the communities were very small and had difficulty maintaining religious institutions without permanent rabbis.
Purim celebration in Chabad House, Prague, Czech Republic, 2004. (Chabad House, Prague)
After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the new leadership of the Jewish communities attempted to revive religious and cultural life. Some members of the Prague community, however, resisted what seemed to them to be a too stridently Orthodox direction for a community that had traditionally been rather liberal. Several independent liberal or conservative Jewish associations were founded in Prague to offer alternative forms of Jewish communal life. The years 2004 and 2005 were marked by struggle between two wings of the Prague community that can roughly be defined as partisans and opponents of the more Orthodox trend.
Since the end of communism, Jewish communities in the Czech Republic have sought restitution of prewar Jewish property. In 1994, a new law enabled the state to return confiscated real estate, but failed to oblige autonomous municipalities to do the same. In 1998, the Czech government established an expert team to research the fate of so-called “aryanized” property. As a result, the Endowment Fund for the Victims of the Holocaust, financed mostly by the state, was created. It sponsors relief projects for victims and provides for research and education. In 1994, the Jewish Museum in Prague was returned to the Jewish community. Its unique collections had come into existence mainly as a result of the Nazi expropriation of Jewish property.
Holocaust survivors comprise a major part of the Czech Republic’s Jewish population. After 1989, Czech survivors were allowed to organize freely for the first time; in 1991, they created an association called the Terezín Initiative, an organization that attends to the welfare of survivors, organizes commemoration activities, and supports Holocaust education. Unlike Holocaust survivors in noncommunist countries, Czech victims had not been included in earlier compensation arrangements. Even after 1989, the German government was reluctant to compensate them; only after a political declaration was signed in 1997 by the Czech Republic and Germany did they begin to receive money from a special Czech–German fund. Many survivors were frustrated that compensation was slow to come, and many died while waiting. Additional payments came from Swiss banks funds and the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany. Freedom of speech and research has led to an increase in interest in Jewish culture and history. Since the founding of the Czech Republic, more books about Judaism and Jewish history have been published than during any previous period of Czech history. The Czech public seems to be very interested in Jewish culture and music.
Orthodox rabbis attempting to return the remains of Jews, including those of prominent rabbis, to a thirteenth-century Jewish cemetery discovered at a construction site, Prague, Czech Republic, 2000. (Photograph by Sean Gallup/Spectrum Pictures)
Before 1989, the legacy of the Holocaust was largely neglected in Czech historiography, in textbooks, and in official commemorative ceremonies. During the Communist era, the Terezín Memorial, an organization that takes care of the site of the former concentration camp and sponsors commemorative ceremonies and cultural activities, emphasized the memory of political and Communist resistance and neglected the legacy of the Jewish ghetto. After 1989, the Museum of the Ghetto opened and became one of the main vehicles of Holocaust education, with a significant number of school groups visiting it each year. The fall of communism triggered a slow process of reformulation of the Czech historical narrative about the war. While Czechs still have some difficulty coming to terms with the Holocaust, the topic is increasingly reflected in historical scholarship, the media, and education. The Terezínskápamětní kniha (Terezín Memorial Book), for example, which appeared in 1995, documents the names and fates of Jewish victims from the Czech lands. In 1996, the impressive Holocaust memorial in the Pinkas synagogue in Prague (where the names of almost 80,000 Czech Jewish Holocaust victims are written on the walls) was reopened after almost 30 years of forced closure. Many towns and villages unveiled memorials commemorating Jewish inhabitants who had perished during the war. Manifestations of antisemitism and Holocaust denial in the Czech Republic are not very extensive, even though several antisemitic pamphlets and newspapers have been published and antisemitism is apparent among the extreme right. The gravest manifestation of Czech antisemitism appeared in autumn 2005, when Holocaust deniers began systematically to distribute their booklets in Czech schools.