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Saturday, 28 April, 2001, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Jewish cemetery archive for the web
Many cemeteries are abandoned
Many Jewish cemeteries are abandoned and overgrown
By BBC Monitoring's Gabi Bolton

Jaroslav Achab Haidler has an ambitious project. He wants to map all the remaining 334 Jewish cemeteries in the Czech Republic and publish the archive for posterity on the web.

When I touch the weathered stones, I think of those who left their dead here

Jaroslav Haidler
Relatively few Jewish monuments have survived in what is now the Czech Republic.

The combined effect of Jewish resettlements, World War II and the Communist era left many synagogues in ruins, turned into warehouses, or simply left to fall into disrepair, overgrown with weeds.

Jaroslav Haidler
Mr Haidler is determined to save the inscriptions for posterity
But some have survived and, like a secret garden, they are waiting to be found and understood anew.

The Czech media have been highlighting the work of Mr Haidler, 43, director of a theatre in north-western Bohemia, who has made it his life's work to do precisely that.

He learned Hebrew to better understand the Bible. He was also interested in symbolism and began exploring Jewish cemeteries to look for Urobor, the symbol of passing time.

Beauty and reconciliation

He told BBC News Online that he was then captured by what he found - beauty, reconciliation, silence and especially the spirit of togetherness and mutual responsibility - not only in life but also in death.

The Urobor symbol
Urobor: The symbol of passing time
In 1999, Mr Haidler learned that there is no register of Czech and Moravian Jewish cemeteries.

Only a few written documents and registers of Jewish communities survive, as most were deliberately damaged during the war.

Dr Arno Parik of the Jewish Museum in Prague said that, although the documentation of the Old Jewish cemetery in Prague began in the 19th century, nothing was added until the 1989 revolution, since when a few others had been documented.

The work is extremely time-consuming, as one has to clean the sometimes sunken or uprooted tombstones, take a photo, decipher the text and then translate it, he said.

Jewish cemeteries in the Czech Republic
334 cemeteries remain
Many destroyed under Nazism and Communism
Very little documentation published
Many stones bear poetic inscriptions in Hebrew
Mr Hailder set out to create a comprehensive database. "Something or somebody was calling me, and that call was quite urgent," he said.

"When I touch the weathered stones, I think of those who left their dead here and never thought that nobody would ever come back to the Jewish cemeteries to visit them.

"Nobody. Simply because there was no-one left."

Poetic inscriptions

Inscriptions on gravestones or matzevot can be very simple or they can become beautiful epitaphs, poetic stories about the departed's life.

Jewish tombstone
Deciphering the Hebrew inscriptions is painstaking work
"They are also prayers to the Almighty and tantczewa - a plea and a hope that the departed's soul may be bonded into the bond of life," Mr Haidler said.

They can tell us about the people, wars, epidemics, pogroms. They make it possible for us to reconstruct our history, he added.

Celebration of life

"To me, photographing the gravestones and translating the texts feels like a loving celebration of life."

All that has not been written in these stone archives perished uner the rule of Brown Evil

Jaroslav Haidler

These cemeteries are a tremendous cultural and spiritual heritage, he said.

And so an idea was born - to make all these riches available on the web as part of project Keshet, which is Hebrew for "rainbow".

So far, Mr Haidler has been to about 200 cemeteries and documented 20.

Dr Parik said said Mr Haidler's project was extremely demanding for one person.

But he said that whatever he was able to do in his lifetime would be valuable and would create a living link to hidden and forgotten places.

It would also be a valuable source for further historic research.

Photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of Mr Haidler

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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