Jiří Fiedler: RIP

 

Photo: Prague Jewish Museum

The horrible news that Jiří Fielder, a true mensch and one of the pioneers of Jewish heritage research in the Czech Republic, was murdered along with his wife in their Prague home has left us shocked, angry and utterly saddened.

Jiří was one of JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber’s first guides when she began her own exploration of Jewish heritage issues nearly 25 years ago, and he served as a guide and mentor to many others. His 1991 book “Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia,” was a milestone in the post-communist rediscovery of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, and he continued his work as a director of research at the Prague Jewish Museum, contributing to a growing online database of Jewish heritage.

Here is the announcement of his death posted on the Museum’s web site.

It is with great sorrow that we announce the tragic death of Jiří Fiedler, an employee of the Jewish Museum in Prague for many years. The circumstances of his death have not yet been fully clarified. His funeral was held in Prague on Monday, 3 March 2014.

Jiří Fiedler was born in Olomouc and graduated from the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University in Prague. During the Communist regime he worked as an editor, mainly at the children’s publishing house Albatros. He was also an acclaimed translator of Serbo-Croatian and Polish literature.

From the 1970s onwards, Jiří Fiedler documented Jewish sites in Bohemia and Moravia out of personal interest. In so doing, he compiled thousands of photographs of synagogues, cemeteries, rabbi’s houses and former Jewish schools – many of which were destroyed in subsequent years. In addition, he obtained factual information relating to the photographs, which he meticulously extracted from countless sources. At a time of destruction, Jiří Fiedler did what specialist institutions should have devoted their time to. On account of his work, he earned the animosity of the secret police and aroused the suspicion of others. At a time when the Jewish cultural heritage in Bohemia and Moravia was treated with utter contempt, he produced a trove of work that can be drawn on by future generations of researchers in the area of Jewish topography.

After the fall of the Communist dictatorship, Jiří Fiedler published the book Židovské památky v Čechách a na Moravě [Jewish Sites of Bohemia and Moravia], which to this day is the key source of information on Jewish settlements in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1996 he became employed as a specialist by the Jewish Museum in Prague, where he further developed the results of his many years of research. His findings were gradually transferred to an electronic encyclopaedia of Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia, which is being continually updated – it now has as many as 1,670 entries. Without all the information that Jiří Fiedler selflessly gathered and brought to the museum, several of the museum’s projects would never have come to fruition and the work of numerous researchers in the Czech Republic and abroad would not be possible.

Jiří Fiedler was employed at the Jewish Museum in Prague until the end of 2012 but continued to work closely with the museum on an external basis. His sudden death has come as a painful shock to all of the museum’s staff who knew Jiří Fiedler as a helpful colleague and a wonderful person.

 

We invite readers of JHE to send in their reminiscences and tributes. Please comment on this post or send your thoughts to us at jhe@jewish-heritage-europe.eu 

Writing in the New York Times, Helen Epstein provides her own warm and sensitive remembrance of Jiri. She notes that the murders are believed to have taken place around Jan. 31, but that few details are known.

Murders are still rare in Prague, and the police declared a news blackout while they conducted their investigation. Dagmar and Jiri’s three children, and his brother, sent a discreet notice of death to family friends and colleagues. Most of the people who knew him and his work remained unaware of his death. Jiri had always been reticent, like many in his generation who had grown up under Nazism and spent their adulthood under Communist rule. He was naturally a loner, “individualistic and a little bit mysterious,” according to Arno Parik, one of his colleagues at the Jewish Museum.

Epstein recalls:

At 15, he came across and grew interested in an old Yiddish newspaper. By himself, working slowly and patiently, he deciphered the Hebrew characters as though they were hieroglyphics and taught himself to read Yiddish. He dated his interest in local history to about the same time. Mistopis, as local history is called in Czech, was one of the few intellectual pursuits that could be safely enjoyed under Communism. He began to ride his bicycle down back roads near his home, photographing and sketching old churches and other ruined buildings, and making lists of historical landmarks.

After completing his doctorate in linguistics, Jiri took a job as a copy editor and by the late 1960s was working for Albatros, a famous publisher of children’s literature in Prague. He translated from Polish and Serbo-Croatian and proofread hundreds of books, but regarded that as his day job.

His passion was mistopis. By the 1970s, his interest widened to include old Jewish cemeteries and synagogues as well as churches. “Those cemeteries,” he told me, “called out to be photographed.” He also began to do rubbings of the inscriptions. The tombstones were so overgrown that he began to carry gardening tools on his bicycle.

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