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Czech Republic: In a City Steeped in History, Prague's Citizens Tally Flood Damage To National Heritage

  • Jeremy Bransten

The aftermath of a flood is often measured in lost lives, destroyed infrastructure, ruined crops. But when floodwaters swept across Central Europe earlier this month, they also damaged a less tangible, yet equally important, asset: national cultural treasures. In the Czech Republic, for example, irreplaceable book collections, historical archives, and religious monuments were heavily damaged, and work is now under way to save what can be saved, and to raise the money to pay for such efforts.

Prague, 27 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The roar of generators reverberates throughout Prague's Old Town these days as the race to drain waterlogged basements and cellars continues, 10 days after the city's worst floods in more than a century.

The buildings still stand, though some may need a fresh coat of paint, and cobblestones are being swept clean. But the receding water left behind underground ravages -- unseen to tourists strolling at street level -- that will take years and many millions of dollars to repair.

Many of the basements of Prague's historic palaces, museums, and concert halls were home to libraries and treasuries, which survived the 20th century's two world wars intact. Today, nearly all are drying out after being submerged in a mix of river and sewer water.

In addition, several of Prague's most venerable institutions, such as the Municipal Library and the National Technical Museum, kept their historical archives stored in the city's low-lying Karlin and Holesovice districts, which bore the brunt of the floods.

According to Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal, damage to cultural assets around the country will run to at least 2.7 billion crowns, or about $90 million. Dostal tells RFE/RL that this will eat up most of the ministry's budget for the foreseeable future: "I am going to have to significantly limit other activities, especially live culture. This means that subsidies for literature, dance, theaters, concerts will have to be frozen because I have set a new priority for the ministry: to repair the damage caused by the floods in the field of culture as soon as possible. And the damage is not small. As concerns historical monuments, it's just terrible."

Of course, much of the damage cannot be measured in money. The Rudolfinum concert hall's original musical scores, the Academy of Science's 18th-century archaeological logs, the National Technical Museum's architectural blueprints for Prague's National Theater, much of the Interior Ministry's military-history archive, a collection of original manuscripts by the country's leading First Republic writers and statesmen, Charles University Law Faculty's complete interwar collection of books and records, the Theater Academy's archives -- all these were swept up in the flood and all are irreplaceable parts of the Czech nation's shared cultural and historical heritage.

In addition to archives, an estimated 500,000 books were damaged or destroyed. Worst hit was Prague's Municipal Library, whose rare book depository in the Holesovice district was flooded. The depository was thought to be safe, since it was not affected by Prague's last great flood in 1890. The head of the rare books collection, Zuzana Kopencova, is inconsolable: "We had 20,000 rare volumes flooded. The oldest among them was the 'Kampa Bible' dating back to the year 1488. We had many volumes from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries -- editions cataloguing other book collections, tomes on Prague's history, on the history of theater, etc.... It was a very interesting and unique collection."

As the flood tide bore down on Prague, Kopencova and her staff moved some of the books to higher shelves, but the magnitude, and speed, of the flood was greater than predicted, and the entire building was swamped by two meters of water.

Upon their return, the staff found ancient tomes streaked with mud floating at the bottom of the depository. At this point, only one thing could be done: "We contacted the Mochovce cold storage plant. They reacted immediately and sent over some vehicles. And starting on that Thursday [15 August], we began to wash, wrap, and transport the collection to Mochovce. By Monday [19 August] evening, the whole collection of 20,000 volumes was in their freezer."

Freezing books and shelving them alongside food products at an industrial plant might sound like an offbeat idea, but bibliophiles agree that in the event of a large-scale flood, it is the only way to ensure some of the texts are saved. Mold, especially in old books, sets in only hours after the tomes become wet. Freezing stops the process -- preserving the pages until they can be dried in a purpose-built vacuum chamber.

Chris Woods, head of collection preservation and care at Oxford University's libraries, tells RFE/RL there is some cause for optimism that, if treated correctly, many of the Municipal Library's volumes can ultimately be saved. But the process has its pitfalls, and the scale of the damage will not be known until the books are unfrozen.

"Early papers, if they're not severely damaged through some other means, in addition to the wetting, are actually very good at surviving a flooding process and subsequent freezing and drying. But of course, what is immediately obvious to anyone is that the wetting process can lose inks and pigments, and if those inks and pigments are soluble in water, you will lose them. It's as simple as that. In addition to that, when things are made wet, very often, even in a very controlled drying situation, pages can block together. And so you have the added problem that you might well have several pages that are a solid block, and separating them actually causes the damage -- not the flooding itself."

And that is not all. Woods continues: "In addition, of course, books swell when they become wet, so old books split their spines. Their leather shrinks badly and becomes very brittle afterwards, if they've got leather covers. So there really is a raft of problems associated with that. And a secondary issue, but a very important issue and often the first thing that strikes one is that floods often involve contaminated water -- sometimes pollution, sewage, and so forth -- and there is a major health and safety risk to people handling this material."

Also hit by the floods was Prague's ancient Jewish quarter. The director of the Jewish Museum, which administers the quarter's five synagogues, exhibition rooms, and cemetery, is Leo Pavlat. He explains to RFE/RL why the area is so important historically and such a magnet for visitors to the city: "Here, within a relatively small area, several historic monuments -- synagogues -- have been preserved. I can mention the oldest among them, the Old-New Synagogue, from the 12th century. But there are also renaissance synagogues. We have a baroque synagogue, which is unique. We also have the old Jewish cemetery from the 15th century. So such a concentration of historical Jewish monuments in such a small area is unique."

Although the Vltava River did not overflow its banks into the area, as initially feared, 1 1/2 meters of groundwater did seep into several of the medieval synagogues, which extend below ground. In the 16th-century Pinkas Synagogue, water cracked the plaster on walls stenciled with the names of 80,000 Czech Jews who perished during the Nazi occupation. The building also suffered other costly damage.

Leo Pavlat again: "The floor heating was destroyed, as well as a balustrade and the lighting system. It's going to need major repairs. And on top of that, engineers have voiced fears that the structural soundness of the building may have been affected and will have to be monitored. So I would say that the Pinkas Synagogue will be closed for at least a year before everything can be brought back to the way it was."

Some have dubbed this August's devastation in Central Europe the "UNESCO floods." In addition to Prague, the Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, the Austrian city of Salzburg, and Dresden in eastern Germany -- all on the world cultural body's register -- were inundated.

Chris Woods, at Oxford University, says the catastrophic flood of 1966, which tore through the Italian city of Florence -- another World Heritage site -- shows that in time, cultural treasures can be rescued. Four decades on, traces of the damage in Florence are hard to find.

But in Prague, attitudes are not yet so sanguine. Culture Minister Dostal seems overwhelmed by the task ahead as he contemplates the seemingly endless list of ruined palaces, castles, houses, and theaters, as well as the shelves of frozen books: "There are millions and millions of pages which have to be restored. Restoration experts are saying that it will take decades, if not centuries, to repair just written material from the field of culture."

In a cruel twist, the country's leading book and art restoration workshops were also destroyed by the flood, leaving few means to start on the task ahead. Zuzana Kopencova, at Prague's Municipal Library, says reconstructing these premises will be her first priority -- if she can obtain the funds.

"It's a very urgent matter because our restoration workshop is totally wrecked. Only two machines remain that can still be used. When I added it up, a well-equipped restoration workshop would cost some 3 million crowns [about $100,000], but there is no money. Other libraries were flooded. City Hall has no money. Neither does the Ministry of Culture. We are trying to get help from outside, but for now, we haven't had any success."

Prague's Municipal Library, like other institutions, is hoping that the millions of tourists who visit Prague each year will spare a thought and open their pocketbooks to help restore the city's treasures.

(The Prague Municipal Library has opened an account for donations to help get its books out of the deep freeze. The account number is: 2000280080/6000. Bank address: Prvni Mestska Banka, Prague 1, Czech Republic.)

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