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Remembering Murdered Researcher Jiři Fiedler

Jewish heritage archivist and his wife found dead in their Prague apartment

Ruth Ellen Gruber
March 10, 2014
Jiři Fiedler; Prague Jewish Museum. (Prague Jewish Museum/Wikimedia )
Jiři Fiedler; Prague Jewish Museum. (Prague Jewish Museum/Wikimedia )

The brutal murder of the pioneering Jewish heritage researcher Jiři Fiedler has shocked and saddened the Jewish heritage community and beyond.

Fiedler, 78, and his wife Dagmar, are believed to have been killed in their Prague apartment at the end of January, though their bodies weren’t found until two weeks later. Local news reports at the time didn’t reveal their names. Police are investigating, but so far, few details have been made public.

“The circumstances of his death have not yet been fully clarified,” said a statement issued last week by the Prague Jewish Museum, where Fiedler worked for many years as a specialist and research director.

Fiedler, who was not Jewish, began researching Jewish heritage and heritage sites in Bohemia and Moravia in the 1970s, a hobby which would become his all-consuming passion.

Then working as an editor of children’s books at a Prague publishing house, Fiedler slung a knapsack on his back and traveled by bicycle to all corners of what is today the Czech Republic, building up a remarkable archive of photographs, notes, and documentation on abandoned Jewish cemeteries and former synagogues, Jewish schools, rabbi’s houses, and other sites.

It wasn’t an easy undertaking—Fiedler had more than one run-in with the secret police, who called him in for questioning about the nature of his work. Officials at the Prague Jewish Museum, then run by the communist state, even barred him from conducting research in the museum’s archives.

Still, it is thanks to him and a handful of other dedicated individuals in various countries, often working in isolation, that knowledge about Jewish heritage in East-Central Europe was not lost in the decades immediately following the Holocaust. These people—many of whom, like Fiedler, were not Jewish—saw it as their mission to go out and document, and discover, long-forgotten and overgrown Jewish sites, putting them back on both the physical map and the map of memory.

I first met Fiedler in 1990, when I was just embarking on the research that led to my first book, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe. I had been given his name (and the name of another Czech researcher, Arno Pařik) to look up in Prague as I sent out on my own exploration.

Fiedler and Pařik sat me down and told me exactly where to go. Somewhere in my files I still have the handwritten notes, diagrams, and lists from our first meetings—just as I have saved the emails he wrote to me over the years in his charmingly fractured “Czenglish.”

Fiedler was finally able to publish his own work in a book, Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia, in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution. He went on to compile and analyze material at the Jewish Museum, and his work has since been digitized as part of a regularly updated electronic encyclopedia of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic.

“At a time of destruction, Jiří Fiedler did what specialist institutions should have devoted their time to,” the Jewish Museum statement said. “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.”

Fiedler’s death was reported by the writer Helen Epstein, who also met him in 1990, when she was researching her memoir, Where She Came From. Epstein remembered Fiedler in a lovely piece titled “Eulogy for a Source,” published Sunday in the New York Times.

Epstein’s eulogy is a sensitive and very moving tribute, but its headline, I believe, sells Fiedler short. Jiři Fiedler was much more than a source. He was a guide, a mentor, and an inspiration. A modest man with an impish sense of humor, he was also a mensch. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life; may their memory be for a blessing.

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes frequently about Jewish cultural and heritage issues and coordinates the web site Jewish Heritage Europe. Her Twitter feed is @ruthellengruber.