World Jewish Congress mourns passing of former Czech President Vaclav Havel

World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder has eulogized former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday at the age 75, as "one of the most inspiring political leaders of our time." The WJC declared: “With a tremendous vision and despite the great deal of suffering he had had to endure, Vaclav Havel led Czechoslovakia out of the grey days of Communism and helped to turn it into a free and respected nation. He oversaw the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into two stable democracies. Later, as president of the Czech Republic, he helped to restore the country as an economic and cultural powerhouse in the heart of Europe. His commitment to reinvigorating Jewish life, so badly affected by the Holocaust and decades of Communist neglect, was second to none. Vaclav Havel was not only greatly admired by Czechs but also by Jews around the world. We will cherish his memory."

Born in 1936 to a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia, Havel became a playwright, but after the Soviet-led clampdown on the Prague Spring in 1968 his books were banned.  In 1977, Havel co-authored the 'Charter 77', which formed the platform for the movement for democratic change. Faced with constant harassment and imprisonment as Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident, he Velvet Revolution of 1989 catapulted him to the state presidency, where he oversaw the country's transition to democracy. Havel left office in 2003 and continued writing, publishing a new play in 2008 and directing his first film in 2011.

Ronald Lauder said that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Havel had been one of the first leaders of the former Communist bloc who had made the moral case for the restitution of property belonging to Jews and Jewish communities which had been confiscated by both the Nazis and the Communists. “In large part thanks to his leadership and his openness, the Czech Republic became one of the first countries to put the fraught restitution issue on the agenda and held regular meetings with the Czech Jewish community and the World Jewish Congress on this important matter,” Lauder added.

The WJC president also highlighted Havel’s important role on the international stage for the well-being of Jews and the Jewish state, saying: “Together with other distinguished elder statesmen, he was a founding member of the Friends of Israel Initiative. He always spoke out against anti-Semitism and notably said that ‘Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.’ We hope that many people all over the world will carry on his motto.”

Israel's President Shimon Peres said Havel had been like nobody else. "He is a loss for the entire world, the Czech people, Western civilization and human freedom... He spoke with internal conviction, unusual honesty, that penetrated and unified hearts...Havel was on one hand steadfast in his opinions, but he had a pleasant manner. His voice will still be heard even if he himself is no longer with us," Peres said.

European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said Havel "was known as a great friend of the Jews and did much to confront anti-Semitism and teach the lessons of the dark chapter of the Holocaust during his two terms in office."

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