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A lifetime devoted to Bethlehem Woodcarver: Jaroslav Benda has endured years of Czech persecution and ostracism to bring to life his vision of the birth of Christ.


JERUSALEM, Czech Republic -- Armed with nothing more than a knife, scraps of wood and his imagination, Jaroslav Benda has spent the past six decades carving a heavenly bit of Bethlehem out of his small corner of Jerusalem.

Since he was 8 years old, Benda has braved religious persecution and social ostracism as he stubbornly pursued his goal of creating the most expansive "Bethlehem," or Nativity scene, ever seen in a deeply faithful region that gives its towns biblical names and prides itself in its elaborate representations of the first Christmas.

"I wanted to show the world that from a simple piece of wood, you can carve out a little piece of joy and contentment in the human heart," the 69-year-old retiree says as he surveys the Nativity metropolis that has been his life's work.

In the attic of his two-story farmhouse in this tiny village 50 miles south of Prague, more than 800 wooden figures make their journey across a half-dozen makeshift tables, each bearing a gift for the Christ child in his manger.

"They carried gold and silver, doves and songbirds, breads, cakes," Benda says, sweeping his long, gray hair back over his broad forehead. "Everyone gave what he could."

Under the watchful eye of angels and the guidance of a Christmas star suspended from the ceiling, kings and knaves, trumpeters, pipers and drummers, shepherds and bakers all converge on the cradle holding an ethereal-looking Jesus, flanked by a stern Joseph and adoring Mary.

Bringing so many figures to life would be no small feat for even the most dedicated craftsman. But for Benda the task was doubly difficult in the face of years of harassment he suffered at the hands of Czechoslovakia's Communist regime because of his faith.

By the time the Communists came to power in 1948, Benda's father had built the family farm into a modestly prosperous enterprise. And with some of his earnings, the father had contributed to the construction of a chapel next door. Neither endeared the family to the country's new masters.

Branded a "kulak" -- or successful village farmer -- as well as a "religious fanatic," Benda was sent to toil in a forced-labor camp for five years.

Upon his return, he worked at menial jobs in a nearby iron pit, then was transferred to a uranium mine. He landed back in Jerusalem in his old home, which by then had been transformed into a collective farm.

Throughout it all, Benda kept up his carving, pulling a block of wood and a knife from his pocket or knapsack when he had a spare moment. Every Christmas he would choose a handful of the figures to display in his home for friends, but for the most part the carvings sat hidden in the attic of the chapel his father helped to build.

Over the years the figures grew to occupy 32 crates, but Benda always made sure to spirit them in and out of the chapel's attic at night, so that disapproving neighbors wouldn't see what he was up to -- and perhaps report him to the authorities.

"I wouldn't show all of them because I didn't want the Communists to take them away and destroy them," Benda says, turning his first carving -- a shepherd boy lounging by the roadside -- in his weathered hands. "Most of it I hid until just a few years ago."

The years in the mines and at hard labor took their toll. Benda walks with a deep stoop, his face bears the lines of a man a decade or two older, and he is blind in one eye and has lost most of the sight in the other. Nonetheless, he continues to carve, envisioning an ever-greater Bethlehem.

His daughter, who lives downstairs, gives him a piece of wood and he whittles away -- the latest figure being a palm tree with a signpost pointing the way to Jerusalem. His plan is to have more than 1,000 carvings, and Benda wants to add a cityscape behind the figures, a chorus of angels -- and "other odds and ends. Whatever comes to mind."

"I've got a gift from God," he says, his dim eyes brimming with tears. "I can close my eyes and I have an idea, a dream, and I can then turn that dream into reality from a piece of wood."

With each of those dreams comes a story. An 18-inch-tall elephant was knocked off the windowsill and broken by his then-3-year-old daughter. (He was able to glue it back together, and it now strides purposefully toward the manger.)

Four-foot-high palm trees were carved during a hospital stay when an understanding nurse gave him a room in the attic and a block of wood salvaged from the woodpile in the basement. A baker is modeled after one of the women who used to come to his mother's house to pluck goose down.

His favorite, one he calls "Peace," is a figurine of a young girl in a simple peasant dress holding a dove. Her features look notably more Central European than Middle Eastern. Benda makes no apologies, noting that he had been carving palm trees for years before he ever saw a photograph of the kind that grows in the Holy Land -- and his representations are nonetheless remarkably close to the original article.

"Some of them come out well and others not so well," he says, squinting to get a glimpse of the varied inhabitants of the world he has sculpted. "I guess they're a bit like people that way."

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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