PRAGUE — When Czech actor Achab Haidler isn't performing on stage, he can be found hacking his way through dense undergrowth deep in the countryside armed with a camera and tape recorder.
It's no wildlife expedition he's on, however.
Haidler's mission is to document in painstaking detail the Czech Republic's crumbling rural Jewish cemeteries before thousands of gravestones that bear the history of Czech Jewish life are lost forever.
Haidler and the rest of his small team are preparing an enormous Internet database that they hope will feature all the estimated 340 Jewish cemeteries sprinkled around the Czech regions of Moravia and Bohemia.
"This is a race against time," said the 42-year-old Haidler, who has documented 20 cemeteries since 1999. "Many gravestones have already been destroyed, and their epitaphs cannot be read any more."
Haidler's work has become more important because records for many Jewish communities across the country have been destroyed or lost over the centuries, making it impossible for people to trace their heritage.
Volunteer Robert Dvorak, who was drawn into the project after being captivated by the "unique atmosphere of Jewish cemeteries," also feels a sense of urgency.
"Although the condition of the cemeteries is quickly getting worse and worse, there is still a good chance to document most of the important historic information they can offer," he said. "It is necessary to complete everything now in spite of all the difficulties. Later on, it might be too late."
Part of the problem, Dvorak said, is that many gravestones either have been demolished by vandals or stolen by local residents to use as foundations for their homes.
Haidler and his team have based their agenda on the works of Jewish heritage expert Jiri Fiedler, whose extensive research on cemeteries spawned a number of books.
Fiedler is delighted with the efforts of Haidler and his co-workers.
"What they are doing is extremely important," he said.
The actor is under no illusions about the scope of his task, which is being funded under the auspices of the Keshet Project — set up by Haidler himself — and is backed by several Czech civic associations.
"It is a lifetime's work," Haidler said, because documenting nearly all the cemeteries requires extensive work because of their size or the poor condition of their gravestones.
On each visit, Haidler must interpret epigraphs, take dozens of photographs and make incredibly detailed descriptions of the cemetery layout.
A former Seventh-Day Adventist who plans to convert to Judaism, Haidler has to use a range of skills including his extensive knowledge of Hebrew — to glean information from each cemetery.
"I often have to lie in the grass and trace the epitaphs with my finger to read what they say because they are so damaged. I try to reconstruct what has been written in Hebrew, often in cryptogram form," he said.
Simply finding the tombstones can be a huge task. On a recent trip to an almost forgotten cemetery in western Bohemia, volunteers had to help Haidler remove thick undergrowth around dozens of graves.
Expected to cost up to $400,000 over 10 to 15 years, the Keshet Project will involve careful comparison of the dates of burials, types of gravestones and styles of epigraphs in order to help trace the history of local Jewish communities.
"We can establish the dates of cemetery enlargement; periods of various epidemics; describe the gradual emigration from the rural Jewish communities; the influx of refugees from various regions during World War I and a number of other historical connections," the project's guidelines state.
For Haidler, the cemetery visits are much more than a hobby.
"At the moment, I mainly document the cemeteries, but my dream is that money will be found to repair and maintain as many as possible," he said. "We have to try to keep old cemeteries, but we must act quickly because we are running out of time."
Haidler's work already has been recognized by a number of people who have been trying to trace their ancestral roots.
Alexander Woodle, an American writing on an Internet site run by the Bohemia-Moravia Special Interest Group, which details a number of cemeteries, described a visit with Haidler to a burial site in the Bohemian town of Ckyne.
"Achab Haidler is a national treasure," Woodle wrote. "He reads the inscriptions with his fingers as well as his eyes. The most moving moment for me was his reading of the Hebrew inscription of my great-great-grandfather's gravestone amidst the sound of falling raindrops."
The first documented Czech cemeteries should appear on a special Internet site in the summer.