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Milan Zábranský
Professor Milan and his wife Jana welcome you to Prague

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Milan Zábranský holds a Byzantine icon of the Nativity, surrounded by the cribs loves: (left) a Betlémy, a shadow box creche showcased in a vintage clock cabitnet; (right) a closeup of a shepherdess in native dress, a fine example of Czech wood carving.

He's a soft-spoken man, with silver hair and an easy smile. A Professor of Physical Chemistry, Milan Zábranský, brings his profession's attention to detail to his beloved hobby: creating shadow-box creches from vintage clock cases. He does it with skill, gusto, and using wood-carved, historical, Králíky figures…

Two colorful musicians—one at attention, the other tooting his horn—two of Milan Zábranský's Králíky figures that fill the shadow-box crib shown above, left, housed in a Gothic antique clock cabinet.
You're in England, scouting stately homes for a photo shoot, and, as always, you've figured for a few rainy days
in your schedule.

You've been here almost ten days, and have found several incredible palaces (including the grand estate featured in Masterpiece Theater's "Pride and Prejudice."

So you've left East Anglia behind, and now you're occupying a cozy seat at the Old Vic, not quite believing your luck: not just finding finding a ticketm, last minute, but in row 6, front and center, to the "Philadelphia Story," starring the talented Kevin Spacey and Pride & Prejudice's "Elizabeth Bennet," the lovely Jennifer Ehle!

It's a performance that the Sunday Telegraph called, "An evening of urbane entertainment, delicious as a glass of champagne." So it's a sold-out house, and who is sitting in the row in front of you? You rub your eyes, just to make sure that yes, you're mingling with Thespian Royalty—Dame Judi Dench is also in the audience.

This seems to be a night when dreams come true, so why not keep on dreaming? You've got two days left until you begin a tour of Ireland sponsored by your office, so what will you do? During intermission, as you're dreamily staring at the ornate 1833 proscenium that soars to the heavens, you think what a great stage it would make for… A creche! And the thought pops in your head: maybe you could dash to Prague—and see Milan Zábranský?

You're calling the Czech Republic after the show, and a female voice you've never heard before answers: "Hello? Alexis? Oh, yes, this is Jana. Milan has told me about you. You can come to Prague? Tomorrow? Yes, Milan will pick you up at the airport. What is your flight number?"

You think, what lovely people, and how right on Judy Davis was when she said, "You must go to Prague; it's creche heaven—and you'll love Milan and Jana!" Judy and Milan, it turns out, had published articles in the Creche Herald, the publication of the Friends of the Creche. A correspondence ensued, and, when Judy and her husband Bob visited the Czech Republic for a Friends of the Creche Congress, Milan and Jana invited them over.

Milan Zábranský shares the nativities he loves: out come boxes, notebooks, glass-domed cribs, die-cut cards and figures, and, save one, the entire Kubasta creche opus—sharing.
Out come boxes, notebooks, glass-domed cribs, die-cut cards and figures, and, save one, the entire Kubasta creche opus—Milan Zábranský sharing.

"You won't believe his collection," you recall Judy saying as you see a silver-haired man holding up a piece of paper with your name on it, just as Jana had said. Milan Zábranský, a Professor of Physical Chemistry at the Technical University in Prague, is a most amiable man. He greets you warmly, and you know there's so much you want to share with him.

But, his knowledge of English, unfortunately, as he tells you, is mainly of the written variety. Some simple words you say —like "box"—give him pause. That's because he's expecting to hear an "o" sound, not "bäks." But soon enough, you're understanding each other, although his delightful pronounciation of "cribs," sounds more like "creppes," and it's making you hungry.

A short ride from the airport, and the spires of the cathedral at Prague Castle come into view. But who's got time to visit what many consider one of the most beautiful capitals of Europe— as any traveler, or fan of the film "Amadeus" that was filmed here, will tell you? You're counting your stay in hours, and Milan has already begun filling the table of his sitting-room with creches. So forget about the Gothic towers of St. Vitus' Cathedral that date from 1344 that you see in the distance as you sit in the Zábranský apartment; about St. Wenceslas who was murdered in a town nearby; the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV who made Prague his seat; and don't even think about the astronomical clock—and it's famous procession of the 12 Apostles—that strikes in the Old Town Square. All you've got time for is creches, creches, and more creches!

A vintage Czech fold out nativity featuring a Grecian temple facade and dye-cut Gothic windows covered with cellophane—just one of the many beautiful paper creches in Milan Zábranský's collection.
They keep piling up, as Milan, with great exuberance, is sharing his collection with you. Off the wall come vintage clock cases filled to the brim with wood-carved, painted Králíky figures; from top shelves, down come cribs housed in glass domes; thick photo-like albums are opened to reveal dye-cut, lithographed nativity pieces of great age and beauty; boxes, boxes, and more boxes are stacked up that contain exquisite paper creches of every genre… Judy was right: you are in Creche Heaven!

Right when you think you've seen it all, when your mouth has dropped to the floor over and over again, Milan opens a new box. "These are my Kubastas," he says softly. "And here's a disc for you and Crechemania—you'll find all his 3D [three-dimensional] cribs except one. And I have also included a complete chronology for you. Do you know about his daughter Dagmar? I'll have to get you in touch. She lives in Canada."

You sit at his computer at his study, and there they all are: the pop-up creche output of Vojtech Kubasta, the Czech artistic genius and creator of some of the most magnificent examples of paper art. You put the Kubasta disc on the couch, on the pile that includes books on Czech creches; advertising creche sheets; a Kubasta pop-up nativity; color xeroxes of vintage creche sheets from his collection; and a thick package stuffed with creche goodies for Milan's friend, Judy Davis.

A warm greeting and a smile (and in the afternoon, the call of the cuckoo) at the cottage hidden in the mountain forest, north of Prague—Jana Zábranská.
It's hard to take it all in—let alone photograph it! You're a pro, and you know that you don't use flash to shoot small objects—the brilliant light "washes" out detail, not to mention creates stark shadows. Would it be possible to set up a small table by the balcony doors?

And now Milan turns into your assistant: While Jana is preparing lunch in the kitchen, he provides a small stand, opens the curtains, and begins parading in front of your camera his prized collection. (You'll be tantalized by glimpses on following pages). As Milan and I photograph, Jana is setting the table, and after a delicious lunch of soup, salad, and chicken, we sit begin our talk.

Jana, an elegant, dark-haired woman who smiles easily, is herself a University Professor who studied in New York for her doctoral residency, proves a wonderful translator whenever my conversation with Milan comes to a dead-end.

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