This morning we said goodbye to Prague and headed east to our next hotel stop, Olomouc. We had said goodbye to Kamila last night after our dinner at Nebozizek overlooking Prague, and this morning we said hello to our new guide, Ilona, who will be accompanying us from Prague to Olomouc and Trsice, and will be leaving us when we get to Poland. On the way we stopped in the town of Lostice, a town of about 3,000 people, where town historian and director of the Respect and Tolerance program in Lostice, Ludek Stipl, met us at the former Lostice synagogue. The mayor of Lostice gave us the history of the Jews in Lostice.We learned that the Jews of Lostice were very much assimilated into the community and that there had been an atmosphere of cooperation between the Jewish community and the Catholics. During World War II, 59 Jews from Lostice had been sent to concentration camps and after the war, only 3 returned.
We were honored to listen to the story of Holocaust survivor Jiri Fiser, born in 1936 and deported to Terezin and later the Czech family camp in Auschwitz. Because he was a twin, he was chosen by Dr. Mengele for medical experiments. He and his brother survived and he was eight years old when he was liberated. Today he is a member of the Olomouc Jewish Community and his story was filmed and is at Yad Vashem.
In 2006 the restoration of the synagogue by Mr. Stipl’s organization was begun and they completed it in 2011. No longer a functioning synagogue, it is now a center of learning for schools, teachers, and community members, all with the goal of preserving memory. The pews in the center are from the Olomouc synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. Each of the 21 seats is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust from Lostice and surrounding towns. Each of the seats had a compartment dedicated to one of more families, and inside the compartment were everyday objects from the period and photos which were somehow linked to the people to whom that box was dedicated.
In the box for Otto Wolf there were several items including pages from his diary, photos of his family and a spoon. We were all fascinated by these compartments and we spent some time looking through them. Mr. Stipl explained how these objects were used to teach both the history of the Jews in the area and the history of the Holocaust to children.
Upstairs we were shown the Otto Wolf library which had been established because of donations from Eva and Tony Vavrecka and is an integral part of the educational programs which the center sponsors for students and teachers.
Next we were shown the documentary film which the Respect and Tolerance program produced with portions of Otto Wolf’s diary read by Czech students in English. We were all extremely impressed with what Mr. Stipl had been able to establish in such a short period of time, using the most current best practices in education.
Leaving the synagogue we traveled to the Jewish cemetery which had been used since the 15thcentury until the last burial in May 1942, one month before the deportation transports left from this area. We noticed how many of the Jewish headstones in the 19thcentury were written in German, which we were able to connect to the point made many times earlier about how the Jews were trying to assimilate and absorb German language and culture.
We said goodbye to our new friend, Mr. Stipl and headed on to Olomouc. After checking into our hotel rooms, we went to the Jewish Community Center and were met by Petr Papousek, the head of the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic and the leader of the Olomouc Jewish community. Grandson of our dear friend, Milos Dobry, of blessed memory, Petr showed our group the small synagogue in the Jewish center, the prayer blanket which was used for Torah readings which was donated after the war by Otto Wolf’s father in memory of his sons, Kurt and Otto, and spoke to us about the slow but steady growth of the Jewish community in the area. Petr answered questions from our students before walking with us to dinner at a lovely, local restaurant.
Today while visiting Lostice and Olomouc I experienced the resilience of the Jewish community. In Lostice, a town where only 3 of the 57 Jewish residents survived the Holocaust, the synagogue has been transformed into an educational center where survivors such as Jiri Fisher come to share their stories in hopes of ensuring that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. In Olomouc the head of the Jewish community, Peter Papousek, talked about his experience rebuilding the Jewish community in Olomouc, which now has 150 members. I greatly admire the efforts of the Lostice and Olomouc communities to honor the lives of those lost in the Holocaust and to rebuild and rejuvenate Jewish life throughout Europe.
Jiri’s story of being sent to Theresienstadt camp when he was 4 years old and then sent to Auschwitz where he was liberated when he was 8 amazed me. What helped him survive was that he had a twin brother – they were too young to use for medical experiments but they were fed more and treated better to keep them alive. He started sharing his story in the 1970’s when he believed that he needed to share his story, and since his brother died two years ago, he has continued to educate people about the Holocaust.
Jiri Fiser represents one of the brave Jews who chose to return home after liberation. Peter Papousek’s small but strong community of Jews in Olomouc also demonstrates this desire to remain here. Instead of moving away as most survivors did, Jiri and the people of Peter’s Jewish community came back and continue to practice their religion, showing the resilience of the Jewish people.
Past experiences and shared knowledge allow people to connect with others at different levels, something I saw today when in the Lostice memorial looking at an old clarinet that a person just like me, a girl who plays the flute, could have owned. Even in a temple unlike any I had seen before, I still felt a connection, as I could read the Hebrew prayers and could relate to some of the temple’s problems, such as a lack of incoming members, that were similar to the ones at my temple.
Meeting Jiri Fiser today, an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor, really impacted me. Hearing him talk about being a survivor of twin experiments at Auschwitz really hit me hard. I had not understood the level of experimentation on children until I hear Mr. Fiser talk about his experience.
In Lostice today we watched a new short documentary on the diary of Otto Wolf. I learned while in hiding during Yom Kippur the family went to look for food after fasting and they could not find food because they feared the Nazi activity in the area. I cannot imagine not eating after Yom Kippur and this made what happened to this family seem more real and relevant to my own life.
The survivor we met today Lostice today, Jiri Fiser, was used in horrible experiments by the Nazi doctor Mengele. His story of perseverance through something beyond our comprehension is one that is truly touching.
Today´s experience with Jiri Fiser and Petr Papousek allowed me to make a connection between Jews of the wartime and the present. They both showed me the effect of the Holocaust on Jews in the past and on a small number of remaining Jews in present day Olomouc.
The personal survival story of Jiri Fiser strongly impacted me today. Learning about the experiments that he had to endure as a child, seemed unreal to me. I cannot imagine how difficult this was for him and his twin brother.
Today we watched a short film on Otto Wolf and his families experience during the Holocaust. The conditions were harsh and almost unbearable. The weather was below zero, the food was scarce and there were rats everywhere. It was tough to hear such an innocent family go through such a terrible experience.
Today we met another survivor, Jiri Fiser, who only spoke Czech so Illona our guide translated his words into English. It really surprised me at his willingness to answer all of our questions considering they brought back such a tortuous past.
Today was powerful, getting the opportunity to meet another Holocaust survivor who lived for the lone reason that he was used for scientific studies by Doctor Mengele. We were able to see a synagogue that went from a hall of prayer, to a storage hall, to a place of learning, and is now a museum showing the families lost from the town of Lostice.
When meeting with Peter Papousek at the Jewish Center of Olomouc the discussion of what defines someone as a Jew intrigued me. It did not make sense to me how one can be defined as Jewish if they had one JewIsh grandparent. Hearing this made me realize now meaningful being Jewish is to me for my heritage and to my family.
The synagogue in Lostice has been turned into a learning center to teach people about Czech Jews from Lostice whose lives had been taken away. With their synagogues, memorials, and welcoming Jewish communities, Czech cities are doing everything they can to keep their Jewish history alive.
What’s amazing about Jiri is that he is one of the boys in an iconic image of liberated prisoners from the Auschwitz that many people recognize. He refused to talk about his experiences until the 1970s when he correctly concluded that the world needed his knowledge.