This morning we said goodbye to Prague and headed east to our next hotel stop, Olomouc. We had said goodbye to Kamilla 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, and were met by the town historian and Director of the Respect and Tolerance program in Lostice, Ludek Stipel. Mr. Stipel took us to the former Lostice synagogue and gave us the history of the Jews in Lostice as well as the story of how he converted the former synagogue into an educational center.
In 2006 the restoration of the synagogue by Mr. Stipel’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. Stipel 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 and narrated by our friend Tony Vavrecka, husband of Eva Vavrecka who is the daughter of Lici Wolf [brother of Otto]. We were all extremely impressed with what Mr. Stipel had been able to establish in such a short period of time, using the most current best practices in education.
Leaving the synagogue we drove to the nearby Jewish cemetery which had been used since the 15th century until the last burial in May 1942, one month before the deportation transports left from this area. Shalmi asked us to notice how many of the Jewish headstones in the 19thcentury were written in German, which we were able to connect to the point he had made many times earlier about how the Jews were trying to assimilate and absorb German language and culture. Mr. Stipel showed us several headstones and told us stories he had learned about these individuals.
Next we headed on to Olomouc where after checking into our hotel rooms, we 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, who passed away two years ago, he led us to the cemetery where Milos is buried so we could pay our respects. Petr talked to us about his Milos’ life, his Holocaust experiences, and his funeral.
The students learned that Milos had been a well-known Czech rugby player and leader of the Czechoslovak Rugby Union until 1993. Petr told us that at Milos’ funeral many rugby players came to honor him and at the end of the ceremony they threw a rugby ball into the grave. Petr also told his grandfather’s Holocaust story, as well as how he had come to be so involved in the small Jewish community. He showed us the Holocaust memorial which had been recently added to the cemetery by the Jewish Federation with the names of the victims of the Holocaust. We also happened upon the gravesite of Otto Wolf’s parents Bertold and Ruzena which we had never before visited.
|Graves of Berthold and Ruzena Wolf – the parents of Otto Wolf
We drove to the Jewish Community Center where 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 growth of the Jewish community in the area. There are currently 157 members of the Olomouc Jewish community; ½ are from Olomouc and ½ are from surrounding towns. They have shabbat services, cultural events, a monthy journal, and also have a social department and a Holocaust endowment fund which allows them to take care of survivors, of which there are about 7 still alive. Peter said the International Claims conference had allocated funds for the care of the survivors, now numbering about 700 in the Czech Republic. Ms. Tambuscio told the students, as a comparison, that the state of New Jersey currently has about 1500 Holocaust survivors. Petr said one of his big questions is how many Jews will be living here in 50 years as the number of children at a Hanukkah celebration about ten years ago was about 30, but in 2014 was about 7.
Before heading to dinner Petr also showed us the pictures of the former Olomouc synagogue, and the copy of one of the stained glass windows, that donated by the Rabbi of the synagogue, that the Jewish Community Center had commissioned. The original window, along with the other 5 surviving windows, we had seen earlier in the day in Lostice, as they were purchased by the educational center.
Lastly, Petr told us that the Jewish Community Center had just received several stolpersteine [stumbling blocks] like we had been seeing since Berlin that the community was going to be laying at the site of the former synagogue in a few days.
After a great dinner at the Villa Primovesi, Ilona led us on a brief walking tour to the central square of Olomouc where she showed us the cast iron model of the town, the astronomical clock and the Holy Trinity column, built in the 18th century, which is the largest Baroque statue in the Czech Republic and on the list of UNESCO protected sites.
In the Jewish cemetery, seeing the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, made me believe that the people of Olomouc want to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
What hit me most today was the fact that only 700 survivors are left in the Czech Republic. That amount of people is little more than the number of students in my whole school. That makes me upset because that number is so small compared to the large population of the country. There are more survivors in New Jersey alone than the whole Czech Republic and it shows how much the Jews of Europe realized they were not wanted, even after their hardship.
Seeing the monument of the Jewish Cemetery in Olomouc makes it apparent as to how much the community would like to reassure survivors that the Holocaust will be remembered.
It was reassuring to see people like Petr Papousek, that still work with the Jewish community and keep the memories of the Holocaust alive and to prove that this time in history will never be forgotten.
Through viewing the cemeteries I learned of the importance of guarding the history embedded within each grave. The graves reflect eras of both Jewish assimilation into a nationality and their expulsion from that identity.
Today at the synagogue/educational center, we saw the items in the boxes of the desks that were the original seats saved from the Olomouc synagogue. The objects, pictures, and letters I saw showed me how real it all was and put a lot of things into perspective for me.
When I first heard that the Jewish community is shrinking I would have thought that rabbis would make it easier to convert. Instead, I learned that it’s a three year process. They are trying to preserve their religion but make sure people are committed to Judaism.
As we looked inside the boxes at the restored synagogue of items as simple as grocery lists and photographs, I realized that the victims were regular people like anyone I know and talk to every day.
By exploring small towns, it’s easier to stop looking at the Holocaust as something that devastated “people” and start looking at it as something that devastated the life of the “individual”.
It was fascinating to see the tombstones in Lostice compared to Berlin/Prague/Terezin, because the ones in Lostice were more scattered and in the other cemeteries they were more fancy-looking and large and intriguing but no matter how they looked, it still was emotional to walk through the cemeteries.
To see a synagogue that was burned to the ground then restored over 50 years later is unbelievable. It is apparent that Mr. Stipel had a deep respect for the history of the Lostice Jewish community to take the wheel and make sure this part of history was not forgotten.
Sitting in the seats recovered from the temple and observing the lives of all the victims made me realize how the victims were just normal people like you and me.
I was connecting today with what we have previously learned. I learned that some Jewish families were afraid to bring more children into the world after the Holocaust because they were afraid that it might happen to their children in the future.
Today made me realize that there are good people in the world. Petr Papousek is following in a family tradition. His grandfather Milos was a Holocaust survivor. Milos took charge of and unified the Jewish Community in the 1990’s. His hard work and dedication rubbed off on his grandson. Petr is now the President of the Jewish Federation in the Czech Republic.
Seeing objects which could have belonged to Kurt Wischnitzer at Lostice really indicated he was interested in music. He had a broken instrument and a set of violin strings in the box. It is upsetting because these Jews had so many talents. Kurt was a talented musician in that he could play more than one instrument.
Charlotte says: (TBA)
Julia says: (TBA)
Seungyoon says: (TBA)
Deanna says: (TBA)
Go to the following hashtag on Instagram to see what our students are posting: #HST_2015
Watch today’s videos at our YouTube Channel link below.