This morning we said goodbye to Prague and headed east towards our next hotel stop, Olomouc. Kamila will be accompanying us throughout the rest of our time in the Czech Republic and will be leaving us when we get to Poland. On the way we stopped in the town of Svitavy, the birthplace of Oskar Schindler. We met Radoslav Fikejz at the Svitavy Museum where they had a permanent exhibition to Oskar Schindler. Mr. Fikejz, who had been researching Oskar Schindler for many years and authored books on him, spoke to us about the exhibit, Searching for the Star of David – Oskar Schindler, Righteous Among the Nations. Speaking in Czech and translated for us by Kamila, Mr. Fikejz gave us a powerpoint lecture, beginning with a history of the Jews in the area and then continuing with the biography of Oskar Schindler. He showed us pictures of Oskar Schindler as a young boy and told us about his childhood and his predilection for getting into trouble at school, including forging his father’s signature on failed exams. He told us how Schindler met his wife, Emilie, and how and several stories about their marriage, which he said, was not a successful or happy marriage. In the exhibition are 200 black and white photographs depicting Schindler’s life in Svitavy, Ostrava, Krakow, Brnenec and in Argentina and Germany. The dominant feature of the exhibition is a wall on which are etched the names of the more than 1,000 Jews who were saved by Schindler. We learned many new things about the early life of Schindler, adding even more questions about his life. Afterwards, Shalmi spoke about him, saying that the Schindler story is a great story, not because he was a hero, but because he was a human being. “He could have been a murderer,” Shalmi said. “All people have good and evil within them,” he said, “ and his story demonstrates how a human being can go one way or the other. He made a choice, to do good and he made a positive impact on a great number of people.”
Our next stop was the Lostice, a town of about 3,000 people. We walked to the synagogue where we were met by the town historian and Director of the Respect and Tolerance program in Lostice, Ludek Stipel. Mr. Stipel showed us around the restored synagogue and gave us the history of the Jews in Lostice, relating dates and events that we had heard before from Shalmi such as the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 and the 1848 emancipation of the Jews, specifically to this area. We learned that the Jews of Lostice had been very much assimilated into the community and he said he had been unable to find any record of any prejudice or acts of violence against the Jews, noting to the contrary, 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 —several members of the Hirsch family: mother, father and one daughter. The Jewish community of Lostice was not revived and the synagogue was closed and used for storage. After the parents died, the daughter Greta Hirschova moved away, and there are now no Jews in Lostice.
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 benches 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 has a compartment dedicated to one of more families, and inside the compartment are everyday objects from the period and photos which somehow link to the people to whom that box was dedicated. In the box for Otto Wolf there are 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.
Mr. Stipel talked about a significant event which had occurred in the synagogue last year. After WW2 more than 300 Torah scrolls from Czech synagogues had been smuggled out to Britain where they were given or sold to Jewish communities around the world, including England, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and the United States. One Torah ended up in a synagogue in Glen Cove, Illinois, near Chicago. Last year, a young American girl was to have her Bat Mitzvah and she was adamant that this ceremony occur in the place where her Torah had originated, Lostice. In 2016 she and her family came to the synagogue in Lostice and had her Bat Mitzvah here, opening it up to the public and welcoming all local residents who might be interested.
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.
Mr. Stipel then showed us into a small reception room where the Municipal Council had prepared a small reception of drinks, cookies, and cheese. Lostice is famous for its cheese called Tvaruzky, [commonly called ‘smelly cheese’] and we were touched once again by the gracious hospitality which we were shown. The cookies had been prepared for us by Mr. Stipel’s assistant from the cookbook, From Memory’s Kitchen, which compiled recipes from the Terezin ghetto.
From the synagogue we drove to the Jewish cemetery in Lostice. Here Shalmi said that as we walked through the cemetery, in reading the headstones, we would see preservation, continuity, innovation and influence from the local residents. Preservation, in that many would be written with Hebrew letters. The Jews were able to preserve the Hebrew language for 2,000 years, we were told; and not many people, including the ancient Greeks, are able to do that. Continuity in terms of the information listed on the headstone and the decorations. Innovation, in that several of the headstones had an are which had indentations where a photograph at one time had been placed. Shalmi noted that having a photo on a headstone was usually prohibited or frowned upon in both Islam and Judaism as it was the image of a human. And influence from the locals in that the people who made the headstones were most likely local masons, probably Christian and also added the Latin alphabet in addition to or in place of the Hebrew letters. We also saw headstones for Czech Jews which were written in German, rather than Czech or Hebrew. This brought up the question, again, of Jewish identity. Shalmi reminded us that Jews were both insiders and outsiders in these nations, causing them to continually question their identity: Who are we in this complex situation? No wonder, Shalmi said, that psychology was became a major field of study for Jews.
We said goodbye to Mr. Stipel and headed for our hotel in Olomouc to check in and then prepare to meet Petr Papousek, the head of the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic and the leader of the Olomouc Jewish community . Petr is the grandson of a dear friend, Milos Dobry, who had led the Jewish community for years, and had met with our groups for years, telling us his Holocaust story, and helping us connect with the Czech community of Trsice over the years, and assisting us in establishing a memorial in the forest, marking the hiding place of the family of Otto Wolf. Petr talked to us about the long history of the Olomouc Jewish community and what had happened during the Holocaust. He said that on average, only 10% of Jews survived the Holocaust, whether it be in Olomouc or in the nation of Czechoslovakia. There were about 120,000 Czech Jews: 40,000 emigrated or escaped, 80,000 remained, and of those, only about 8,000 survived. Petr told us his grandfather, Milos’, story, telling us how his grandfather always said he survived 20% because of his living conditions and 80% due to luck. He also spoke to us about a Czech play, The Good and the True, which opened on off-Broadway in New York City, and played for six weeks which intertwined the Holocaust stories and lives of two famous Czechs: rugby star, Milos Dobry and actress, Hana Pravda.
Petr showed our group the small synagogue in the Jewish community center, as well as the prayer blanket which was used for Torah readings which was donated after the war by Otto Wolf’s father, a cantor, in memory of his sons, Kurt and Otto.
We learned about the current state of the Jewish community in Olomouc. Two years ago it was 154. This year Petr said the total membership was 160. The problem is that 60% of the membership is more than 60 years old which brings in to question the longevity of this Jewish community. They have a social department and a Holocaust endowment fund which allows them to take care of survivors, they have shabat services, cultural events and a monthly journal. In fact, Petr was busy preparing for tomorrow’s Seder dinner at which he said there would be 70 people. We gave Petr a ceramic message board with a Star of David ornament, wishing him and the community Happy Pesach and signed by all of us.
We walked outside the building where Petr showed us several stolpersteine which the Jewish federation had placed memorializing Jewish residents of the building, almost all of whom had been murdered. Each year the Jewish community lays about 30 stones. He noted that one of the problems was that the names of the streets had changed four times in the past century, because of the various occupying forces, etc. so that it was often a challenge to connect the living space of the family at the time of the Holocaust with its present location.
We said goodbye to Petr and drove up into Castle Hill to the lovely restaurant, Archa, by the Olomouc zoo for dinner and then headed back to the hotel for an evening of journaling and discussion.